The Ins and Outs of Early Admissions

With the October SAT behind us, the majority of seniors are shifting their focus away from preparing for the collegiate assessment tests toward fine-tuning and completing their college applications. A significant portion of our students are taking advantage of some form of early admissions. Some are participating in colleges’ non-binding Early Action programs; others, hoping to improve their chances of admission, are applying through binding Early Decision programs. Many students have already secured admission to schools by capitalizing on rolling admissions policies.

Though the question of when to apply to college has received a good deal of media attention over the last year, I believe it will benefit our parents to briefly explain the nuances of the various admissions options, including their benefits to students, benefits to academic institutions, potential pitfalls, and best uses.

Making sense of early applications

Over the last several years, a secret of the admissions world has made its way into the national spotlight: applying early can give students a significant edge in the admissions game. Many colleges officially denied the existence of preferential treatment for the early applicants, and it has taken a series of exposés and provocative books, including The Early Admissions Game, A is for Admissions and Admissions Confidential, to bring this story to the attention of the mainstream media.

Many seniors and their families are currently facing the decision of whether to apply early to college. I have read the published literature and spoken with various educational consultants, college counselors and college admissions officers to try to understand the different perspectives on this issue. Some counselors at Atlanta’s top schools are bullish on Early Decision. They are confident that it will give their students a greater likelihood of gaining admission to the most selective schools. Other counselors and educational consultants offer the caveat that early decision should only be used when there’s an outstanding match between a school and a student, not as a means of gaining a strategic advantage in the admissions process. They argue that, used indiscriminately, ED can actually be detrimental to a student’s chance for admission.

In this article, we will explore the following questions:

  1. What are the different types of early admission programs?
  2. Why do students love early admission programs?
  3. What are the strategic considerations regarding applying early decision?
  4. Why do schools love early admission programs?
  5. Why do critics attack early admission programs?
  6. Will we witness the end of early admission programs?
  7. What are specific strategies to use if you are considering applying early?

1) What are the different types of early admission programs?

It is essential that we make clear the distinction between the three methods of “applying early” to college: Early Decision, Early Action, and Rolling Admissions.

Early Decision

Early Decision is a contractually binding agreement in which you the student commit to attend a college if granted admission to that college. In agreeing to be bound by this exclusive contract, when you are accepted to your ED school you must withdraw all your other applications and forgo the right to shop financial aid packages. In exchange for abdicating the valuable right to shop for other options, you may gain a competitive advantage in the admissions process over those in the regular admissions pool.

There is one loophole in the ED contract: if you apply for financial aid and the award offered is insufficient to make attendance possible, you can decline the offer of admission and you will be released from your commitment. At that point, you also generally forfeit the option to attend your ED school.

Most ED schools have a first round of Early Decision in which applications are due October 31 or November 1 and decisions are issued by December 15. If deferred or rejected, you will have 2 weeks to submit other applications before the January deadlines. You can either submit these applications through the regular admissions program or take advantage of a second round of Early Decision (ED2) in which applications are due December 31 or January 1 and decisions are delivered by early February. Many selective schools (50% of the U.S. News & World Report’s top 50 liberal arts colleges) give their students the ED2 option.

Early Action

Early Action programs have the same general deadlines and procedures as Early Decision programs, but your acceptance does not create a binding agreement to attend a particular school. If you apply Early Action, you should receive your admissions decision sometime in January or February, well in advance of the April wave of decisions sent to those applying through regular admissions. You can still shop around once you have your acceptance in hand. You do not have to make your final decision or send a deposit until May 1, the universal tuition-deposit date for students applying through both regular admissions and EA programs.

Some selective schools such as Yale and Stanford have a policy of Restrictive or “single-choice” Early Action in which you are only allowed to apply to one school early. The majority of EA schools, though, have non-restrictive programs in which you can apply early to as many schools as you desire.

