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Early Decision: Chance-Booster or Clarity-Buster?

Written by college_counseling  |  26. August 2004

By STEVE EDWARDS and TIM VAN HOOSER The majority of private colleges and universities and many state schools often do not offer rolling admissions - that is, you cannot simply send your application at any time that you'd like. Many regular-decision deadlines fall on or around January 1, sending some laggards into a winter-break frenzy. We hope to discuss here the dynamics of choosing under which system to submit your application - early action, early decision, or regular decision. The applications for most early plans are due November 1, but the promised answer by mid-December may mean a fantastic, relieving holiday present for admitted students. Before receiving that present, however, students will need to prepare their application materials more quickly than many of their peers and complete the required testing by November of their senior year. Let's discuss each of these decision calendars before moving into a what's-best-for-you discussion. Harvard University has done an excellent job in explaining the intricacies of early admissions plans, and we will offer their thoughts when appropriate. Early action If admitted to colleges and universities that offer early action plans, students stand to gain greatly. They receive a non-binding offer of admission; that means that students may consider offers of admission that come from other schools to which they have applied. The major stipulation is that students may not apply to other schools under any sort of "early" plan. The early action plan has long been popular at Harvard University. Harvard explains that "students do not increase their chances of admission by applying Early Action." Under this plan, students generally submit their application materials by November 1 in order to hear from the school to which they are applying by mid-December. They then may take until May 1, the national deadline, to opt to attend the school that has offered them admission through an early action plan or not. Students may also be rejected or have their application decision deferred until the regular decision return deadline, generally around the beginning of April. Harvard argues that there are two major advantages to an early action plan when compared to an early decision plan: a. "Flexibility in choosing colleges": Students may weigh the decision of where to study for the entirety of their senior year, allowing them to make a potentially more informed decision. Harvard claims that this flexibility may enable a higher percentage of students to graduate. b. "Multiple financial aid options": Students may weigh the various financial aid plans offered them before making a final decision on May 1. Early decision Unlike early action plans, which allow the student latitude to accept offers of admission from other colleges and universities, students offered admission under an early decision plan must attend the school offering them admission - if they wish to attend any college at all. The great advantage to early admission plans is the knowledge that you may have a better chance to gain acceptance than if you were to apply under the regular decision plan. In fact, some schools are more willing to offer admission to early decision students because they have indicated a strong desire to attend the school. By admitting students under the early decision plan, colleges also raise their yield figures, which is the ratio of number of students who enter the school versus the number of students who are accepted. Since a student is obligated to attend a school that offers him or her admission under the early decision plan, the student will then have but one financial aid package from which to select. The results from financial aid offices can sometimes be shockingly positive and sometimes quite negative. As Harvard explains, "students admitted Early Decision who seek financial aid can be released from their commitment to enroll if their financial aid awards vary significantly from their ability to pay. [Yet,] very few students seek this release." Students may also be rejected or have their application decision deferred until the regular decision return deadline, generally around the beginning of April. Regular decision Under this plan, students typically submit their application materials by January 1. They then receive a response from the college or university by April 1. Students are either accepted, rejected, or placed on the waiting list. Those whose admission had been deferred during the early action or decision plan will also learn whether they have been finally accepted, rejected, or placed on the waiting list as well. Should you apply through an early action or decision plan? Having described the variety of admissions plans offered by top colleges and universities, let's discuss what might be best for you, the individual student. Almost without fail, there is a higher acceptance rate for students who apply under an early plan. At many schools offering early decision programs, they guarantee a higher rate of admission to offset the opportunity cost of not being able to entertain other colleges' offers of admission. At Harvard, a university that employs an early action plan, there is still a higher rate of acceptance for early applicants, but they claim that it is the exceptionally strong academic and extracurricular records of these candidates that lead to their higher rate of acceptance. The Harvard admissions office explains: "Higher Early Action acceptance rates reflect the remarkable strength of Early Action applicant pools - not less rigorous admissions standards. Since more of our top candidates now apply early, Harvard has, in effect, been admitting its students on a slightly different timetable in recent years. For any individual student, the final admission decision will be the same, whether the student applies early or regular. Early Action applicants have, on average, stronger admissions credentials than regular applicants. In each of the several recent years, Harvard has admitted between 2,000 and 2,100 applicants total. Of these, 900 to 1,200 were admitted in mid-December and - reflecting early candidates' strength - another 100 to 200-plus early applicants were admitted in the spring after having been deferred in mid-December. There is no incentive whatsoever for Early Action colleges to admit weaker candidates early and then have to reject stronger Regular Action candidates. Diminishing the quality of the student body would be antithetical to the goals of any institution." We speculate that the "stronger" applicant pool that submits their application under early plans comes as a result of self-selection. Highly motivated and often academically well-qualified students will apply to college under an early plan with a greater frequency than less driven students. If you are even reading this article, we imagine that you fall into the former group. Let's examine the numerical effects of applying early. We present here a table of recent (2000-2001) admissions statistics from the eight Ivy League schools and several other selective schools: School Total rate Early rate Action or decision? Brown 16% 21% Action* CalTech 13% 16% Action U. of Chicago 44% 52% Decision Columbia 13% 35% Decision Cornell 31% 46% Decision Dartmouth 21% 38% Decision Duke 26% 38% Decision Harvard 11% 19% Action MIT 16% 19% Action Northwestern 33% 50% Decision Penn 23% 38% Decision Princeton 12% 35% Decision Rice 23% 25% Both Stanford 13% 23% Decision Washington (St. Louis) 30% 34% Decision Yale 16% 37% Decision * Brown has since switched to an early decision policy. As one may clearly see from even a quick glance at the table, there appears to be an advantage to applying early - a higher acceptance rate. Students who have decided that, if accepted, they would accept one given school should highly consider applying early to that school. The reward of knowing in early December would be great! We must insert a caution notice, however, as many students may feel compelled to apply early to some school. Harvard notes that, since the advent of widespread early decision plans around 1996, the number of early applications has risen astronomically and perhaps too quickly. Opting to send your application under an early program, especially a binding early decision program, is not a decision to be taken lightly. Resist the temptation to match your classmates who are applying early to their dream school if you do not have your heart similarly set on your own dream school. Harvard's admissions office counsels: "Some observers have even used the word 'hysteria' to describe some students who, perhaps influenced by peer pressure, want to apply early 'somewhere' without considering which colleges might be best for them. And with more students applying (and being admitted) early today, some students have concluded that it is a virtual necessity to apply early, whatever the circumstances, for fear of being left behind." We strongly echo Harvard's admonishment: apply early if you really like the school and believe that your aspirations fit well with the college's offerings, not merely to follow the pack of your perhaps too hasty peers. One final message: Be careful to follow the directions of the colleges and universities to which you apply. If the school to which you are applying via early decisions mandates that you not apply to other schools early, don't! College admissions officers trade information about early applicants. If you slip up or willingly try to buck the system, you may have some detailed explaining to do. One student who ended up attending Princeton received a lengthy phone call from an admissions officer over Christmas break. Why had he also applied to another school early? What was he thinking? Please avoid these unnecessary conversations. They are awkward and trying. There are real benefits to applying early to your top choice. Yet, if you intend to apply early merely to follow a seemingly better prepared pack of friends, please remember that a binding offer of admission at a school you don't really like is no benefit at all.

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