Oct 6, 2014

Everything you need to know about applying early

Notre Dame changed to "Restrictive" Early Action this year

With each passing year, the college admission process gets just a little more complicated.  Colleges adjust the rules, add new rules, or completely ignore the rules.

And admissions offices don’t always send out press releases when they change direction or slightly alter a practice that’s been in place for decades. 

They expect applicants and those who advise them to keep current on several thousand different combinations and permutations of deadlines, test score requirements, reporting do’s and don’ts, and most bothersome of all, early admission policies.

At last count, there are no less than seven different ways a student may apply and be admitted to college early. And schools use these policies to accomplish many different objectives most of which align well with enrollment management goals but don’t necessarily support sound decision-making on the part of the applicant.

Schools that fill almost 50 percent of their classes early or those that show a clear bias toward early applicants are exerting incredible pressure on high school students who are making some of the most important decisions of their lives.

And some high school seniors are more equipped to make those decisions than others.  But the system doesn’t care if the applicant has lingering doubts or evolving thoughts about what to study and how much debt to incur.  It just moves on.

In fact, the system doesn’t seem to care too much if a family can’t afford certain options or hasn’t had time to study what it means to be locked into a binding contract.  It just asks for a family to “trust” that their needs and concerns will be addressed.  It will all work out, and everyone will be happy.

But judging from high rates of transfer, disturbing tales of debt and increased need for on-campus psychiatric services, this doesn’t always appear to be the case.

This time of year, families are forced by the tangle of early admission policies to make hard choices.  They have to balance admissions strategies with financial issues and the reality of colleges more concerned about improving yield and moving up on the US News ranking than allowing students the freedom to make well-considered decisions.

There’s an argument that these decisions have to be made some time.  And if it helps a college meet goals and achieve stability in enrollment and finances, why not move deadlines up a few months?

And so we have.  With each year, the process undergoes subtle deadline creep as early plans mutate or change and colleges exert pressure with offers of superior housing or limited scholarships. 

As you grapple with the competing pressures of making a reasoned decision and falling into the early trap, here are the seven ways to be early:

Early Decision I
Early Decision I(ED I) is a binding commitment on the part of the applicant to attend a particular college if admitted.  This means that if you get in, you must enroll unless the college does not meet your financial needs.  And if you don’t check the little box indicating you need financial aid, your sole condition for breaking the contract may be nullified. This is not an option for the faint of heart.  It represents a contractual obligation with potentially serious repercussions if broken. 

You should consider only applying ED I if you are 100 percent, absolutely certain that the school represents a good fit for you—academically, socially, and financially.  Using ED I to boost likelihood of admission is a tricky proposition. While it’s the ultimate demonstration of interest, ED I will not usually push a “reach” candidacy over the top.  In other words, if your credentials are far out of line with the norm, it’s highly unlikely that applying ED I will make too much of a difference and you might invite an early denial. On the other hand, if your credentials are at or above stated averages, your clear statement of interest and desire to attend could make a difference.

In addition to being committed and being well- or extremely well-qualified, you must be organized and prepared to meet early deadlines usually starting on November 1. And you should be on top of your game grade wise by the end of junior year, as those are the marks most likely to be considered for ED (although some colleges with ED I policies are now asking for first quarter grades). Note that you may apply under however many qualifying Early Action (EA) and Regular Decision (RD) plans as you wish.  BUT, you must withdraw all those other applications once you receive an offer of admission, usually before the end of December.

Examples of colleges that offer only ED I this year (2014-15)include Amherst, Brown, Carnegie Mellon, College of the Holy Cross, Duke, Flagler, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Penn, Rochester, Syracuse, Williams, and Washington University in St. Louis.

Early Decision II
Early Decision II (ED II) is a relatively recent “boutique” addition to the early admission game.  It is gaining in popularity as colleges see this plan as a way to scoop up disappointed early applicants or students who genuinely could not make a binding commitment by the end of October.  The latter group might be students who started late, were uncertain about options, changed their minds, or those who want to show admissions folks strong grades and other accomplishments early in senior year and need a little time to earn them.

Not surprisingly, ED II has all the restrictions of ED I—it is a binding commitment and once you’re in, you must attend.  But the deadlines are usually such that it avoids some of the other entanglements of Early Action with strings attached (restricted and single-choice).  And it typically gets applicants a decision early in the process thereby eliminating months of anxiety and uncertainty.

While ED II does show demonstrated interest, it’s not as strong a signal as ED I.   Again, students should not make the mistake of believing ED II will make up for a record that suggests the school is a “reach.”

For some applicants, ED II changes the stakes by providing an application alternative in cases where the student has been denied or deferred in an ED I or a restricted early action process. Some see it as a way to counter disappointment and possibly increase odds of admission to a close second choice college which may be almost as desirable as the first.