Rolling Admissions

Some schools, especially larger state universities, will process applications either continuously or at fixed intervals beginning in the late summer months and ending when their freshman class is full. These schools process the applications in the order in which they are received and issue decisions accordingly. There is nothing binding or restrictive about rolling admissions policies. If you apply through one of these programs, the college will let you know of its decision well before the regular decisions go out in April. Many of our students receive their first acceptances as early as September and October, and some have even secured acceptances before the first day of their senior year. With rolling decision schools, it is often to the student’s advantage to apply early in the senior year.

2) Why do students love early admission programs?

Those of you who interact closely with students in the throes of the college admissions process are well aware of how stressful the process can be. Many students find their junior year, the year most highly scrutinized by college admissions offices, to be their most intense year of high school. Especially in our increasingly competitive culture, these students find themselves trying to juggle course loads laden with AP classes, varsity athletics, leadership positions, and college assessment exams. By the time senior year rolls around, many students are feeling the cumulative effect of consecutive stressful semesters. Many cannot wait to “just get this thing over with” and regain some sense of normalcy and balance in their lives. I can sympathize; I was just like these students when I was in school. As a high school senior taking 3 AP classes, wrestling on the varsity team, performing in both the fall musical and a quartet, holding a part-time job at Rich’s, serving as president of my youth group, and getting just five hours of sleep per night, I was ready for a break by the fall of my senior year. I couldn’t wait to have that admissions decision firmly in hand so I could take a step back, breathe a little, and enjoy the experience of my last year in high school.

I applied Early Decision to the University of Pennsylvania back in 1993, and when my parents handed me the “fat envelope” at the Pace Winter Holiday Concert, I was ecstatic. And so relieved. From December until the end of senior year, the edge was gone. I was in. Having solved that major life decision, I was able to focus my energy in other areas that were equally meaningful to me.

For me, applying ED was a very pragmatic, measured decision. During my junior year, with the support of my family and my school’s guidance counselor, I was able to narrow my college list through a process involving both research and school visits. During Fall Break I participated in Pace’s college tour to Duke, Wake Forest, UNC, and other prominent southeastern schools. My mom and I visited ten northeastern schools during Spring Break. I visited my sister for a weekend at the University of Texas at Austin, and I went to Penn for a weekend in September. While there, I stayed in a dorm, attended an English class, identified a dual-degree program that interested me, talked to numerous students around campus, and got a taste of student life. By the time I left Penn’s campus, I was completely sold on the school.

When I was writing my “Why Penn” essay, it was both compelling and genuine. This was the place I wanted to spend four years of my life, and I had no reason not to apply early and commit myself to attending. I was just the kind of student that the admissions committee wanted: one who was motivated and excited about Penn. The committee offered me a spot in the next year’s class.

3) What are the strategic considerations of applying early decision?

When I applied ED to Penn in October of 1993, I was hardly thinking about the strategic implications of applying early versus applying regular decision. That never crossed my mind. I knew I wanted to go to Penn, and I wanted to have the application process behind me. These days, however, students and their parents are becoming more knowledgeable about the strategic implications and potential benefits of applying early. Today there is a significant probability that well-informed parents, rather than students, will be the ones pushing for a decision to apply through an ED program. Parents have been gathering data about the admissions process, and they know that their children may have a better chance of securing admission to particular schools if they apply early.

The most provocative resource outlining the strategic implications of applying early is The Early Admissions Game, which is coauthored by Christopher Avery, a professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and his colleagues Andrew Fairbanks and Richard Zeckhauser. The authors undertook a grand project, surveying 3,000 high school seniors, analyzing 500,000 applications and five years of admissions records from 14 selective colleges. Their conclusion was striking: “Colleges were much more likely to admit an early applicant than a regular applicant with the same qualifications.” They found that “on average, applying early increases the chances of admission at selective colleges the same amount as a jump of 100 points or more in SAT score.” In other words, an ED student scoring 1300 to 1390 on the 1600 scale SAT was as likely to be accepted as a regular student (with a comparable academic profile) scoring in the 1400 to 1490 range. In the game of selective college admissions, 100 points on the SAT is a very significant increase.

