Time to Figure Out Top-College Choices: Early Action and Early Decision

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Early action or early decision?  That should be the question for Baltimore’s rising seniors applying to selective colleges.  Many Baltimore parents are familiar with early action and early decision, especially if one child has already been through the admissions process.  They know applying early means more than turning in application materials by November 1 (the most common early application deadline).  For early decision, it means applying to one school and committing to enrollment if admitted.  Early action, on the other hand, means a students receives an admission decision in December, but can still apply to another institution.

Why apply early action or early decision?  For the average student applying to selective colleges, it makes sense to apply early action to a few places.  If accepted, the student knows earlier that he or she is in college, has a better shot at scholarship money that dwindles as the admission season wears on, and has more time to be considered for admission to honors programs, like the one at UMD College Park For those who are dead-set on a specific college or university, early decision can make sense, too, just make sure it’s what you want.

Applicants to top-50 colleges and universities, however, often face more complex questions in their quest for some advantage in such a competitive admissions environment.  Some deny that applying early helps, but a study conducted by a few Ivy League economics professors, who examined their own and peer institutions, found that applying early makes acceptance 20 percent to 30 percent more likely on average.

Statistics like those compel many families to consider early decision II as a backup plan if  an applicant doesn’t get into his or her first-choice early decision or early action school. Early decision II has the same commitment requirements as regular early decision, but with a later application due date. Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton also offer single-choice early action plans, which effectively restrict students from applying to any other institution’s early application round. Georgetown’s and Boston College’s restrictive early action policy allows applicants to apply to the other schools’ early action round, but prohibits applying early decision elsewhere.  It gets complicated, and a student might find that there are important details you don’t know you don’t know, like the single-choice early action policy doesn’t restrict students from applying to schools like University of Texas, whose regular application deadlines just happen to be early.

What’s interesting is each school’s rationale for having early admissions in the first place.  Although they may not readily admit it, smaller liberal arts colleges use early decision in a fairly obvious way: to secure a solid chunk of students with strong academic numbers. Binding admission gives schools greater control over the quality and size of the incoming class.  Early decision for small liberal arts colleges with limited financial means has therefore become a survival technique. Indeed, the advantage conferred by early decision at some of the smaller schools can be pretty striking.  Top-10 universities with massive endowments, on the other hand, appear to use early decision to ensure strong admission yields, a data point with a significant impact on college rankings.

But what about early action and especially single-choice early action? Why would this extra round of admissions be helpful to colleges without the binding provision?  For Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, it’s still about admission yields: single-choice early action prevents a certain breed of student — very impressive but not quite a shoe-in — from being admitted to a peer university in the early round.  A student with such a profile who successfully applies to Yale single-choice early action probably won’t get into Harvard or Princeton regular decision, which increases the likelihood that he or she attends Yale.  And while there are still students who get into all of the Ivies and similarly ranked schools, it’s becoming harder and harder to be a shoe-in now that elite universities are drawing more talent from across the world.

Some argue that applying early is a bad idea because it puts a student in a more competitive pool of applicants.  If a candidate’s numbers aren’t up to snuff, they argue, apply regular decision.  This is a misconception.  Sure, applicants whose numbers aren’t up to snuff, but have a status that confers a special advantage, like recruited athletes, shouldn’t bother applying.  But an applicant who has strong (but not incredible) GPAs and SAT scores — in the range of accepted averages — has the best shot at admission through early action or early decision.  Otherwise, the student undoubtedly will compete with a more diverse and impressive range of applicants for fewer spots and face the difficult reality that a similar applicant secured his or her spot in the early round.

This post is sponsored content from college admissions counselor and director of Streamline Tutors, Ian Siegel. For college admissions advice catered to your student, contact Ian who specializes in college counseling, test prep, and academic coaching. You can visit his website at StreamlineTutors.com, or contact him directly at [email protected]


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Ian Siegel
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