In the early 1990s, the University of Pennsylvania was struggling to keep up with their fellow Ivy League universities and found themselves frequently relegated to “back-up plan” status among the nation’s top students. Their institution’s location in less-than-idyllic West Philadelphia and the “sounds like a state school” name contributed to their relative woes. In an effort to net more big fish, UPenn offered prospective students a bargain of Mephistophelean proportions—make a binding commitment to us months before the regular admissions cycle begins and we’ll offer you significantly improved odds of acceptance. Those who fondly recalled hearing their grandmothers utter the axiom “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” quickly shook hands on the deal.
Non-binding forms of the early application process have been around since the 1950’s, but as we neared the 2000s, hundreds of schools began to see the advantage of locking in members of their freshman class as early as possible. This was, however, not without controversy. By 2007, in response to cries that ED put minority and low-income applicants at a disadvantage, schools like Princeton and Harvard did away with the practice. Yet, the number of ED applicants at other premier schools persisted and has continued to rise year after year. In the 2014-15 admissions cycle, Johns Hopkins saw an increase of 17% from the prior year, while Colby, Northwestern, Duke, and Dartmouth also hit all-time highs.
This phenomenon does not only occur at the nation’s most selective institutions like our examples above. Just about every school offering a binding ED option, from large elites to less selective private schools, continue to experience record volumes of fall applications. Because it has become so common to apply ED, we see more students select this option in a way that is uninformed and ultimately harmful to their college selection process. To help you avoid making a similar mistake, we cover the five questions you should be able to answer with 100% confidence before pulling the trigger on an ED app.
1. “Have I adequately vetted my first choice school?”
This is the first question anyone considering applying early decision needs to ponder, and ponder hard. Have you visited the campus, taken a full tour, and had the chance to ask questions of current students as well as admissions reps? Have you done sufficient homework on other, comparable institutions to make sure you aren’t missing out on any even better opportunities? Perhaps most importantly, have you sat down with your parents and calculated the four years of tuition, fees, and living expenses at your ED school? Planning the financial end is absolutely critical for anyone, which leads us to our next question….
2. “Can I afford to pay the sticker price?”
Early decision (ED) admission into a college means that you will be receiving only one financial aid offer, which may or may not be enough to sufficiently cover your college-related expenses. Most schools promise to give equal consideration to early admits for both need-based and merit aid, yet this is simply not in line with reality, especially with regard to merit aid.
Remember, institutions dangle merit aid to lure exceptional students, ones who might otherwise elect to attend a more prestigious school, to their flock. Your ED college has little incentive to award a generous merit aid package, given that they have already secured your commitment to attend. Even if they do offer some degree of aid, it may not be the number you expected. To be safe, if you cannot afford to pay full price at an institution, think twice about applying early decision there. ED is a binding enterprise and backing out, even with financial justification, is not a pleasant road to travel down.
3. “How likely is it that my desires might change during senior year?”
Senior year can be a time of significant growth and change. A commitment you make in the fall may seem far less appealing months later. An inspirational AP English teacher may steer you away from the engineering path you felt so strongly about in October. Perhaps you’ll learn about a lesser-known college that sounds like it was built just for you. Conduct a serious self-assessment of your personality before submitting your ED application. Are you someone whose academic and career desires stay consistent over time or do your interests tend to change as you engage in new experiences? Will you genuinely enjoy attending college 2500 miles from home or are you someone who ultimately likes to see their family on a regular basis?
Settling on a college is a huge decision in so many ways, and one that many students are not ready to make when their first day on campus is still 10 months away.
4. “Is my application as strong as it can be?”
If you think of yourself as a stock, the goal is to sell yourself at the highest possible point. Early decision applicants are selling themselves based on where they stand at the end of the all-important junior year. If you feel you’ve maxed out your SAT/ACT score, feel confident about your GPA as-is, and have no regrets about the rigor of your courses from 9th through 11th grade then you may have hit the apex of your high school career. If you are more in the late-bloomer category (i.e. You thought 9th grade was still middle school and forgot to study…for an entire year), you may need senior year in order to maximize your potential and show colleges what you can really do. In that case, ED may not be the best choice.
5. “How much will applying early decision really help my chances at admission?”
On the surface, a look at early decision vs. regular decision acceptance rates makes it appear as though applying ED is a HUGE advantage. Notre Dames’s 2014-15 ED admit rate was 42% compared to 27% in the regular cycle. Dartmouth admitted a quarter of ED applicants and under 9% of those who waited until January. All of the other Ivies admitted ED students at approximately 2 times the rate of everyone else.
Applying early decision does give applicants an edge at top schools, however, the stats above are misleading for several reasons. For one, students applying ED to elite schools tend to be more qualified, on average, than students in the regular decision pool. In addition, many selective colleges admit the bulk of their student-athletes through ED—these applicants have already been reviewed and selected ahead of time. ED is also a time when many legacy students are brought aboard as well as those with a special skill or skills (i.e. the juggling, fire-breathing cello virtuoso). Remove these applicants from the ED pool and advantages associated with applying early shrink greatly.
Therefore, think carefully before surrendering your free agency in exchange for an acceptance. Schools across the selectivity spectrum are not going to “reach” for a student well below their mean; it is students on the bubble who are most likely to receive a boost.
Ultimately, if you’ve considered every variable and ED still sounds like a good idea, then go ahead and move forward with that “bird in the hand.” However, if you are feeling less than sure, take time to check out those bush-dwelling feathered friends—your sweet, old cautious grandma may philosophically disapprove but, in the end, you’ll be more likely to end up picking the best college for you.
College Transitions recently published a list comparing Early Decision and Regular Decision admission rates at America’s most selective colleges and universities. Please visit our Dataverse page to see the list.