Early Decision College Applications Glitter Like Gold

By Sam Rosensohn

Applying to college Early Decision is like adding 100 points to your SAT scores, wrote Christopher Avery, the Harvard professor and co-author of The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite.

“We’ve seen quite a bit of research that shows applying early may give you an advantage over students applying during the regular period,” said David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Assn. of College Admission Counseling (NACAC).

But all that glitters isn’t gold. Early Decision comes with strings and the process is less calculable than it appears. Early Decision students tend to have strong academic or athletic profiles; they’re often legacies and the process doesn’t permit them to compare financial packages.

Early Decision is going to be a smart decision for some, unwise for others. Generally, students submit Early Decision applications by mid-November, agree to attend if accepted, and are notified in December.

Phil Mielcarz, director of guidance at Westbrook High School, has been helping students sort out whether to apply early or not for 24 years.

“If there’s any doubt at all about how a school fits that’s a sign that the student is not ready to apply Early Decision,” Mielcarz said.

Mielcarz wisely encourages students to start visiting colleges as early as their sophomore year. This way students and parents can have over a year to fully investigate whether to commit to one school.

“From October to May there can be some big changes of mind,” said Dan Picchioni, a college counselor at Morgan High School.

“We’ve seen kids say six months later, ‘God, this isn’t really what I wanted,’ and they’re committed to that school.”

Susan Paton, director of college counseling at Hopkins School in New Haven, noted that high early decision acceptance rates don’t tell the whole story.

Colleges that defer students who applied Early Decision to the Regular Decision pool often admit the deferred students at a lower percentage rate than students who applied Regular Decision.

“I think the point is with Early Decision you do have something to lose. Students may look better in the regular applicant pool – more time to earn senior grades and take more SAT tests, and, if deferred they actually have lessened their odds,” said Paton.

“Early Decision has its advantages if a student has done his or her homework and visited colleges and arrived at a clear first choice by November,” said Paton, who’s been helping students to prepare for college for the last 29 years.

But she notes that it’s difficult for many students to be crystal clear on where they want to spend the next four years of their lives by the end of October, senior year. “I have noticed among students who want to transfer in a year or two, it’s often the ones who jumped into it a little early.”

There is also a financial downside to applying Early Decision. The process doesn’t leave the opportunity for students to compare offers from other colleges, and revisit with financial aid officers.

Mielcarz encourages the parents of his students to make an appointment with the financial aid office during one of their visits to a prospective early decision school. He notes that parents can then get a better idea of how much money the school has to offer.

“If money is an issue and they don’t meet your financial need then Early Decision is not the best choice,” said Mielcarz, who noted over the last five years that about 75 percent of the Westbrook HS students who applied Early Decision were accepted.

One of the reasons more students nationwide are applying Early Action over Early Decision is because Early Action permits a student to compare financial packages and revisit with financial aid officers.

“Early Action is clearly more student friendly,” said Hawkins, who encourages students to review the NACAC 2004 Guide to Early Decision and Early Action.

The NACAC guide, which can be found at www.nacac.com, asks students who are considering Early Decision to answer these questions:

  • Have I thoroughly researched this college and the other colleges that may interest me?
  • Have I visited this college while classes are in session and met with someone at the admission office?
  • Have I explored my academic, extracurricular and social options at this college?
  • Have I talked to a financial aid officer to get an estimate of college costs and to find out how Early Decision could affect my aid package?
  • Have I discussed this decision with my family and or guidance counselor?
  • Is this a true first choice, or are there other colleges that still interest me?

If a student does decide to apply early, and does need financial aid, he should complete a FAFSA CSS Profile or the college’s institutional form when he completes the application, according to the NACAC Guide.

The college financial aid office can send a tentative financial aid package, according to the guide. Since each college does things a little differently, give the financial aid office or the admission office a call to be certain on how to proceed.

In this case, it’s best to proceed slowly.

Sam Rosensohn is the founder of College Planning Partnerships, which offers prep classes for the SAT and helps students to prepare for college and write college essays. He can be reached in Clinton at 860-664-9857 or at sam@satprepct.com