Know if Applying to College Early is Right for You

Getting in could be easier, but a search for financial aid might suffer.

Connor Cerniglia’s application to Bates College looked highly promising. The Annapolis, Md., senior was in the top third of his class at St. Mary’s High School, played football and lacrosse, and was active in student government and the environment club. But the likely clincher given the applicant pool the college attracts, his college adviser Dave Gibson says now, is that he applied early decision (ED), promising to attend if accepted.

“I wanted to express to the school how much I truly wanted to go there,” says Cerniglia, now a Bates freshman.

Contrary to speculation four years ago that early admissions was on the wane, following decisions by Harvard University, Princeton University, and the University of Virginia to drop their early options as a disservice to racial and socioeconomic diversity, the programs have only grown in popularity. “More students are using their early card than ever before,” says Bev Taylor, founder of the admissions consulting firm Ivy Coach, who has been guiding applicants and their parents in New York City for 20 years.

Of high school seniors who filled out the Common Application last year, nearly 49 percent applied to some form of an early program, says Rob Killion, the Common App’s executive director. The programs range from simple early action, which doesn’t obligate you to attend, to binding early decision. Of Cerniglia’s class, more than 70 percent applied early; 11 percent chose early decision.

Not wanting to miss out on all these choice candidates, the three universities that ended early options have re-entered the game. Harvard has restored “single choice” early action for this fall, which restricts applicants from applying early to other private schools but doesn’t require them to attend or even decide until May 1. Princeton’s new program is similar, except that you can’t apply early anywhere else. U.Va.’s early action option won’t be restrictive. Greg Roberts, dean of admissions, says the university is responding to strong interest in an early plan from parents and students—and that, without the option, U.Va. may have been losing applicants.

The programs are without doubt a boon for the colleges. ED, in particular, is the proverbial bird-in-hand for admissions staffers facing increasing uncertainty in picking a freshman class as high schoolers hedge their bets by applying to 10 or more schools. By securing in some cases nearly half of the incoming freshmen by December 15, as Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania do, colleges can avoid coming up short after May 1. They also boost their yield, the percentage of admitted students who enroll, which has become a key indicator of popularity.

ED is becoming a way to manage enrollment in times of high flux, says Douglas Christiansen, vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions at Vanderbilt University, which generally admits about a third of its freshman class during two ED rounds. For the first, applications are due November 15 and processed by mid-December, and the second has a January 1 deadline with mid-February notification.

Early decision applicants can’t automatically assume a lowered bar; Miami University in Ohio offers them no special advantage, for example, and Wake Forest University characterizes any edge as slight. But as a strategic move, ED can make good sense for students who know what they want and “may not have all the A’s, the scores, the activities, or the talent,” says Taylor.

Many institutions readily acknowledge that their early acceptance rates are higher than for regular admissions. At Vanderbilt, 15 percent of those who apply for regular admissions are accepted, compared to 25 percent who make the cut in the early decision pools. The former are more competitive, with the middle 50 percent scoring 1450 to 1590 on the two primary parts of the SAT and 32 to 35 on the ACT, compared to the early bird middle 50 percent, who came in at 1380 to 1510 and 31 to 33. Bates takes 43 percent of its early decision pool and 24 percent of regular applicants. Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., most recently admitted 64 percent of those who applied early decision, compared to 37 percent of the regular pool.

The big hitch with binding early decision is that students hoping for the best possible financial aid package won’t be able to compare offers, which are made in March. When an award turns out to be too skimpy, schools will typically release you from your commitment. But by then it may be too late to apply elsewhere.

While financial aid offices will typically estimate your share of costs before you apply, being proactive is key.Call up “and say, ’These are my numbers, can you give me a rough estimate?’” advises Barry Baker, director of college counseling at the California Academy of Math and Science in Carson.

A stellar student and competitive rower who aced her college boards, Jackie Hanna, a classmate of Connor Cerniglia, wanted to apply early decision to College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., but couldn’t afford to go there unless she received more than $120,000 over the four years. “My mom talked with the financial aid office a few times to make sure we understood what our contribution would be, so we wouldn’t be blindsided in April,” Hanna says. The numbers worked, and she’s now a freshman at Holy Cross.

Most teens, especially lower-income students and those in public schools whose counselors are overtaxed, don’t get advice on the finer points of applying early. With their latest program iterations, Harvard, Princeton, and U.Va. have vowed to level the playing field through recruiting efforts and a focus on financial aid.

Roberts says U.Va. chose early action this time instead of reinstating early decision because data at peer institutions indicate it often draws students from all economic and racial groups at nearly the same rate as regular decision. “Early action gives you more flexibility to compare financial aid offers,” he notes. “Our hope is that by providing an unrestricted early action plan, we’ll be able to draw a diverse pool.”

Early action, since it’s not binding, won’t give you that admissions edge. Still, it can be an excellent option for students who crave certainty in spring semester but don’t have a clear first choice and so benefit by having until May 1 to commit to a school and an aid package.

“When I hear students say, ’I don’t know where I’m going to apply but I know I want to apply early decision,’ that’s absolutely the wrong approach. Those are the students that are going to have some regrets,” says Wake Forest Dean of Admissions Martha Allman, who applied early decision to the school herself. “ED is for those who have done admissions research early and have a firm understanding of the implications of the agreement and who have an unwavering commitment to their dream school.”

That describes Cerniglia, who fell hard for Bates during a visit the summer after his junior year and had no doubts about proclaiming the school his first and only choice.


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