The Early Decision Bird Gets the Worm

by Eliot Applestein


In the spring of 2002, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill threw down the gauntlet to other nationally ranked universities. They would drop binding early decision (ED), in which an applicant agrees to attend if accepted, for non-binding early action (EA). "We want to encourage students to approach their education seriously,” said Chancellor James Moeser.  “Not by using strategy.  We hope to contribute to a national climate that encourages thoughtful choice."

Three years later, only two other schools have exchanged early decision for early action: Beloit and Mary Washington.  The ‘national climate,’ in fact, has gone the opposite direction and universities are wallowing in a hurly burly whirl of “early” words. To further churn the brew, Yale, Harvard, and Stanford moved to “single-choice” early action. It’s non-binding but you cannot apply early anywhere else. So confusing is the present climate that all many high school students know is that they better apply to college in the same timeframe in which they go to school in the morning—early.

Kameko Jacobs, a  senior at Blake High School in Silver Spring, who is considering applying ED to Oberlin says, “I want to know before April. It would give me second semester to relax and I wouldn’t have to worry anymore.”

“I talked to my friend who applied to Northwestern regular decision two years ago,” says classmate Kelly Durkin, “And she didn’t get in because she felt she didn’t apply ED and she has similar credentials to me. That’s the reason I’m going ED.”   

Early decision was initially a way for students who were passionate about one college to get the arduous process over with quickly. As competition has heated up, however, others now see it as a strategic way to get a leg up on the competition in the same way that frantic house buyers are foregoing inspections.

I’m concerned that students are throwing aside good college fit, negotiating power for scholarships, and time for thoughtful consideration, in exchange for blessed assurance that they’re in at an elite college.

Students accepted ED are clearly at a monetary disadvantage. Carnegie Mellon University states upfront, “We are open to negotiating financial awards to compete with other institutions for students who applied during the regular decision time period.”

But the pressure of going ED, especially when you know others may take your slot can be overwhelming.

Last fall, Walt Whitman senior Becca Orrick decided early on that early decision was her best shot at college. She decided early decision for Middlebury, changed her mind to Grinnell, and then changed her mind to Macalaster, where she spent the night and realized that, “It was too uptight at an east coast school” and that “a midwest school was more my thing.”

Using her school’s college tracking software, Orrick could survey the horse race to get into Macalaster. She noted that more Whitman students were applying each year—five in 2004, and 12 for the fall 2005 class. Early decision, she figured, would give her a jump.

She and two other Whitman students were accepted. Did going early decision propel her application into the accepted pile? Statistics say yes.

I know one independent consultant who advises his clients to play what I call “early decision roulette.” This is how it works. First he instructs students to take all of their SAT tests before June of their junior year (In my opinion, not a good idea since they lose the extra time to prepare for the SAT II exams that correspond to their current high school courses) so they have SAT results for the first round of early admissions mania. Then he has them choose ED schools that have overlapping deadlines. For example, Penn ED is Nov. 1 with notification by Dec. 15. If they don't get accepted, then they can apply to a school like Colgate which has a second round of ED with a deadline of Jan. 15. Yes, this method increases your odds that you will get accepted somewhere, and may appeal to the status seeking (since both schools are highly ranked) but it overlooks that crucial factor: fit. The teenager attracted to an urban school of over 9,000—Penn—may not fit so happily into a very isolated rural setting with 2,700 students—Colgate.        

An orthodox Jewish student I worked with was unable to commit early to Penn, even though this was a great school for her. While I knew the risks in applying regular to Penn, I supported my client’s desire not to commit too early. She was a typical 17 year-old who needed more time to synthesize the options. In her case, like that of other orthodox students I work with, the issue of fit was crucial to her decision. There are only so many schools with full kosher meal plans, vibrant Hillels and orthodox services. She applied regular and was rejected by Penn, but  was admitted to Washington University and Honors at University of Michigan, where she will attend after a year in Israel.                                                 

Nevertheless, given the present situation, I reluctantly counsel many students to consider early decision if they are sure about the college and getting in is the priority. Elite colleges have made it practically impossible to do otherwise. The University of Pennsylvania admits 46% of its incoming freshman class early decision with acceptance rates of 34% for those applying ED, while admitting 18% of students applying regular. One needs only look at early decision acceptance rates at other competitive universities to see the trend: Cornell 44% (27% regular), Emory 60% (30% regular), Hopkins 59% (29% regular), GW 63% (36% regular), NYU 42% (34% regular).

Applying early decision to elite colleges improves one’s odds by as much as 50% over regular admissions, according to recent research by Avery, Fairbanks, and Zechauser highlighted in their book, The Early Admissions Game.  This was comparable to an extra 100 points on the SAT.

For students early action, which allows them to hear early without a binding commitment, is clearly favorable. For colleges, it’s a different story. Most private institutions one step down from the Ivies are making policy decisions based on money and bond ratings.

“This past summer, I met with the bond rating agencies,” says William Conley, Dean of Enrollment and Academic Services at Johns Hopkins. Conley sets admissions policy at Hopkins. “We have 11 applicants for every one spot and the bond rating agencies are factoring what your strength quota is. If you’re a school that, for every enrolled kid you’re only getting three applications, then you’re on a very tight margin. …I said, ‘OK here’s the scoop. We only enroll 32% of those who are admitted and before you rush off and lower our bond rating, let me show you where they go if they don’t go here [the Ivies]. And let me show you the SAT scores of those who do come here.’”

Conley uses the University of Pennsylvania as an example. “There was a time when Penn was not viewed on the same par as the other Ivies. They really built a lot of their current success on a decision they made a long time ago to push early decision. And they proved in the long run that those ED kids keep getting academically better and better.”

So what lesson does Conley give to all of us sending high schoolers off to college?

“There’s the practical and there’s the tactical,” he notes. He should know.  He just sent his son off to Davidson College in North Carolina.  Conley quizzed him about his interest since a lot of schools were recruiting him for their swim teams.  “Are your sure? What happens if you have an incredible season and all these other different places are open to you?” 

But his son was sold on Davidson—early decision.