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. Looking at the Early Decision/Regular Decision stats that Jennie Kent and I release each year on August 1, it’s apparent 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 download this chart as a Google sheet and sort the column “ED to RD Acceptance Ratio,” we learn that among the biggest outliers are Grinnell, Dartmouth, Colby, Northwestern, Williams, Bates, Middlebury, and Tulane, all with ED acceptance rates at least four 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 four-to-one ratio at your child’s favorite school means it will be four 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 four-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 essay? 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 crucially important 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, it is usually a mistake to apply during the Early Decision round. What will benefit this family most is to compare all the aid offers. One school may package $5,500 in student loans, and 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 formula to “meet 100% of need” 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 that she’s been admitted. But shortly after her celebration begins, you inform her that you will have to negotiate with her school because the financial aid award is lower than you 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.

By the time you finally do get to speak to someone at financial aid, they are firm that because they meet 100 percent of need there is nothing they can do to improve the offer. What do you do then? Do you pull out of the contract knowing which other schools she will be admitted to? Without an 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, and those won’t arrive for another three months. If the cost of college is a significant factor in the choice of 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, CEP, is an educational consultant based in Santa Monica, California. He works with students locally, regionally, and internationally on their college search and application process, and with parents on college affordability and financial aid. his website.

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