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Early Decision: College Admissions Secret Handshake



"Pay me $25,000 and I'll tell you college admission's darkest secret." Far fetched? Not at all, for that is what some private admissions counselors charge families - in exchange for the college admission world's worst-kept secret. And that secret is that early decision really can improve one's odds of getting into some of the nation's most selective colleges.

Now, it still may be worth handing over that $25K - if only to have someone other than a parent to nag a kid to get the application finished. But since we've let the "ED" cat out of the proverbial bag, it is important to know that this welcome friend has some pretty sharp claws. There are three basic variations of the "early decision" and "early action" options being used by colleges, and it is important to clarify their differences.


  • Early Decision is the most popular admission option offered by colleges. High school seniors get to choose one - and only one - "early decision" college to apply to. Kids must submit their application to the college by November 1st (or Nov. 15 for smaller liberal arts schools). And in turn, the college lets the applicant know the committee's decision by December 15th. Now here's the key: that admission is binding. When you apply, the parent, student and counselor all sign a contract committing the student to attend that college if admitted. The student must attend. It is a valid contract, and schools almost never let the student - or the parent who is paying - off the hook. Renege on that commitment and you will owe the college a full year's tuition.
  • Early Action - you may apply to more than one of these schools; and you are not legally bound to attend.
  • Rolling Admission - The earlier you apply, the earlier you hear. Admissions under rolling programs are not binding.


We're going to address only early decision programs, which are the most common and anxiety-provoking programs. There are two real upsides to the early decision option: First, the odds of getting into a highly selective school are noticeably better. And second, the admissions frenzy and pressure is relieved early in the student's senior year. The so-called downside is that the student really has to know that SpecialU is the place he really wants to attend. You have to be willing to make that decision early-on in the senior year. And you are committed to that choice How much of a better shot does a kid by applying early decision? Usually a lot better chance! Consider these recent statistics from a handful of highly selective colleges.
CollegeClassRegular Decision Acceptance RateEarly Decision Acceptance Rate

Don't say "wow!" so quickly. There are some "hidden" constituencies lurking in these gross acceptance figures. And the most significant of these constituencies is student-athletes. Since Ivy League and Division III colleges do not offer athletic scholarships, the way college coaches from these schools recruit athletes is through the early decision process. Consequently, a sizeable number of applicants who get in under early decision are recruited athletes. But there are still a fair number of early admission "slots" available to non-athletes - and the admissions odds are still better than in the regular admission pool. There are two reasons for this: first, admission officers really do have a preference for kids who absolutely love their college. And second, it is smart "yield management" to fill a significant portion of the class early. That means the college won't have to compete for kids later in April when high school seniors are comparing their admission options and comparing financial aid packages from various colleges.


CollegePercentage of Class Filled by Early Acceptances


So what's the most commonly asked strategic question about early decision? It is whether a kid should shoot for a "reach" school via the early decision option. The answer is: only if the kid would be a strong contender in the regular admission pool. A student hoping that the higher acceptance rate - and showing the college some love - will offset a weaker grade point average, SAT score, or mediocre recommendations/essay will be sorely disappointed. Why don't more "qualified" kids take advantage of the early option? For two reasons. First, they haven't really done enough research about various colleges - or don't think they have. And second, they don't get their act together early enough in the senior year to actually file the application by November 1st. But basically, kids - and often parents more than the kids - can't make up their minds. They agonize over whether a school is the "perfect" choice; or the "most prestigious" they can get into; or they're trying to parse the odds with the precision of a Vegas card-counter. The question we often ask kids (who have the academic credentials to capitalize on the early decision option) is: how much more certain will you be in January - when regular applications are due - or in May when you have to commit to a college? Or what will be different (or better) about your application in January? And if you do get into a college via early decision - and then decide after a year there that you hate it - are you any worse off than if you had chosen that school after enduring the regular process? The bottom line? If you're in the ballpark for admission via the regular pool; and you have a reasonably strong interest in a particular place, then you'd be nuts not to pursue the early decision option! Did we save you $25K? Good; go make a charitable contribution. This article was written with Mike Muska, Dean of College Counseling at Poly Prep in Brooklyn. Mike is the co-author of Getting In: The Zinch Guide to College Admission and Financial Aid in the Digital Age. (To be published in April by Wiley.) He has worked in admissions and athletics at colleges including Brown, Cornell, Auburn, Oberlin, and Northwestern.

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