Examples of colleges that offer ED II include Allegheny College, American, Bowdoin, Brandeis, Bucknell, Carleton, Claremont McKenna, Colgate, Gettysburg, Harvey Mudd, Drew, Emory, NYU, Lafayette, Macalester, Pomona, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Tufts, Union College, Vassar, and Richmond.

Early Action I
Under Early Action I (EA I), a student applies sometime between October 15 and December 1, and receives a nonbinding admission decision by the middle of December or as late as by the end of January.  If admitted, the student has no obligation to attend—only to advise the college of a decision by May 1.

EA I plans are great for getting an early read on your application and are most beneficial for students who are organized enough to complete all application requirements by deadlines, have taken necessary tests, and have solid junior year grades.  If your grades have been steadily improving and your application could benefit by including first semester accomplishments, you may want to consider EA II or Regular Decision.

Applying EA I demonstrates some interest.  Typically, colleges find that EA yields are lower than ED, so when available, ED is a stronger indication of interest.  These days, relatively few colleges just offer EA I.  Most have gone to more of a menu approach and allow students to choose from several different options.

Examples of colleges only offering EA I include Butler, Cal Tech, Chapman, DePaul, Eckerd, Emerson, Fordham, Gonzaga, Guilford, Hope, MIT, Monmouth, Oglethorpe, Providence, Salve Regina, Southwestern University, and Villanova.

Early Action II
First cousin to EA I, Early Action II (EA II)offers all the same benefits of an early read, but allows students to take a little extra time visiting colleges, developing college lists, preparing applications, and improving credentials—scores, grades, resume.  Deadlines can run from as early as November 15 all the way up to end of February. Like EA I, EA II is a non-binding commitment and students have until May 1 to make final decisions and pay deposits.

Examples of college offering EA II include Augsburg, Austin College, College of St. Benedict, Drexel, Green Mountain College, Hendrix, Hofstra, Knox, St. John’s College (MD and NM), Notre Dame of Maryland,

Single-Choice Early Action
The few colleges that offer Single-Choice Early Action (SCEA) have quietly changed definitions and evolved their policies so that they are fairly consistent across colleges.  Not so the name however.  Harvard and Stanford refer to their plan as “restrictive,” while Yale, Tulane and Princeton use single-choice.

Under this plan, an applicant agrees not apply to any other private college/university under an EA, REA, SCEA, or ED I program. Typical exceptions include colleges with early deadlines for scholarships or special academic programs (as long as the decision is nonbinding), colleges outside the US, a public college or university whose admission is not binding, a nonbinding rolling admission program or an ED II program if notification of admission occurs after that of the SCEA college.

Because some of the exceptions may be nuanced, applicants are advised to read all instructions very carefully and ask questions when unsure.  Under SCEA, students are under no obligation to attend and have until May 1 to make final decisions.  Applying SCEA demonstrates some interest and commitment, but the colleges offering this plan aren’t those that ordinarily care.  This policy is more designed to protect yield by barring students from simultaneously applying to the nation’s top colleges under a series of competing nonbinding plans.

Restricted Early Action
Only three colleges (so far) use this spin-off on SCEA, and at least one is publicly debating whether the term “restricted” is good for marketing purposes and refuses to be listed as “restricted” on the Common Application.  Under Restricted Early Action (REA), students may not apply to any binding ED programs that would prevent them from accepting an offer of admission if one were made. That’s it. They are welcome to apply to other EA programs or other RD programs (and maybe some ED II programs).  And while these schools would have no problem with a student applying simultaneously to a SCEA school, the SCEA policy effectively restricts them from applying to both. 

Colleges currently offering REA are Boston College, Georgetown University, and the University of Notre Dame.

Rolling Admission
Technically there is no application deadline under rolling admission. Typically used by less selective colleges and universities, this plan allows applicants to submit applications virtually any time or at least until the class fills.  And applications are evaluated and decided upon as they are received. If lucky, applicants may get their decisions within a matter of weeks—as early as September or October.  Less qualified students, however, may find their decisions come more slowly as the college assesses the candidate’s credentials relative to the larger applicant pool.  Sometimes the applicant is asked to provide additional or updated information, and sometimes the final decision aligns more with an RD timeline.  And as the class fills up, applicants may find the admissions bar gets higher.

As you consider various early options, keep in mind that Regular Decision offers important practical advantages.  You will have more time to complete various application components including all essay and personal statement requirements.  You may also want to consider whether an extra semester could be beneficial to your application for whatever reason—raise grades, take an extra ACT or SAT, add to your resume.  Don’t rush if it’s not going to benefit the case you’re making for admission.

And more importantly, don’t rush if you’re feeling uncomfortable or conflicted about the decision.  Life’s too short to play these games.

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