What You Absolutely Need to Know before Applying Early Decision

on November 22, 2016

Want to get accepted into an elite college or university?


At many of these colleges, teenagers who apply early decision enjoy a dramatically better chance of getting admitted.


Here are just a handful of recent examples that illustrate this powerful admissions advantage: 


  Early Decision Regular Decision
Dartmouth College 26 percent 11 percent
Duke University 27 percent 12 percent
Tufts University 39 percent 16 percent
Vassar College 39 percent 26 percent
Washington U. St. Louis 37 percent 16 percent


An analysis by the Washington Post earlier this year revealed that more than 40 percent of incoming freshmen at highly selective colleges gained admission by applying early decision.


Not surprisingly, the percentage of students who choose to become early birds has grown. According to the most recent annual survey of schools by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the number of students applying early decision between the 2014 and 2105 admission seasons rose 10 percent.


While applying at the first opportunity might seem like a winning strategy, it won’t be for all students.  Families need to be aware of the pros and cons of choosing early decision and proceed carefully!


Ten Things to Consider before Applying Early Decision


Here are 10 things you need to know about applying early decision:


1. Early decision limits choices and is binding.


Teenagers pledge to apply early decision to only one college or university. If you apply early decision, you promise on the application to attend the institution if accepted and withdraw any other applications that you may have submitted elsewhere.


There are two forms of early admission: early decision and early action. Early decision is binding, while early action is not.


2. Understand what early decision means.


As the name suggests, teenagers apply early decision before other students complete the regular application. Early decision applicants routinely apply in November while deadlines for regular decision applications can be in January, February or even later.


Teenagers who apply early decision in the fall routinely receive their admission verdict by the holidays.


Dozens of colleges also offer an early decision II option, which allows teenagers to submit one of these priority applications in early January. Schools that provide this additional option include American, Colgate, Emory, George Washington, Lehigh, New York and Vanderbilt universities, as well as Bowdoin, Carleton, Gettysburg, Pomona, Rhodes and Whitman colleges.


3. Early decision applications are not universal. 


While teenagers can choose to apply early decision at some public institutions, such as College of William and Mary in Virginia, it is overwhelmingly a private college phenomenon. According to the latest NACAC survey, 29 percent of private colleges offer an early decision option compared to seven percent of state schools.


4. Research the early decision advantage.


When weighing whether to choose the early decision route, check out what the chances of success are at individual institutions.


An easy way to retrieve these figures is to head to the College Board’s website and do the following:

  1. Type in the name a college.
  2. Click on the Applying link on the left-hand side of the college’s profile.
  3. Look at the statistics at the top of the Applying page that will include the number of students who applied early decision, early action and regular decision along with the number of applicants who were accepted in each category.

Consider the College Board’s 2015-2016 statistics for Northwestern University. Of the students applying regular decision, 4,248 of the 32,122 applicants were admitted, a 13 percent acceptance rate. The 2,667 apply early decision enjoyed a 38 percent acceptance rate, with 1,012 admitted.


5. The early-decision advantage isn’t always significant.


While you’ll discover that many colleges offer a large early decision advantage, some don’t. Here are some examples:


  Early Decision Regular Decision
Harvey Mudd College 17 percent 14 percent
New York University 33 percent 29 percent
Northeastern University 31 percent 28 percent
Rice University 20 percent 16 percent


Even at colleges where there is a significant difference in acceptance rates, the higher acceptance rates for early decision may be due to a more-talented mix of students applying early. Applying early will not transform a borderline application into a “definite admit.”


6. Early decision can be a financial gamble.


If you apply early decision and gain admittance, you are expected to attend that college regardless of the award package that you receive.


This key requirement can be financially perilous for families who must depend on financial aid. Let’s say, for instance, that the financial aid formula determines that a middle-class applicant’s family can afford to pay $5,000 a year to attend the college that costs $65,000. The child gains an early decision acceptance, but the college only provides the applicant with a $20,000 grant. How can this family possibly come up with the cash except with staggering loans?


Because of scenarios like this, early decision is widely regarded as a more appropriate approach for high-income students who don’t have to worry about the price.


7. Know the costs before applying early decision.


For families where college costs are an issue (and it is for most!), parents must absolutely use an institution’s net price calculator before allowing their child to submit an early application. These calculators will provide you with a personalized estimate of what a college will cost your family after expected grants and scholarships are deducted.


Each college participating in the federal financial aid system, and that is nearly all higher-ed institutions, most offer a net price calculator on its website.


8. More colleges anticipate offering early applications.


In a 2016 survey of 543 college administrators by Cegment, Inc., a higher-ed technology company, 28 percent of colleges and universities said they planned to start offering early decision or early action programs.


9. Walking away from an early decision acceptance.


What if the worst happens and a child can’t afford to attend an early decision college? Even though the acceptance decision is considered binding, no college can force a student to enroll. That said, a family should contact the college and explain their dilemma as parents seek to obtain a better financial aid package.


10. Early action is a safer alternative.


If early decision is too risky for you, many colleges – once again mostly private – offer early action applications. With these applications, you can apply early, but you aren’t tied to the college if you are accepted. You are free to attend or not. It’s your choice.


When exploring early-action opportunities, you’ll find that the admission advantage isn’t usually as an impressive, but at many of these colleges an apparent admission bump exists.


Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on Amazon.com.


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