Competition for admission to the most selective schools in the country has never been more intense. The number of applications keeps rising, but the number of available spaces at the elite schools has remained fairly constant. The ease of online applications, aggressive recruiting practices, U.S. News & World Report rankings, demographic changes, and the willingness of students to cross the country or even the globe to attend college (the weakened dollar may encourage more international applicants) have led to an increasing number of students applying to the same selective schools. This is driving regular admission acceptance rates for many of the elite schools into the single digits. And this, in turn, is making the early decision pool increasingly attractive, for students hoping to gain a competitive edge.

The benefits of applying early: the case of Princeton University

As an extreme example of the profound impact of applying Early Decision, consider the case of Princeton University’s class of 2011. The Dean of Admissions, Janet Rapelye, released information in February of 2007 concerning the state of Princeton admissions. Applications for the class of 2011 had increased to record levels for the fourth consecutive year. According to Princeton’s website, the university received 18,891 applications for the 1225 spots in the class of 2011, with a global acceptance rate of 9.48%. What is striking is the breakdown between admission rates for early and regular decision applicants. According to Rapelye, there were “2,276 high school seniors who applied through the binding early decision process. The University announced in December that 597 of those students were offered admission and are expected to comprise 48 percent of the freshman class this fall.” That’s an acceptance rate of 26% for the ED pool. The 16,615 regular admissions students vying for the remaining 628 spots, on the other hand, faced a much greater challenge of gaining admission. With an additional 1194 offers extended, the acceptance rate for regular admission was a meager 7.18%. And that is without taking into account the “hooked” applicants who are often evaluated according to a different set of criteria: children of alumni, athletes, development cases (the big givers), and applicants who bring special talents or add to the diversity of the community. For an unhooked applicant applying regular decision in 2006, the likelihood of gaining a spot at Princeton was extremely small.

Princeton is hardly alone in privileging its ED applicants

One of the great champions of the ED program, and one of the earliest schools to candidly admit its preferential treatment of early applicants, the University of Pennsylvania typically fills 40% or more of its class with Early Decision applicants. The numbers are revealing: in 2003-04 Penn admitted 33% of its ED pool, compared to only 17% of its regular pool. In the same year Yale, Columbia, and Amherst also admitted significantly higher percentages of those students applying early decision than those apply regular decision (37% compared to 16%, 40% compared to 14%, and 35% compared to 19%, respectively).

Early Decision and Early Action are on the rise.

Given the benefits of applying early, it should not surprise us that the number of students applying to college EA or ED is on the rise. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) 2005 Early College Application Directory, 384 colleges and universities (15% of all four-year colleges) offer early application options for students. Seven percent of colleges offer an ED option; eight percent offer an EA option. In NACAC’s 2005 report, institutions “overwhelmingly reported an increase in the number of Early Decision (ED) applications submitted.” Of the schools that offer ED programs, 48% reported admitting a larger number of students through Early Decision in 2005 than in 2004. According to the same report, “more institutions reported increases in Early Action (EA) applications than in any year since NACAC has collected data on this topic.” Accordingly, the number of students accepted through Early Action was at a record high that year.

4) Why do schools love early admission programs?

There are many reasons why early admissions programs are so attractive to colleges:

  • Morale: Lee Stetson, former Dean of Admissions at Penn, championed the idea that students who selected Penn as their first choice through the Early Decision program would bring more enthusiasm and pride to the school and would be more likely to make a positive contribution to the Penn community. According to Stetson, when a significant portion of the student population selects a school as their first choice, morale is high and the place feels less like a “back-up” school.
  • Resource Management for Admissions Offices: Early admission programs allow admission reps to spread the workload of processing incoming applications over the course of the year. Without early options, the work of the admissions department gets compressed into a tight corridor between January and April. If they could not spread the processing of applications over a longer period of time, schools would either need to hire more staff or adjust their application deadlines. Additionally, early admission programs help schools efficiently allocate their scarce resources. In the Atlantic Monthly’s article, “The Early Decision Racket,” Richard Shaw, former Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale, commented that “trophy-hunting students” waste everyone’s time and energy when they “collect a lot of admissions from places that [are] not their first choice.” Early programs “reserve the institutions’ scarce decision-making time for students who really [want] to attend Yale.”
  • Managing class size and composition: Tom McManus, a former Regional Director of Admissions for the University of Pennsylvania, emphasizes that, at its core, Early Decision is a “yield” tool for schools to manage their incoming classes. Locking in a portion of the class early helps schools manage the uncertainty of student decisions through controlling the “yield,” or matriculation rate. Through ED, schools can lock in high-profile applicants (sought-after athletes, the star oboe player, etc.), economically attractive applicants (children of alumni and “full-pay” students), and students who would be generally attractive to a variety of schools during regular admissions. By securing a significant number of students who promise to attend the school, an admissions department can begin to build the base of the incoming class early.

