Monday, August 6, 2012

What's All the Fuss About? Early Action and Early Decision Decoded

Early Bird gets the worm....
At College Night this past year we had a question from the audience about Early Decision - mainly why it exists and what the point of it is. The panel was already off to a late start and we had only a few minutes before we started our workshop sessions. I tried to address the question quickly, but promised that I would explore it more deeply on the blog. So, here we go!

First, we need to understand the definition of Early programs. Early Decision is a binding admission program where students submit their application by an earlier deadline in the fall and get their outcome earlier than the general pool (usually by the last week in December). Because the program is binding, students can only apply Early Decision to one college. Some schools have even more restrictions, but for now, just remember ED is binding and you find out if you get in or not in December instead of April (when most Regular Decision letters go out).

An offshoot of the idea of ED is Early Action - a non-binding admission program where students submit their application by an earlier deadline and get their outcome earlier than the general pool but are NOT required to enroll. One more time - all together now -- Early Decision is BINDING, Early Action is NOT BINDING. I'm going to focus this post on ED, since it seems to cause more confusion.

(This is a long one - click below for the full post)

Why would a student consider ED?

1) The student has a clear interest in one school above all of the rest. If they got into this school, they would have no interest in even filing their applications at any other school.

2) The student wants to avoid the anxiety of waiting until most of senior year is over to find out if they got into their dream school. Get in? The entire college application process is over by Christmas. Don't get in? You can apply elsewhere and start the grieving process sooner.

3) Now, read this carefully, in fact re-read it once you finish: typically the statistical chance of being accepted during ED is greater than the statistical chance of being accepted in Regular Decision. This does NOT mean that the quality of student or admission standards are different in the two rounds, it only means that you have a numerically improved chance of being admitted to most highly selective schools if you are admitted during Early. Remember context is key -- a school may admit 12% of students in the regular round of admission and 30% of students in the early round. To the untrained eye, you may say to yourself - it is three times easier to get into this school if I go early, I have to do it! But, ALWAYS look at context when looking at statistics. Yes, a higher percentage of students are admitted in Early, but how large were the pools? ED is usually a fraction of the regular pool - which works to the applicants advantage AND disadvantage. (Fewer people to compete against, but the quality of the competition is usually higher.) Applying Early Decision just for the statistical advantage is NOT recommend. Even in that example above, 70% of students were still denied admission. Early Decision is NOT any sort of guarantee of admission. Every college is also different, the range admission percentages change from year to year and college to college.

4) The student wants to indicate to the school that they are their true first choice. With students applying to more and more colleges every year (*I recommend no more than 10*), ED is a way to commit to a school and prove to them that you truly don't want to go anywhere else.

So what is in it for the colleges?

A lot.

1) For anyone that has worked in a college admissions office, pacing the reading applications is a delicate balance to make sure that all files get read in time for final decisions to go out. 17 year olds have a habit of waiting until the deadline to apply. For schools with Early Decision, they can have the benefit of evaluating a portion of the pool in the fall. They can spread out the work across more months, as opposed to having a February where admissions counselors don't see any sunlight. (As it is, most admissions counselors probably only see about one hour of sunlight in February . . . ).

2) ED applicants are a sure thing. Unlike a regular decision applicant, who may be comparing financial aid packages, visiting schools for a second time in April, or who see where their friends get in before choosing a school, ED candidates are making a binding agreement. If you admit them, they will come. This is an admission office dream come true. The ability for an admission office to set a portion of their class takes an immense amount of pressure off the director of admission - it means guaranteed revenue, guaranteed enrollment, and means a smaller margin of error when it comes to final numbers in the spring. Think of it this way - a regular decision application is read and the staff has no idea how many other schools this person applied to, if their school is that student's first or last choice, if that person has a different idea of where they are going than their parents - and the admissions counselor is being asked to give away a covetted spot in the class to this unknown. They do it (that is their job) but there is a lot of guess work and risk involved on the school's end to form a balanced class. Now think about ED. All those questions are gone - if you admit this bassoonist from Nebraska, you are going to see them in the spring.

2a) Before you freak out and say - oh my gosh I have to find an ED school so I can be admitted to college - relax. Colleges need regular decision applicants too. Lots of them. Most schools admit far more of their class through regular, the ED pool is just the insurance policy. And that thing about the bassoonist? It can work against you too, if the ED admits are too heavy on bassoonists, you may not make the cut since they want to leave room for some regular decision bassoonists. (I realize you don't play the bassoon - but you get my point).

3) Money. Colleges are just businesses disguised as placed of learning. They have a bottom line just like any other place that employs thousands of people. ED is a way for schools to get a handle on their revenue stream - they can predict, based on the applicants that have already committed to them (the ED admits) how much more revenue they need in order to stay afloat. A college's biggest fear is being underenrolled. When you can fill 25% of your class by December that fear goes down 25%. (The proportion that ED makes up of the entire freshman class varies at every college - if you can't find out the rate online, ask the college directly).

By now, hopefully you have a sense of the motivations for ED from both the student and college perspective. If you are one of those people who feels passionate that you have one clear first choice and that school has an ED program, it is ok to consider it. Be aware though that this means no financial aid comparisons, no sneaky 'just to see where else I can get in' applications, and no backsies. You are making a binding commitment. Only do it if you feel 110% sure.

"But can't I get out of ED if I change my mind?" It is true, there is usually an option to get out of the binding agreement if the financial aid package is truly not workable for your family. But this is EXTREMELY rare and usually means that you'll need to take a year off because Financial Aid packages come out in April when most colleges have already had their final deadlines. If you are worried about Financial Aid, call the school directly well before you apply and see if they can help you estimate the type of aid package you can expect. If you are someone that thrives on comparison shopping, ED is not for you. Unfortunately, too many low income students avoid ED because they are worried about financial aid. If you research the school's financial aid policies and see the phrase "meets 100% of demonstrated need for all admitted students" you don't need to comparison shop, you'll be covered if you have a low estimated family contribution. Typically, the only people really at risk of going ED and having to pay more than they want are the middle and upper middle class.

"I like lots of different schools, but my chances will be higher if I apply ED, so I should, right?" Not necessarily. Your chance may be higher, but they are probably still low. Think about the emotional impact this decision will have on you. Will your other applications suffer if you are submitting them a week after you've gotten a skinny envelope from your ED school? Usually this type of 'but my chances are higher' thinking is something that admissions counselors can sniff out immediately, and not in a good way. The best ED applications live, breathe, and exist for that college. If you don't, regular decision is probably for you. (Early Action is a bit different though - if you have a school with EA on the list, go ahead and apply EA, it isn't binding and schools are not expecting you to necessarily enroll).

If you are a rising senior and think you want to go ED, consider making your senior meeting with me over the summer (students, check your ElRo email for details).  Regardless of the round of admission, remember, do not submit any applications until after you meet with me. College application submission is not something you want to rush into!