Early Decision: No-Brainer or Big Mistake?

You may have heard that applying to college during the binding Early Decision round could give your child a big admission bump. The Early Decision/Regular Decision stats that Jennie Kent and I release each year on August 1 show that many institutions have a significantly higher admit rate during this round than during the Regular Decision round.

[Read here: Early Decision/ Regular Decision Acceptance Rates] 

If we sort the column “ED to RD Acceptance Ratio,” we learn that among the biggest outliers are Tulane, Grinnell, Colby, Northeastern, and Amherst, all with ED acceptance rates at least five times as high as their RD acceptance rate. Most of these schools fill at least half their freshman class from Early Decision acceptances.

teen girl studying
There are four questions students need to ask themselves before they apply for Early Decision. (Twenty20)

Who gets admitted early decision?

But does a five-to-one ratio at your child’s favorite school mean it will be five times easier for him to get in? It doesn’t, and here’s why.

  • Recruited athletes, who often MUST apply during the ED round, enjoy an admit rate that approaches 100% because they have already been cleared by the coach and admission office.

  • Legacy applicants get admitted at rates much higher than others as long as they apply during the ED round.

  • The ED cohort also consists of applicants who are neither athletes nor legacy but are wealthier and more college-savvy, have worked with independent consultants and test prep specialists, and are better at navigating the college admission process.

These three groups of applicants with substantially higher admit rates drive up the overall acceptance rate of the ED cohort. But it does not follow that any individual who is not a recruited athlete, who is not legacy, who is not full-pay, and who does not have stats that exceed the school’s profile will have that same advantage. A small bump, maybe. But not five-to-one.

The early decision litmus test

Applicants should use this litmus test to decide whether or not to apply for ED:

1. Is it the one school you most want to attend above all others?
2. Will your application be as good as possible by mid-October of your senior year?
3. Does your 9th-11th grade transcript show how strong a student you are?
4. Is the size of the financial aid award a small factor in where you will enroll?

If your child can answer “yes” to all four questions, it makes sense for him to apply ED. If not, it could be a big mistake, and here’s why:

1. First love.

High school seniors may become smitten with a certain school, but their reasons may be trivial. Or they may simply not know where they want to spend their next four years. Indecision is a perfectly rational response to the enormous transition about to happen. They should not feel pressured to apply ED because “it’s the only way I’m going to get in.”

2. Ahead of the curve.

For any school with a November 1st ED deadline, your child’s personal submission date should be a week or two before that. Will their essays be excellent by then? Have they spent much of the summer writing their personal statement? Can they write convincingly in the supplemental essays about why they want to attend this school or why they want to study this major? A rushed application may not get over the hump at these extremely selective schools.

3. Academic trend line.

A 3.8 unweighted GPA in a rigorous course of study is very strong. But there is a world of difference between a student who starts at a 3.6 and ends at a 4.0 to get to that 3.8 average and one who does it the other way around, trending downward. Yet, for both of these students, it could be crucial to show strong grades in rigorous classes in the first semester of senior year, which an ED applicant won’t be able to do with its November/December application reviews.

4. Financial aid applicants.

If the size of the financial aid award is a significant factor in the choice of where a student will enroll, applying during the Early Decision round is usually a mistake. What will benefit this family most is to compare all the aid offers. One school may package $5,500 in student loans; another may replace these loans with institutional grants. One school may assess a family’s $300K of home equity, increasing their parent contribution by $15,000 annually, and another may ignore their home equity altogether. One school’s “meet 100% of need” formula may be much stingier than another’s.

But I can get out of the binding contract!

At this point, you may think you want the best of both worlds. You have heard that you can get out of the binding ED contract for financial reasons, and you are correct. But look at how this will play out.

Your daughter has applied to the school of her dreams, and on December 20th, she learns she’s been admitted. But shortly after her celebration begins, you inform her that you must negotiate with her school because the financial aid award is lower than expected.

It’s a Friday, and you call the financial aid office and receive a recorded message that they are closed for the holidays and will return on January 3rd. Presumably, your daughter has already submitted her remaining college applications; if not, she will need to scramble to get those in by their January deadlines.

When you finally do get to speak to someone at financial aid, they are firm that because they meet 100 percent of need, they can do nothing to improve the offer. What do you do then? Do you pull out of the contract, not knowing which other schools she will be admitted to? Without any idea of whether the aid offers she receives will be any better?

You have played your hand after only one card has been dealt, which could result in a heartbreaking series of events for your daughter. You cannot know what’s best for your family without comparing this offer to others; those won’t arrive for another three months. If the cost of college is a significant factor in where your child will enroll, making the right decision usually means not committing to one school.

You might also be interested in:

Fifteen Biggest Financial Aid and FAFSA Mistakes 

About Jeff Levy

Jeff Levy has been an educational consultant since 2007, based in the Los Angeles area. His students live in Southern California and throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, and Australia.

In 2014, he earned the designation of Certified Educational Planner, the highest level of competency awarded in the profession. He is a member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), where he was a founding member of its Subcommittee on College Affordability and Financial Aid. Jeff is also a member of the Higher Education Consultants Association, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the Western Association for College Admission Counseling, and the National College Advocacy Group.

Jeff has been an instructor at UC San Diego Extension and co-designed its course on college affordability and financial aid, and is a member of the faculty at IECA’s Summer Training Institute. He is the Grown & Flown financial aid advisor, and presents regularly at national conferences and community events on many topics related to college admission and affordability.

More about Jeff Levy and his educational consulting practice.

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