    McManus says that as an admissions rep, “you might sacrifice on test scores in the early rounds as you can make up it for later with high scores. You’ll have a much bigger pool to select from later. If you fill 40% of your class by November, then you only are working on the remaining 60% during regular admissions. You can be more selective with that group.”

    If you are an admissions powerhouse like Harvard, with a yield rate over 70%, (anything over 50% is phenomenal, says McManus) you don’t have to worry so much about yield. “You can give kids time to decide, and data shows the kids will choose you.” (This is one reason why Harvard, Stanford, and others can walk away from all early programs without much concern.) But if you are an admissions rep at a school that is not a “heavyweight” in the admissions arena, “you’ll lose 9 of 10 to the Ivies. You help yourself, with your unstable yield, by locking up a bigger proportion of your students in the early rounds.”

    If a school fails to effectively manage its yield, it runs the risk of matriculating too many or too few students. This can have very significant consequences for a school. Gavin Bradley, Director of College Counseling at Pace Academy and former admissions officer at Columbia University, acknowledges that “having been at a college that admits 45% of the first year class ED (Columbia typically takes about 450 of 1000 ED) I understand the pressures of predicting yield when bed-space is so tight that being 9 kids overenrolled can mean the loss of a student lounge.” Separately, certain state-funded schools must hit a specific ratio of in-state to out-of-state students, and Early Decision helps schools effectively manage that balancing act. If the admissions office in a selective school mismanages yield and creates a class that is 100 students below its target, the mistake could cost the university roughly $12 million in forfeited tuition payments over the four-year course of a class.

  • Selectivity: Managing the U.S. News & World Report rankings: It is no secret that colleges pay close attention to the U.S. News & World Report rankings. In his provocative article entitled “The Early Admissions Racket,” James Fallows claims the U.S. News rankings impact “the number of students who apply to a school, donations from alumni, pride and satisfaction among students and faculty members, and even the terms on which colleges can borrow money in the financial markets.” The rankings are a very big deal. While interning at Emory University’s Career Counseling Center, I remember clearly the buzz in the air among the staff the day the rankings were issued. There was a collective sigh of relief when the numbers were announced for 2005 and Emory held at 20 in the nation.

    One of the driving forces behind the U.S. News ranking system is selectivity, the proportion of students a school admits out of its total applicant pool. To illustrate the importance of perceived selectivity, Rachel Toor, former admissions officer at Duke University, reveals in her book Admissions Confidential that “the reason we do recruiting is to get the BWRKs (Bright Well-Rounded Kids) to apply so that we can deny them and bolster our selectivity rating. We do not say this.” Michelle Hernandez, former Assistant Director of Admissions at Dartmouth College, admits in A is for Admissions that schools are closely watching their selectivity ratings and “now struggle to get more applicants they’ll turn away.” Apart from massive marketing and recruiting efforts to increase the number of applications, ED also helps schools appear more selective by the U.S. News scale.

    Every student accepted under the ED program is a lock for the admissions office. The larger the proportion of students coming in through the ED program, the fewer offers an admission office needs to issue during regular decision, and the more “selective” the school will become. If a selective school is considering taking a risk on a student with lower than average numbers, an admissions officer would love the certainty that if admitted, the student would not then reject the offer, hurting the school’s selectivity rating. ED ensures that if a school extends the offer to, the student will accept it.

