As a follow up to past posts about college early admission plans, we’ll recap what each of them means, and then share some case studies to illustrate when Early Action and Early Decision were good or bad choices for students in specific situations.
Early Decision (ED) is a binding agreement that indicates to a college that they are your absolute top choice. Many colleges that offer this option fill a large percentage of their class through ED. The reason for this is that yield – the percentage of admitted students who choose to enroll at that college – is as important to colleges as their admit rate. Because ED is binding, colleges can guarantee that students admitted through this process will definitely enroll. So it protects their yield, as we say.
Applying ED disincentivizes the college from offering you merit aid, IF they are a college that generally offers it – many colleges that offer an ED admission option do not give much or any merit aid. But for the ones that do, you’re telling the college that they are your first choice and you will go REGARDLESS of whether or not they offer you any merit aid. Need-based aid is another story – if you have demonstrated financial need, and the college does not fill it, you are allowed to back out of your ED agreement.
Students with high financial need are good candidates for Early Decision, because again, most colleges that offer an ED option also meet full demonstrated financial need. Don’t make any assumptions about what the formula will show – run your numbers through the practice EFC calculator before you make any decisions. The number is usually higher than people expect, and you don’t want to get stuck paying a higher price for college when you may not have to if you see what your other options are.
This is a favor colleges do for students who apply early. If you have strong grades and are ready to complete your applications by early November (ie if you don’t need first semester grades to bring up your GPA), some colleges will do you the favor of reading your application before Christmas. Some EA schools take until the end of January to give their decisions. There’s no downside! It’s not binding so you don’t have to commit.
Restricted or Single Choice Early Action
Some colleges offer an early review of your application, but they prohibit you from applying early to any other colleges. We consider this the more “unfriendly” of the early programs. Most colleges with REA or SCEA don’t give much of a “bump,” if any, to students who apply this way. So you get an answer early from this college, but you don’t get to see if you can get any other admission offers early.
So now that you understand the ground rules and can see who benefits from each of these options, let’s look at some case studies of students faced with deciding whether or not to apply ED or EA (we aren’t presenting case studies for the REA/SCEA situation because so few colleges offer this option):
ED was a good choice for Sally
Sally’s top choice was Williams College. She had attended a summer program there, she knew the students were just like her and she would absolutely attend Williams if she were admitted. Williams was her dream school. Sally had strong grades; Williams’ admit rate is under 10%. No matter what, it would be a reach. But they admit a slightly larger percentage of students who apply ED, so she wanted to increase her chances. More importantly, her parents knew that Williams does not offer merit scholarships, and they were willing to pay full price. There was no reason not to roll the dice, and see if Sally could get in if she applied ED.
ED was a bad choice for Roger
A straight-A student, Roger also wanted to go to Williams College. But he has three siblings, and his parents had saved enough money in their 529 to pay for an in-state public university for each child. Because they own their home in the Bay Area, the EFC calculator showed that they were able to afford $58,000 per year for college, a number with which his parents were not comfortable. Even though Roger’s chances of being admitted to Williams would have been higher had he applied ED, his family was not comfortable with his doing so. Applying Early Decision would have precluded Roger from comparing admission offers – and possibly offers of merit scholarships – from other colleges. So he did not apply ED.
EA was a good choice for Daniel
Daniel had strong grades and was very interested in the University of Puget Sound, which offered an Early Action option. He registered for rigorous classes in the first semester of 12th grade to show all of the colleges to which he applied that he was taking his senior year seriously, but he wanted to get college applications done early and get some decisions back quickly. Puget Sound’s EA program allowed Daniel to submit his application by November and get a decision in about a month! And because it was non-binding, Daniel could just wait to see which other colleges would admit him later in the spring.
EA was a bad choice for Haley
Haley had a few bumps in high school. She was bullied in 9th grade and got Ds in a few classes. She changed schools and pulled her grades up in 10th, but the following fall, her mom passed away fairly suddenly, and her mental health, not surprisingly, took a downturn. Haley passed all of her 11th grade classes, but she had mostly Cs and a few Bs. She continued to spend time on volunteer work, because she felt that it gave her purpose through a difficult time. She also started seeing a therapist. Haley went on a college trip with a friend during spring break of 11th grade, and fell in love with the University of Puget Sound. She loved the vibe and really connected with the campus. But her GPA was about 3.1, pretty significantly lower than their average. Despite their fairly high admit rate, Haley wanted to present a strong application, so she chose rigorous classes for senior year and submitted her application in early January, in advance of their regular decision deadline, so that she could show strong work in her senior fall.