Deciding Whether to Apply Early Action, Early Decision, or Regular Decision

Confused Afro Guy Has Too Many QuestionsEvery year, my schedule becomes crazed as November early admission deadlines approach.  Many students and their families find the temptation to apply early hard to resist.  I understand why:  In exchange for submitting his application a couple of months before the regular decision deadline, your child could find out in a mere six to eight weeks that the college or university of his dreams accepted him, that he does not have to submit any other college applications, and that the pressure and stress of the college admissions process have ended for him in December or January rather than in April.  With these facts in front of you, hearing that early admission might not work in your child’s favor may sound counterintuitive; however, these programs have definite trade-offs and could prove disadvantageous to your child, depending on his circumstances.  Making a good decision about whether to apply early means knowing what your child stands to gain or lose either way.

Colleges and universities offer a variety of early admission programs that I explained in an earlier post—recommended reading if any of the terms here sound unfamiliar.  These programs improve an institution’s “yield”: the percentage of admitted students who actually accept the offer and enroll, as opposed to declining the offer and going somewhere else.  Admissions officers get competitive about their yield:  They want their college or university to appeal more to students than the competition does, in the same way that Honda hopes that people buy more Honda’s than they do Toyota’s.  The more candidates a college or university can entice (Early Action, aka EA) or lock into attending (Early Decision, aka ED), the better its yield.

When to choose a binding or restrictive early admission program

Binding and restrictive programs (ED and Restrictive EA) impose constraints on your child (see my earlier post if you do not know what I am referring to here).  In this scenario, I hope to see a clear, unequivocal first choice at which a student can present a viable application, one that the admissions committee will discuss rather than pass over.  ED options raise the stakes even higher:  By applying ED, your child has made a binding commitment to attend a school if admitted.  You only want your child to enter into that agreement enthusiastically.

Families who depend on financial aid have an additional factor to consider.  Applying somewhere ED means forfeiting the opportunity to compare financial aid packages across schools.  In addition, colleges that might otherwise award merit aid as an incentive for an applicant to accept an offer of admission now have no reason to do so—ED applicants have already committed to attending.  (Non-binding EA programs offer students the opportunity to apply to other schools and compare financial aid packages in April.)

Running the marathon with non-restrictive Early Action (EA)

An increasing number of schools, both public and private, offer non-restrictive EA.  I encourage my organized students who start on applications over the summer and have completed their standardized testing before the start of senior year to take full advantage of these programs.  Keep in mind that applying to multiple schools EA means that your child is basically meeting two sets of deadlines with a daunting application load for each within a compressed period of time.  I see the payoff as worth it, for those who can rise to the challenge.  The most obvious benefit comes with admission and that can mean a lot.  For example, I worked with a young woman this fall who applied to an Ivy League school ED, as well as multiple schools non-restrictive EA.  Her ED application resulted in a rejection, an initial blow that quickly faded when she received a non-restrictive EA offer to an honors program, coupled with a significant merit scholarship, from a highly sought-after Top 50 school.

Non-restrictive EA results also provide helpful data that can impact where your child applies regular decision.  I worked with another client who had a captivating but unconventional profile for the engineering programs to which he was applying.  One by one, most of his non-restrictive EA applications came back as deferrals.  Those results confirmed the vulnerabilities that I had diagnosed in his profile, but also my hunch that he had quite a story to tell—one that made admissions officers reluctant to reject him in the early round.  We figured out ways to update his application that I think will move some of those initial deferrals to acceptances in the spring.

Early admission options can offer meaningful advantages, as long as you and your child have read the fine print and thought through all the details.  Remember also that colleges and universities take binding ED agreements seriously.  Applying ED, getting accepted, and then reneging on your commitment to attend will reflect badly on your child, his guidance counselor, and his high school.  It could even hurt the chances of other students from his school who apply ED to that same college or university in the future.

Not everyone should consider early admission options.  Kids whose grades are continuing to rise might want to hold off so that colleges can see those first semester grades from senior year.  Students who are still completing standardized testing in the fall of senior year might find the burden of early applications too much.  If possible, though, consider at least a couple of non-restrictive EA applications, as your child could find himself entering the rest of the admissions season with an acceptance already under his belt.

Please contact me if you think your child would benefit from guidance on whether, where, and how to apply early.

Rev. 01/28/2020