Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Early Decision: A Trick or a Treat?

As temperatures drop and leaves fall, thousands of high school seniors decide whether or not to apply Early Decision. Ideally, the student has done his or her homework, completed the college visits, analyzed the curriculum and attended on-site sessions by the college representative prior to firming up this decision. However, we don’t live in an ideal world. Students have been known to apply early for reasons such as:

• The Guidance Department has established an early deadline so it can get all paperwork where it needs to be, and the student feels that he or she must also rush.
• The student can’t cope with the anxiety of waiting beyond December.
• The student believes that the slot in his or her school of choice would be unattainable, or he or she would rather not compete head-to-head with a friend or classmate, so that student is applying ED to his or her second-choice school.
• Applying early is part of a broader strategy to maximize the student’s chances.

I have heard all these reasons from my students. I have also heard college admissions staff deny that applying early improves a student’s chances of admission. But look at the statistics: Brown filled nearly 40 percent of its Class of 2014 with early applicants, and nearly 20 percent of those applying were admitted. The remainder of the class came from regular decision, yet only 9.3 percent of those applicants were admitted, a record low. Brown’s early pool last year, by the way, was up 21 percent.

Is ED for everyone? Absolutely not. Some students just can’t make up their minds and decide to wait it out until late March or early April. Others need to show colleges that they can earn top grades in challenging courses, particularly if they showed inconsistencies in junior year. Moreover, there are some students who need to wait because they are candidates for financial aid who need to compare offers. Many opponents of ED – or schools like Harvard and Princeton which eliminated the option – assert that ED puts well-off students at a competitive advantage.

Be sure to check policies on a school-by-school basis. Some colleges have non-binding Early Action options, but students should understand the differences between programs. For example, Stanford's program is non-binding but restrictive, meaning a candidate cannot apply to any other college's early programs. Some colleges use rolling admissions, allowing students to be able to say, “I’m in.” The University of Michigan engages both policies, allowing students to apply Early Action while evaluating students applying after the deadline on a rolling basis. Early Decision 2, available at some schools, can be a very attractive option should a student be deferred or rejected from an his or her Early Decision college. Again, ED 2 will not be a solution for a student wanting to compare financial offers, but it is a great option for students applying to the most competitive schools, as so many do here in the Northeast. Vassar College, for instance, requires ED 1 applicants to submit their information by November 15th. However, Vassar has an ED 2 option, the deadline for which is January 1st. The student will get a result in late January.

No student – no matter how well qualified – should bank on ED. A diligent student will draft or complete applications to several other schools. He or she should show up at information sessions and introduce himself or herself to touring reps. Some college counselors encourage applicants to keep in touch with applications officers via e-mail, though I would do so sparingly, either as follow-up to seeing a rep in person or accomplishing a feat after the application is filed.

Last year, my son told me, “I could never live with myself [if I didn’t apply ED to _____].” It was good enough for me. However, I also cautioned him to keep his decision to himself. Fueling friends or peers with information only raises questions and fuels expectations.

A few years ago, I heard a college admissions director say, “Early Decision should be just that – a decision – and not a strategy.” Many counselors and students know better.