  • Economic factors: Every student admitted through the Early Decision pool saves colleges money. The ED pool, in aggregate, is generally more affluent than the regular decision pool. ED applicants forego the right to shop for financial aid packages, so schools will not have to compete on that basis to win their admission. Tom McManus concedes that “the ED population could be a school’s bread and butter. The full pay kids: the school needs their money. The ED pool is subsidizing the lower Socio-Economic-Status (SES) pool. Some of the funding for lower SES applicants comes from the endowment; some comes from the full-pay kids. If I am an admissions officer, I know that from my ED pool, most will not apply for aid. I’ll drop some from the SAT for that group. With ED, the streets are paved with gold.”

    Generally, lower income candidates are less likely to have their applications ready to submit by November 1. According to McManus “the timeline in public school is far behind that of private schools. The counselor ratio is lower, and many seniors have not talked about colleges before October 1.” Typically, the more well-informed and well-heeled applicants are the ones applying ED.

    According to McManus, even if students do apply for aid through the FAFSA application, “and a school promises to meet 100% of that need, the package can vary widely. You don’t spend more on a student than you need to. Using big, round numbers, if you need $100,000 in aid, we’ll give you $25,000 guaranteed loan, $12,000 in work-study, $1500 Perkins loan, and the rest in grant. Terrific. Still the student must then take on the responsibility of taking out the loans and completing the work study. These students miss the opportunity to compare packages at other schools. At Harvard, Princeton or Yale, there are no loans. At Emory, they might kick in more grant and knock out that work study and knock out that loan.” If you apply Early Decision, you lose all economic leverage and may end up settling for a worse package than you could have secured in the regular pool.

With so many advantages for colleges, it is evident why ED is on the rise. But the ascendancy of early programs has invoked the protest of many critics.

5) Why critics attack early programs?

In his scathing critique of ED programs, “The Early Decision Racket,” James Fallows insists that ED has “added an insane intensity to parents’ obsession about getting their children into one of a handful of prestigious colleges. Everyone involved with the early-decision process admits that it rewards the richest students from the most exclusive high schools and penalizes nearly everyone else.” Beyond this, Fallows insists, ED distorts the experience of being in high school by foreshortening the experience. “With this speeded-up process there’s pressure on kids to be perfect from ninth grade on. With early applications due in the fall of senior year, students know that the end of junior year is the last part of their high school record that ‘counts’.” Richard C. Levin, president of Yale and a critic of Early Decision (Yale switched to Restrictive Early Action in 2004) is quoted in The Early Admissions Game as saying ED “pushes the pressure of thinking about college back into the junior year of high school, and the only ones who benefit are the admissions officers.”

Beyond distorting the high school experience, Early Decision Programs are seen by some as resulting in a form of “structural” discrimination against disadvantaged students; these programs privilege the already privileged. Critics point out that students from lower-income families typically don’t have equal access to information or proper guidance when navigating the college admissions process. Yale’s Richard C Levin claims that “early decision is absolutely going to benefit wealthy kids… They do not need to wait and compare financial aid packages in order to commit to going to a particular school. Disproportionately, low-income students are not able to take advantage of Early Decision in the same way.” According to Avery in The Early Admissions Game, “ED and EA applicants are disproportionately non-minorities from advantaged backgrounds…. The students who attended prominent private high schools and who were not relying on financial aid were even more likely to apply early.” Avery’s research reveals that 83.5% of students from prominent private high schools applied early, compared to 42.6% of students from less competitive public high schools. Avery writes that “financial aid applicants who do not fit into a priority category (alumni, athlete, targeted minority, etc.) stand to lose the most by not applying ED.”

6) Will we witness the end of early admission programs?

