Students lucky enough to have received an invitation for Early Decision college admissions may be relieved, elated, and just a bit nervous, about a binding offer from a university. The email notification that a student receives is followed up by a paper admissions packet congratuating the student and ending months of waiting and agonizing about a decision from their dream school.
Early Decision admission programs require an applicant to sign a statement with a school promsising to attend if offered, and, to withdraw all other applications in process at other colleges. Unless the college of choice doesn’t come through with a financial aid package that meets student needs, the high school senior is obligated to make a deposit and attend.
Another application program, Early Action, does not come with the same constraints as Early Decision. Early Action simply rewards students who made an early applicaton, usually two to three months before the deadline. Students recieve their admission decision before winter break. An acceptance relieves much anxiety and allows students the assurance that at least one school chose them. An early rejection, either through Early Decision or Early Action, however, can be devistating and can leave a student with less motivation to churn out the remaining applications left to complete. Students who receive several Early Action offers have until the national deposit date (May 1) to make a choice.
The complexity of college admissions doesn’t end with these two application processes. Some colleges, including Stanford University, offer a Restrictive Early Action Admission choice. Students applying to Stanford are not binded by an early offer, but they cannot apply to other colleges under Early Decision or Early Action.
Early applications require early planning. Many, and perhaps most, students are not yet ready to commit to a school in the first few months of Fall and want to keep all options open. These students may need more time to visit or re-visit schools, or haven’t yet determined what their goals are. The option to apply through Regular Decision does mean that students won’t hear of acceptance, wait-list, or denial until mid-March, but students have several additional months for research. Colleges with Rolling Admissions enroll students within a few weeks of application, but they are neither binding, nor “early” and tend to be less selective in the admissions process.
Early Decision also comes with a few catches. Early Decision doesn’t exactly let the high school senior off the hook if their applicaiton is accepted. Students may even feel more anxious about losing the early offer which a college can do if a student does not maintain his or her gpa or finish coursework as planned.
The second catch with Early Decision is that a family cannot choose amongst several college financial aid offers. While the FAFSA gives parents a good indication of the federal aid a student is likely to receive, it doesn’t provide them with any foresight into the institutional aid that may be available to them directly from a college. Without the ability to compare offers – -like visitng only one car lot and not checking out the prices down the street– a family may accept a package that might have been more favorable at another insittution.
There are many institutions that don’t offer Early Decision because they believe it favors students who don’t have to worry about their ability to finance an education. This is one reason that Stanford and Yale dropped their Early Decision program beginning with the class of 2008.
Early Action offers many of the same benefits to students as Early Decision, but without constraints. Applicants can find out before winter break where they have been admitted and can still explore other opportunities. Students have time to go back and re-visit schools, as their initial impressions or interests may have changed from a visit during spring of Junior year.
The process is ending now for current high school seniors, but it’s the perfect time for Juniors to begin exploring all of the application programs. Families should be figuring out their financial needs, and students should be carefully researching schools. However, changes in application processes are brewing for next year. Harvard, is reviewing its current admission procedures and is indicating it may change for next year’s applicants. As a leader in the highly selective college application arena, where Harvard goes, other schools will likely follow.