Early Decision Comments by Sally Rubenstone

Early Decision: College Experts Forum
Comments from Sally Rubenstone

by Sally Rubenstone
Senior College Counselor and Contributing Editor,
Admission Counselor, Smith College

Having a first-choice college isn't always
a prerequisite for an Early Decision application.

Remember that old joke about the kid who was an unflagging optimist? His parents worried that his insistence on seeing only the bright side of life might trip him up some day. So one Christmas, instead of buying the usual mountain of presents, they filled the family rumpus room with horse manure and hay. Needless to say, their delighted child's shouts of joy perplexed them, as he pirouetted around the stinking cellar. "Thanks Mom and Dad," the gleeful boy effused. "I know there must be a pony in here somewhere!"

So, what's that have to do with Early Decision? Read on.

Most admission experts are quick to insist that students should apply via Early Decision only if one college stands head and shoulders above the rest. They advise against the increasingly prevalent tendency to proclaim, "I'm applying early . somewhere."

For years I endorsed this conventional wisdom myself. (In fact, I said exactly that in a book that won't even hit store shelves until September.) But lately, I've had a change of heart. Instead of focusing so much on what's best for the general public-those masses of nameless, faceless students out there with enviable GPAs, SATs, and résumés full of Key Club projects, swimming trophies, and Model U.N. triumphs-I am reflecting more on my own erstwhile experiences (albeit three-plus decades ago) and realizing along the way that some of today's applicants might be a lot like me.

I was that pony kid-or could have been (and probably still am). I'm stalwartly optimistic, easy to please, and quick to overlook flaws in people and places. I was also a very busy high school student-at least by late-sixties standards. I took tough classes and earned top grades in a demanding school. I played three sports, served on several committees, co-founded the bumbling cheerleading squad (okay, I do cringe a bit when I remember that one), held a part-time job, and spent more than 15 hours a week tutoring in three different inner-city schools-back in the days before community service was a household term and application imperative.

I was excited about the admission process and, by the summer before twelfth grade, had a windowsill piled high with catalogues. Most of them came from women's colleges in New England: Wellesley, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Wheaton (before its coed days) and Pembroke (then the female counterpart to Brown). But I realized that, in order to thoroughly explore every school on my list, to add new ones to the mix, to register for and retake standardized tests, and to fill out countless forms, I would add an enormous amount of stress to an already overloaded senior year.

I decided that I'd probably be happy at any of the institutions I'd explored to date and was determined to pick one and apply early. A swing through New England with Mom and Dad confirmed for me that, indeed, I could thrive at all of the places I'd seen. Each offered an enticing range of courses and majors, an attractive campus, diverse extracurricular opportunities, and a claim of caring, sharing faculty who were ready to teach and guide me. I probably selected Smith as the best of the bunch because I saw it on a particularly beautiful day and with an especially eager tour guide. (Weather and guides are still among the top reasons that some colleges make the final cut and others fall by the wayside.) But was it a dream school? An unchallenged favorite in an ocean of also-rans? Definitely not. It was one of many, many places where I felt I could be challenged and content.

So, I completed only one application, didn't take a single SAT in my senior year, and before Thanksgiving (ED decisions came sooner in those days), I knew that I'd been admitted to Smith and could devote my final high school year to really relishing my classes (well, most of them) and extracurricular pursuits. I managed to avoid much of the admission frenzy that I witnessed my friends enduring all the way until springtime.

Today, demands on high school students tend to be far greater than they were 30 years ago. Classes are often harder, and students take more of them (I didn't know anyone with four or five APs); debate clubs don't just compete across town but in foreign countries; trombonists play in state and national symphonies, not merely in local marching bands. And, for a growing number of families, the pressure of the college admission process has spiraled out of control.

Hence my change of heart: For some students (perhaps many) there are going to be dozens of colleges that are "the perfect one." Thus for those who are apt to be well adjusted, easy to please, and comfortable in new situations, Early Decision should be considered a sensible option, even if there isn't a clear-cut first-choice school. There may be several institutions that seem equally attractive. Parents and their progeny could spend months and months splitting hairs over which has a better biology department or stronger study-abroad program, or they could decide instead to pick one, send in the requisite stuff, and-if the news is good in December-put the effort (and anxiety) that would otherwise dog them until April into an enjoyable and enriching senior year.

Critics of Early Decision often complain that autumn is simply too soon for a 17-year-old to make an important choice. This, of course, is frequently true (though some of these same kids are no better prepared in January or May!). But for students who know early on what they're looking for, who get a jump start on the process in the junior year, whose junior test scores and grades fit the bill at target colleges, and who, above all, are generally upbeat about whatever situation they find themselves in (think of that pony guy), I contend that it may not be as important as admission insiders insist (including me-up until now) to only choose ED if there's a college love affair in progress.

Conversely, those who should not apply ED are students who:

1. had an especially bad junior year or who have a record that's clearly still rising,

2. tested below expectations the first time around and are willing to take some measures to improve scores,

3. have little or no clue where they want to be or haven't yet explored many options,

4. tend to be picky and fault-finding, or

5. are interested in diverse schools that may, in turn, offer diverse financial aid packages.

Yes, financial aid can be a sticky wicket in ED. However, keep in mind that if a child is applying to similar colleges with similar aid philosophies, (such as all those schools on my long-ago list) then an ED application will probably have minimal impact on an aid package. (Consider setting up phone appointments with financial aid folks at target colleges before ED deadlines and get a ballpark sense of where you'll stand.) Sometimes, having a rough idea of what sort of assistance is available-and whether merit aid is offered to ED candidates-will help with decisions. Rumors abound that colleges don't typically offer their best $$ deals to students they've pegged as sure things. This can be true, but financial aid packages are somewhat negotiable, and colleges don't want to lose candidates they've admitted early due to money matters. If an aid package awarded to an ED applicant isn't sufficient, be certain to appeal it before turning down the offer of admission.

There are myriad pluses and minuses to Early Decision, and it would take more space than I have here to explore them all. Recently I bought a laptop (yes, I've jumped from colleges to computers). It began as a daunting experience. I knew what I wanted (basically, little more than the chance to check e-mail, complete writing assignments, and park my son in front of an occasional DVD in motel rooms) but suddenly I found myself up to my eyeballs in catalogues and Web-page printouts, obsessing over differences in RAM and GHz and XGA, and things I didn't understand in the first place. Finally, a wise friend assured me that I should just buy a computer I liked, from a company with a good reputation, at a price I could afford, and not worry so much about what else was out there that I might be overlooking.

And that's more or less how I picked my college. I knew what I wanted. I spent some time doing research (but wasn't consumed by it, either), and recognized that, because I'm usually pretty easy to please, I'd most likely be satisfied with my choice. And I was.

Most of all, I'm delighted that I had a high school experience that wasn't tainted by unnecessary pressure. I have the Early Decision option to thank for that. Sure, they are days when I look back and wonder how my life would be different if I'd gone to Stanford or Swarthmore, Connecticut College or Cornell, but we all reflect at times on those roads not taken. And besides, knowing me, I'm sure I would have been happy pretty much anywhere I ended up.

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Sally Rubenstone is the senior college counselor and a contributing editor at She is also an admission counselor at Smith College and the co-author of several admission guidebooks, including Panicked Parent's Guide to College Admissions (Petersons, September 2002).