In the next few weeks, high school seniors face a big dilemma. Should they apply to a school early decision or wait and apply regular decisions in a few months?
In December 2013, The Daily Northwestern (a campus newspaper at Northwestern University) reported that the University had admitted about 45 percent of the freshman class of 2018 through early decision. This was a big increase from 2010 when only 28 percent of the freshman class was admitted through early decision. Christopher Watson, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, explained at the time, “The more selective you become as an institution — and this is true of all of our peer schools — the more students are going to apply early to you and that’s the case here.”
Statistics likes these may cause students to worry that if they do not apply early decision, they are at a disadvantage and less likely to get into their dream school. But early decision (ED) is not right for every student.
How do you know if applying early is for your teen?
The Pros of Applying ED
Early decision applications are usually due between November 1-15 and students learn whether they have been accepted, rejected, or deferred by mid December.
An early decision application is binding, meaning that if a student is accepted, they are morally obligated to attend and must withdraw all other college applications. (Some schools offer an early action application where the student applies and hears early, but it is non-binding and the student may choose not to accept.) If a student is accepted, they know where they will attend college and the rest of senior year less stressful.
At most colleges, applying early decision has a higher acceptance rate than the regular decision pool, making this seem like an advantageous option for students that are confident in what their first choice school is. If accepted early decision, students can be a little more relaxed and enjoy the rest of their senior year.
Disadvantages of Applying ED
Students (and parents) may feel pressured to apply somewhere early decision. Lisa Sohmer, Director of College Counseling at Garden School says, “The biggest misconception about early decision is that students feel they have to try. But unless a student is 100% ‘in love’ with a school and know that is where they want to go, they should not apply ED because they will be locked in.”
When a student applies to a school ED, the student, a parent and the high school counselor all sign an Early Decision Agreement, a binding contract under which the student agrees to enroll if accepted. The student must withdraw all other applications. Christine VanDeVelde, co-author of the book, College Admission: From Application to Acceptance asserts, “Colleges take this contract seriously. In that contract the student agrees to let the college share your name and the ED Agreement with other institutions. So you will be found out if you try to ‘game’ the process here.”
If a student is torn between several schools, they may not want to make a binding commitment to one school without knowing their other options. Sohmer recommends, “Applying ED means making a decision about college selection in October rather than May. For teens, those six months are significant, especially when you are talking about such a big decision.”
Students thinking about applying early should also investigate whether this is good idea financially for the family. VanDeVelde explains, “Applying early will not hurt financial aid. However, under ED restrictions, the student will receive an award only from the ED college and there will be no opportunity to receive or compare aid packages from other colleges.”
Some colleges specifically advise financial aid applicants to wait for the regular decision round rather than applying early decision. When in doubt, check with the financial aid office of the college directly before submitting an early application.
Is ED Right for My Teen?
Students may think ED is their Hail Mary — a one-time chance to be accepted into a school they might not get into in the regular admission pool. But early admission candidates tend to be high achievers with excellent resumes. Brittany Maschal Ed.D, an educational consultant cautions her clients, “There is no point in wasting your ED card on a school that is far out of reach and where you will not be seen as a competitive applicant.”
VanDeVelde advises, “The student who applies early decision should be someone who does not change their mind easily, has fully investigated their options, understands how their grades and scores fit into the college's academic profile and has visited the college and perhaps even done an overnight stay.”
VanDeVelde continues, “Pressure comes from peers, parents, newspaper headlines — and students themselves. We know that in October of senior year, it may seem like everyone is jumping on the early bandwagon. But there is nothing wrong with sitting out this round and opting for more time and the greater choice it allows.”
If a student has even a small doubt about where they want to attend college, applying regular decision is probably a better option. Waiting to apply until January gives teens time a few extra months to adequately research and visit schools, improve their senior grades and/or standardized test scores, and to make sure their application and essays are the best they can be.
Even if a student does apply ED, counselors encourage their students to make sure they have all their other applications ready to go. There is nothing worse than being rejected from a early decision school and then having to scramble to get the essays and applications in to other schools before the regular decision deadline.