Saturday, September 10, 2011

When Early Decision Makes Sense

One of the greatest misconceptions perpetuated each application season is that the best way to improve your chances of getting into college is to apply Early Decision (ED). Yes, I am fully aware that colleges such as Bucknell accept double the number of applicants ED versus regular decision and that UPenn fills 50% of its freshman class with students who apply under the binding early admission process. My beef with clinging to the notion that ED will always improve your chances is that it is not so black and white, but rather depends on several factors. One must look behind the pure percentages to truly understand what drives the numbers and who is actually getting accepted early. I am not disputing some very compelling evidence; I just want students and families to understand when it makes sense to apply early and when it does not.

Here is what the numbers don’t tell you. Many in the ED pool, especially at Division III and Ivy League schools that have Early Decision, are recruited athletes. Since these colleges are forbidden to “pay to play,” coaches encourage recruits to apply early so they can assemble their teams with greater assurance. While coaches cannot guarantee acceptance, they often have a liaison in the admission office to vet athletes before they get too far into the process. Legacies, as well, may have an edge especially if they apply early, so this probably encourages a disproportionate number of applications from those with family ties.

That may not leave as many spots as you first thought for non-athletes and those with no prior connection to a school. However, don’t despair. Colleges like students who demonstrate interest and what better way to do that than to apply ED? Moreover, a higher proportion of Early Decision acceptances improves a college’s yield, or the percentage of students who accept an offer. The yield for ED accepted students is theoretically 100% so the more students admitted under this program, the higher yield a college can report. Yet schools also want to maintain or raise their standardized test score and GPA averages which ultimately translate into better rankings. In other words, they must balance the management of yield with showing stable or improving student academic ranges.

Who should apply to college under a binding Early Decision program? Students who are certain beyond any doubt that this is where they want to go AND who are within the college’s range of accepted students for both test scores and GPA are most likely to benefit from applying ED. True, a student at the low end of the range may have a better chance of admission applying early, but that individual usually offers some other desirable attribute. If an applicant is below the college’s ranges, an early application will likely meet with an early rejection which never feels good, especially if friends are bubbling over with news of their acceptances. Not only is this wasting a possible ED option, but it means that potentially the first response from colleges will be a negative one. If a student has not completed his or her other applications, it may be tough to get motivated, a real problem if the deadlines are now only two weeks away.

Early Decision is generally not a good plan for a student who hopes to improve his or her grades. If the first semester senior year grades are especially important for showing maturity and growth, then better to wait and be considered in the regular pool of applicants. A positive trend will be favorably noted. Applying early will mean that the student gives up an opportunity to share this important piece of his or her story.

Finally, ED may not make sense for students who are dependent upon financial assistance. More and more colleges are gapping, as they are unable to fully meet demonstrated need. If there is a concern about whether the financial aid will be sufficient, I advise students to apply regular decision to be in a position to compare offers. In some cases, this might even give the student leverage with a first choice college should the package for a comparable school be materially better.

Deciding where to apply to college will likely be a young person’s most significant life decision to date. Choosing to apply Early Decision should be made with the care, deliberation and thorough evaluation of all the factors that such an important decision warrants.