In response to the criticisms levied against Early Admission programs, a number of prominent schools have abandoned their early programs in favor of a standard admission program for all applicants. UNC dropped its early application program in 2002, and just last year we witnessed announcements from Harvard, Princeton, UVA and the University of Delaware that they, too, were going to terminate their early programs. People wondered if this was the beginning of the end of Early Decision, but the revolution stalled after several other selective schools announced that they had no intention of changing their admissions policies. They simply had too much to lose by abandoning their early application programs.

What motivated Harvard and Princeton to drop their early programs? To answer this question, it might be helpful to see what didn’t motivate them. As two of the wealthiest and highest-yielding schools in the nation, Harvard and Princeton are not as likely as less competitive schools to make policy decisions based on economic or matriculation factors. On the other hand, both of these schools actively seek diversity and are quite likely to be disturbed by suggestions that early admissions programs are inequitable. When it dropped its early admissions program last year, Harvard announced that it would use the extra months of the admissions process to stay on the road longer and attempt to attract a broader group of SES applicants. Princeton, a school that is much less socio-economically diverse than Harvard, also wants to diversify. By following Harvard’s lead and abandoning its own ED program, it gained a temporary PR bump and valuable exposure in the media.

In response to the changes announced by Harvard and Princeton, many of their peer schools including MIT, Penn, and Yale, announced that they have no plans to change their current policies. It seems Early Decision will continue to be around, at least in the near future.

7) What are specific strategies to use if you are considering applying early?

If you are considering applying early, you must be aware of the pros and cons of each option.

Strategy for Rolling Admission

It is generally to your advantage to apply as soon as you decide that a school with a rolling admission policy is on your list. Spaces can fill up in advance of the published deadline, as was the case with Michigan last year. You have an advantage if you apply while spaces are abundant. The only caveat is that it may be wise to wait if you are still trying to fill in holes in your application. If you want to beef up your standardized test scores or if you need to bring home some solid first quarter/semester grades, you may want to wait until your application is stronger before you send it off to be evaluated by admissions officers.

Strategy for Early Action

As long as your application has no major holes that you are working on filling, it is generally to your advantage to apply Early Action whenever you can. If you are applying to a restrictive early action program, you must wait until the regular deadlines for your other applications. As is the case with rolling admission, if you are waiting on higher SAT/ACT scores or senior year grades, it may be wise to wait for regular admission.

Marsha Little, Dean of Academic Affairs at the Lovett School, offers the following counsel for students considering applying Early Action. “For the student who has done his research early and whose grades and testing are where he wants them by October, applying early action generally presents no drawback. The use of early action varies from school to school, such that at some places it is harder to be admitted EA, at others it is exactly the same odds as regular decision, and at still others there is a slight advantage; however, an EA application usually does not confer much, if any, advantage in the admission process, so for the student the advantage lies in the timing of the decision letter. I usually recommend that students at least apply EA to their likely and target schools. By December, that student should have a couple of admit letters in hand and some peace about the rest of the process going forward. If the student is deferred, there are several months for him to follow up with the school to express interest and strengthen his application. I generally advise against applying early action to a reach school, since EA does not represent much of an advantage in chances of admission, and I hate the idea of a student being denied early action, with no further recourse.”

When asked about the prospects of applying early to UGA, Little gave the following counsel. “If you apply early, it primarily becomes a numbers game involving the academic matrix. It all becomes about your 9th, 10th, 11th grade performance. If the numbers are not strong, you risk a deny.” For many students, Little advises to apply during the regular admissions process: “It’s a more holistic review: extra-curriculars, depth of leadership, mid-term grades, more scores, more testing…. For some students, it’s better to wait.”

Strategy for Early Decision

If you are making a fully-informed decision, applying Early Decision can make a lot of sense. I have zero regrets about applying ED as a senior; I did all the due diligence and invested time and energy into learning about and exploring my options. Applying ED clearly made my senior year less stressful and more satisfying. But as a student considering this option, you have to know what you are getting into. You have to be a good consumer, and you have to be confident that you could be happy at this particular school. This has to be the place you want to spend four years of your life. If you are on the fence, you may need to do more research and apply in the regular decision pool. Students can grow and change a good deal between September and May of senior year; sometimes whole worlds open up during those nine months. In terms of self-awareness and maturity, it may be wise to defer making a binding commitment until May rather than locking things in by October.

