Early Decision Is Not Just for the Wealthy


Question: I am going to be a senior in the fall and probably valedictorian at a small high school in the Midwest. I am very interested in Haverford College, outside of Philadelphia. Since Haverford is my first choice, I want to apply under the binding Early Decision option, but my family is low-income and cannot afford to send me there. My guidance counselor said it's a really bad idea to apply ED since I will need to compare financial aid offers in April. Haverford is my dream, so do you think I'm stupid to try for ED?

No! You didn't get to be valedictorian by being stupid, and likewise, you are not stupid to apply ED to Haverford. In fact, you would probably be very smart to do so unless you spot any of the caution signs that “The Dean" will get to in a minute down below.

As high school seniors don their graduation gowns and juniors enter the college admissions maze, 'tis the season for The Dean to once again point out that discouraging strong but low-income students from applying Early Decision to top-choice colleges based on finances alone is bad advising. Typically, the most expensive, most selective schools (like Haverford) also have the most money to give away. And the admission folks are most eager to give that money to students who really want to be there. So what better way to show your love than with your willingness to forsake all others if admitted?

And you even get an escape clause! When a student applies to any binding Early Decision program but also applies for financial aid, the student is allowed to bail out of the ED commitment without penalty if the financial aid offer isn't adequate. And it's you (and your family) who get to decide how “adequate" is defined ... not the college. The only rub is that, if you are accepted at Haverford via ED but your aid offer seems insufficient, you must say “no thanks" promptly. You can appeal the aid award right away but you should have a final answer sometime in January. You can't wait until your other verdicts arrive in the spring before notifying Haverford of your choice.

At most colleges, there can be a significant difference between the Early and Regular Decision acceptance rates ... one that clearly favors the ED applicants. Many college folks try to brush off these glaring discrepancies by suggesting that the early birds tend to be more qualified overall, which bumps up their acceptance odds. But some admission folks are willing to candidly concede that they want the students who want them. Haverford, in particular, is a fine school, but in many circles it's not as well-known as its competitors, which include Ivy League universities such as Brown and Yale, and small, elite liberal arts institutions like Amherst and Williams.

So an ED application to Haverford is a love letter that proclaims, “Never mind those big guys. I want YOU!" No wonder Haverford takes almost half of its Early Decision candidates but accepts fewer than 20 percent overall. Of course, the fact that you're first in your graduating class will work in your favor, too. Colleges like to boast about the number of valedictorians who enroll, and they collect them as if they were Pokémon cards ;-) (Spellcheck knew just where to put the accent in “Pokémon." The Dean is truly baffled by modern technology!)

In addition, small but highly selective colleges like Haverford don't have a ton of room for students who apply without “hooks." (Hooks go to recruited athletes, underrepresented minority students, children of prominent alumni and other VIPs in the universe in general, etc.) So an Early Decision application is the ideal way for an unhooked student to stand out in the crowd.

Each year, The Dean feels compelled to tell guidance counselors everywhere that, contrary to a prevailing myth, Early Decision is not for rich kids only. In fact, at need-conscious colleges (places where a student's financial requirements are considered before admission decisions are finalized ... which means most colleges, although not Haverford), it can be an even bigger advantage for high-need students to apply Early Decision. Colleges prefer to earmark the major bucks from their financial aid budgets for applicants who are sure-things in the ED round rather than for those in the regular pool who may not show up in September.

So what are those “caution signs" that Early Decision may NOT be right for you?

- Will you take out significant loans (more than $5,000-6,000 per year) to attend? Although you call your family “low-income," have you done any legwork to estimate the amount of financial assistance you're likely to receive at Haverford? If so, does it seem realistic? Note that Haverford, like many of its snazzy peer institutions, offers excellent need-based aid but no “merit aid." Haverford promises to meet 100 percent of student need, but sometimes what you think you need and what the college believes you require are not congruent. Thus, before you forge ahead with your ED plans, you and your parents should play around with the Haverford online Net Price Calculator. This will give you a ballpark sense of what your annual costs will be. Use your NPC results as a rough guide, not as gospel truth. But if your family's financial picture is full of extenuating circumstances (e.g., a recent major job loss, a disabled parent or sibling, etc.), the NPC figures might be misleading. So you should contact the Haverford financial aid office directly to ask for an “early read" from a financial aid official who may be willing to give you a sense of whether your Haverford dream will be affordable.

- Was 11th grade your weakest so far, and do you want a better start in 12th before colleges see your transcript?

- Are your SAT/ACT scores below the college's median range, but you won't be able to re-test until November or even December?

- Have you found that, as the application deadline looms, you're not as excited about your ED college as you initially were but feel that you should apply early mainly for “strategic" reasons?

Answering “yes" to any of these questions could be a compelling reason to forego an ED bid. But if you don't see any warning flags here, then it's fine (actually wise) to overlook your guidance counselor's insistence that ED isn't right for you. However, you should be careful to do so diplomatically. After all, this counselor — whose advice you're ignoring — is the one who will be writing your recommendation!


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