The Case For and Against Early Decision

The longest period of time for any high school student is the moment between hitting send on the application and the “ping” of email with your decision attached. One way of reducing that time waiting is to apply to a school early decision. It’s not for everyone, but it can be a great tool for the right student.

I met with a client, Morticia*, a few days ago, and like all conversations I have with clients this time of year, I asked Morticia if she has decided on her top school. She told me her top three, in order. When I asked why she loved the first one best, she told me she liked the campus and it was close to an airport. Not a resounding endorsement of a top choice. I pressed her for more. She could not give me specifics.

So I asked her THE question.

“Do you like it enough to apply early decision?”

Her answer? “Yeah. I think so.”

No, that’s just not going to do it for me as a college counselor. I need more. I need conviction. I need enthusiasm. I need commitment and a firm grasp of why. And the why cannot be the proximity to an airport.

For those of you just entering the college application merry-go-round, let me explain a bit. Early decision is a type of candidacy for admission that many schools offer. What it means is this: Apply to one school by an earlier date (usually around November 1), hear from them by an earlier date (usually before Christmas) and if you get in, you are contractually obligated to attend that school. One school. One decision. Most schools which offer “ED” will also tell you how much financial aid for which you qualify at the same time (or close to it.) The only way to turn down an offer of admission as an ED candidate is if the school does not meet your demonstrated financial aid requirements.

Here are the benefits of early decision:
  1. For students for whom one school stands clearly apart from the rest, early decision may be right for you. Schools want to admit qualified students for whom their college is a first choice. This is reflected in the higher percentage of students admitted early decision verses regular decision out of all applicants. Early decision candidacy gives you a bit of a “bump up” in your chances.
  2. It is also a great way for a student who may be on the fringe of the parameters of admittance with test scores and GPA to show demonstrated interest, which again, helps with their chances.
  3. For those students who absolutely positively decide this is the best school for them, it is a way of reducing stress- as the amount of time they have to wait for a decision is usually less than 6 weeks. Compare that to the normal 4 months a regular admissions candidate waits and you can understand why ED has its benefits.
  4. Lastly, ED makes the process easier- it’s one application. One application fee, one essay, and one round of making sure transcripts and recommendations are in on time.
Here are the problems with early decision:
  1. You are putting all your eggs in one basket. It is an emotional billboard to the college that you want this, bad. For many students getting rejected from an early decision school hurts a lot more than getting turned down from others.
  2. As the ED deadlines are all before financial aid season begins with the FAFSA in January, many colleges use the CSS profile to determine your financial aid needs. The CSS profile is run by the College Board and does not use the same determining factors as the FAFSA, so your financial aid package may be less- meaning this college could cost you more than others.
  3. If you get denied from your first choice ED college, you begin the college selection process again, reassessing the choices you had as “back-up” and making them into a real list of colleges to attend. You will do all this is a short amount of time, due to the regular decision application deadlines usually being about 2 weeks after ED decisions are handed out. This can make for an incredible amount of stress in a short amount of time.
  4. Some colleges “defer” Ed candidates into the regular pool of applicants. In other words, they decide that they would like to wait and see how you compare to the rest of the applications they will be receiving. They reassess your application according to the regular admissions deadlines they have. Being in deferred status is like sitting in limbo. They know you like them; they just have to see if they like anyone else better. Again, more stress and more time.

Certainly, any college counselor worth their weight in salt will tell you to always, always, keep your options open. For my clients, I require them to fill out all other applications at the same time as early decision. They just don’t push “send” until they get their ED decision. This included sending transcripts, scores, and recommendations. I do this for two reasons. The first being that students need always to be reminded of their contingency plans- and the two weeks surrounding Christmas is not the time for getting applications in to other schools. The second reason is that it is imperative that students remember that early decision is not guaranteed admittance. It is better to remember all options, and that the ED college is just one of seven to nine schools to which this student would be happy to attend. Having those other applications ready to go, can make the disappointment of a denial sting a little less. They will actively remind the student that their life is in fact not over, nor is their chance for happiness in college. Denial is hard, knowing that there are other great schools that would love to see your application softens the blow. It may have been the first choice, but its not the only choice!

Getting back to Morticia; her hesitancy in shouting her commitment to her first choice school was more a symptom of nervousness than anything else. Hitting send on the application makes the process real, and the clock start ticking. Ticking off the minutes to the end of High School, admissions decisions, and a huge change in their lives. There should be some hesitancy. There should be some fear. This is a big thing. It’s a don’t-look-back-things-will-never-be-the-same kind of change. After sitting with her talking about her choices, her opinions, her feelings. I reinforced that this is a great choice for her, and that she is a competitive candidate. She has a good chance of gaining admission. So, I asked her again, “Is this the school for you? Do you want to apply early decision?”

Happily, I report, Morticia gave me a resounding, “YES!”

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