Risks and rewards of early application options

You would have hoped that after you go through the college search process and you’ve identified a number of schools that represent a good fit that you wouldn’t have to face another decision until students receive their thin and thick envelopes next spring.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Students have a myriad of application options including: Early Decision, Early Action, Restricted Early Action, Single-Choice Early Action as well as Regular Decision and Rolling Admissions.

The country’s most selective schools frequently admit between 25 and 50 percent of their total freshman class through Early Admissions programs.

  • Early Decision (ED): This is a binding decision. If you are accepted, you must go. The good news is twofold:
  1. Because you apply early, you find out early.
  2. Acceptance rates for early decision candidates are significantly higher than for students applying for regular admission. The bad news is that if students are in need of financial aid, they will have no ability to compare offers from multiple colleges, and they will have lost leverage with the college of their choice. Applications for Early Decision are often made without the benefit of first-semester senior grades. That means that your cumulative grades through Junior year, standardized test scores and extracurricular activities need to be strong enough to secure admission.

Early decision applicants may submit only one Early Decision application, but may submit applications to other colleges for Regular Decision. But if they are accepted to the ED school, they must withdraw all other applications.

  • Early Action (EA): Early Action is nonbinding. Students do not need to commit to attending if they are accepted. This plan gives students the benefit of early notification without the obligation of early decision. Statistically there is not a significant increase in acceptance rates for Early Action versus Regular Decision.
  • Restrictive Early Action (REA): This is a new plan and is sometimes referred to as Single Choice Early Action. It is similar to Early Action but candidates are limited as to whether they can apply to any other colleges ED or EA. In many cases, they are only allowed to apply to their own in-state schools EA. Students may apply to other colleges during “Regular Decision” and they are not required to give a final answer until the regular decision deadline of May 1. Of the nearly 700 Common Application member schools fewer than a dozen use a Restrictive Early Action process.

Questions to ask:

  • Have you visited other institutions?
  • Have you done an overnight at the ED school?
  • Have you attended a class and researched intended majors at the ED school?
  • Have you spoken with current students and/or recent graduates to understand the highlights and low-lights of the college?
  • Have you read the Early Decision contract and understand its limitations?
  • Are you and your parents aware that the college’s version of meeting financial need and yours may not be the same?
  • Are you mainly applying because you believe you have a better chance of getting in Early Decision?
  • Have you considered the financial implications of possibly passing up merit or need-based aid at other colleges?
  • Can you write five substantive reasons why this college is the best fit for you (that does not include items such as a winning football team)?
  • Can you name at least two reasons why you should re-evaluate your decision?

Recommendations: While applying Early Decision can certainly prove to be advantageous, students must do their homework. Students’ likes, dislikes and goals may change during their senior year. This is not the time to pressure a student to apply to a parent’s alma mater. However, if a student is confident that their first choice represents a college that is the right fit for them academically and socially, then applying Early Decision is likely to serve as a boost in the application process.

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte: lee@collegeadmissionsstrategies.com; www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com