Should I Apply Early Decision or Wait for Higher SAT Scores?

Question: I am an international student (Canada) who wants to apply to top liberal arts schools in the US. I have an SAT score of 1480/1600. Should I apply early decision or re-take the SAT (to improve my score) and apply regular decision?

This question is a no-brainer for “The Dean!" YES, YES, YES! Early Decision is the RIGHT decision for you—and for almost everyone—provided that:

-You have chosen a college that you really want to attend. It doesn't even have to be your absolute do-or-die first choice, as long as it's one of several places where you know you'd be delighted to enroll.

-Your junior grades were typical of your overall GPA. As an Early Decision candidate, you won't have a chance to submit a full semester of senior-year work, so ED could be a not-so-hot idea if your junior grades weren't up to par.

-You aren't depending on merit aid to pay for college. Many colleges don't make their best merit-scholarship offers to ED applicants (even if they insist otherwise) because admission folks know that an ED candidate is already a sure-thing, so they want to save their merit money to woo the undecided. In addition, the biggest merit bucks sometimes aren't doled out until March, when it's too late to back out of an ED commitment if the merit dough is insufficient.

But, perhaps surprisingly, if you are aiming for NEED-based aid, Early Decision can be the smart move, especially for international students. When an applicant is admitted to an ED college but not offered adequate aid, it's okay to withdraw from the “binding" ED agreement with no penalty, as long as this is done promptly. (And YOU, the candidate, get to decide what “adequate" means.) If you plan to apply for need-based aid as an international student, you will find that the bar may be set higher for you than it is for domestic applicants or for international applicants who are not seeking aid. While some institutions treat Canadians like domestic students for aid purposes, you can expect that, at most colleges, the admission process will be extra challenging for any international student requiring financial aid. So you want to give yourself every possible advantage, and an ED application is one of them.

Moreoever, in order to build a diverse class, most colleges also put a limit on the number of applicants admitted from each country outside the US, whether these applicants are asking for aid or not. So you would be wise to get “first dibs" on a favorite school via ED rather than wait until the Regular Decision round when other Canadians may have beaten you to the “Accepted" pile.

Re the SAT re-take issue: Your scores, while not perfect, are certainly quite good and won't take you out of the running at any U.S. college. But this doesn't have to be an either/or situation. “"The Dean" suggests that you go ahead and apply to an Early Decision college but also sign up for the October SAT, if you are convinced that you can boost your scores. If you aren't, stick with the current ones. They're fine. (And if you took any Subject Tests or AP exams, high scores in these areas will complement your already-good SAT's, and might provide another reason to skip the re-test.)

If you do sign up for the October SAT, you should receive your scores online before the ED deadlines, and then you can decide if you want your ED college to see them. If so, order a score report right away. Even if the college doesn't get the report until shortly after the ED deadline, your new scores will still be considered if they show up pretty much any time in November. You can also ask your school counselor to fax or email your October scores to your ED college. Although you will still have to follow up with an “official" Score Report from The College Board, admission committees will most likely consider these unofficial ones if they come from your high school and not straight from you.

The top liberal arts colleges are typically small, and their admission officials will usually select students who are not only excellent academically but who will fill some OTHER niche on campus as well … especially athletes and underrepresented minorities. Thus, if that's not you, you may find that there are woefully few spots in the first-year class for candidates who are strong but not head-spinning. So Early Decision provides a great way for what I call the “Average Outstanding Kid" to get a foot in the door before that door slams shut in the spring.