Keep in mind that if you are considering applying ED, you must have your test scores and cumulative GPA where you want them before the early decision deadlines. You must also have a plan B. In the event that you are deferred or rejected, you will have two weeks to submit other applications in time for the regular deadlines. Beyond this, you must also be aware that by applying ED you are sacrificing your right to shop financial aid packages or secure potential merit money from other schools.

For students who are in love with a school and are within the range for being accepted, for those with appropriate but not stellar grades or scores, applying Early Decision can give them a valuable edge in the admissions process. McManus quotes an oft-used admissions mantra that “ED can heal the sick, but it can’t raise the dead… You have to be the kid who is right on the numbers.” Avery asserts that “applicants stand to gain most from applying early when they have moderate chances of admission in the regular process… An early application will not help you at a college where you are not close to being competitive.” On the other hand, Rachel Toor acknowledges in Admissions Confidential that “each year the early pool was much, much weaker than the regular pool. Kids that looked great to us in November would pale in comparison to the applications we’d be reading in January. They were generally the BWRKs, and early decision was the only time we would take them.” In particular, Toor advises that “[a]nyone hoping to use legacy preference or athletic talent for an extra edge should apply early.”

If you are a child of an alumnus, you must look to the specific institution to determine whether to apply early. According to Lee Stetson, former Dean of Admissions at Penn, if you are the child of an alumnus and want any kind of advantage in the admissions process, “your application will be given special consideration only during early decision.” If you apply through regular decisions, you will be treated like any other candidate. However, according to Marsha Little, “some schools, like Georgetown, don’t look at legacy EA. They only use it in regular. So like much advice, this varies according to the school.”

Among the Atlanta counselors with whom I spoke, Little pushes students to “use ED first for match, then for strategy.” Gavin Bradley thinks that “the spirit of the [ED] program has been lost, it HAS unfortunately become a strategy, and that is lamentable.  Some schools and colleges, some counselors, and some [members] of the media have hijacked, it and I’m not sure we can get it back.  Despite this, I would be a fool not to encourage the right kids to pursue it for the right reasons. I just don’t like the quandary it creates for many kids who feel like they MUST apply somewhere early.  I am bullish on it only insofar as I can get the sense that a kid truly does have a first choice school, that it is a good fit, and that it is in range and ED would help put him or her over the top.  Of maybe thirty family meetings I’ve had so far this year, I have encouraged an ED app no more than five times, suggested it be considered maybe a few more times than that.  And I’ve tried to talk one kid out of it.”

And If You Do Get Deferred…

If you apply Early Decision and are deferred, you must be realistic in your assessment of your future prospects for gaining admission. Avery’s research reveals that, “in general, deferred applicants are less likely than regular applicants to be admitted to the same college.” In A for Admission, Hernandez writes that if you are deferred from ED at Dartmouth, “the accept rate is some 5-10%. Competition only heats up for regular admissions.” She advises that “sometimes new testing will push a candidate over the edge— this is one of the few times decisions change. But the odds generally are not in your favor.” Let the school know that it is still your first choice and send in your mid-year review, but know that “colleges will not even look at the files again until mid-March after the regular admissions have run their course.” When you are applying early, it is important that you have a backup plan. For some people, that means having an ED 2 application fully completed and waiting in the wings. If you are clear on your first and second choices, and you meet all the aforementioned criteria, the ED1 and ED2 combo can be a winning combination. It is one that has worked for my students in the past.

In Conclusion

Be an educated consumer. Invest your time and energy into making an informed and thoughtful decision. Finding a good match, a good fit, must be the highest priority in making your college admissions decision. Don’t worry about the quality of the brand; think about where and how you want to spend four of the more formative years of your life. If you have done your homework and you are clear where you want to go, know that the early options can be valuable. You must weigh the pros and cons of each option, consider your particular set of circumstances, and choose the early option, if any, that is right for you.

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