Preparing for College

Early Decision or Early Action? How Do We Choose?

Question: My daughter has a well balanced list of 10 colleges. How do we decide if she applies Early Action or Early Decision? I keep reading that we must have a "strategy." But what does that mean, and how do we decide between EA and ED?

Yes, unfortunately, there does seem to be a lot of "strategizing" going on these days when making application plans, and the advice I give my counseling clients varies greatly depending on their assorted goals, finances, etc.

The key point to keep in mind is that applying Early DECISION usually provides a boost in admission odds--sometimes a significant one. Colleges tend to operate on the old "bird in hand vs. two in the bush" theory. That is, they will often admit a strong but not extraordinary applicant whom they know will enroll for sure rather than holding out for Teen Jeopardy winners and published novelists who may not matriculate if admitted ... or who may not apply at all. When I worked in a college admission office, we rated our applicants on a 1 to 10 scale (with 1 at the top). During the Early Decision round, we often admitted 7's. During the Regular round, some 5's and most 6's didn't make it.

Early Action, on the other hand, rarely provides that same advantage. After all, why should the college save space for an applicant who may not show up in September unless that applicant is extremely strong and the school wants to curry favor with good news in December?

But it can be a cat and mouse game for sure. For instance, should a student apply to a long-shot dream college via Early Decision with the hope that the ED boost will make a difference, or is that student "wasting" the ED chit on an impossible dream? I've often seen kids apply to a long-shot school in November and then, if deferred, to try the Early Decision 2 round (which many schools now offer, typically with a Jan. 1 deadline) at a somewhat less competitive second-choice college rather than waiting for better news from the first-choice college in April.

Despite the somewhat annoying level of gamesmanship involved, this can be a good plan for students who are wavering between two colleges, with one clearly more selective than the next.

I also have advisees who apply to both an EA school (or several) plus one ED college. They understand that, if admitted to the ED school, they must commit (unless the financial aid offer precludes it). Read Web site instructions carefully. A handful of colleges forbid concurrent EA and ED applications.

Moreover, ANY type of early application can be a bad bet for a student who had an uncharacteristically weak junior year or whose junior test scores are likely to improve in twelfth grade. Students who need to compare financial aid options (typically middle-class kids hoping for merit awards ... not the well-heeled or truly disadvantaged) should often give up the pluses of ED in favor of the chance to choose among a range of aid offers.

In addition, some students are simply not ready to pick one college by November and to say, "For this school I will forsake all others." This is why EA programs are increasingly more popular--they don't require a commitment (but, of course, they don't provide any real admissions advantage either, except for, perhaps, some peace of mind by December, which is an advantage indeed).

So, unfortunately, there are no easy answers to your question. I counsel my advisees about early application options on a case-by-case basis, depending on their top college choices, my assessment of their admission chances at those schools, their finances, and other factors.

You and your daughter will have to review her list and decide if she wants to make an ED commitment to a school on that list that offers it. If one of her top choices is something of a reach, but not a high reach, if your finances don't require a careful weighing of options in April, and if you feel that your daughter's junior grades are representative of her abilities, then ED might be a good bet for her.

Unlike the conventional wisdom that suggests that a student should only apply ED if she has a clear-cut first-choice college, I tend to feel that if a student has SEVERAL schools where she knows she can be happy and engaged, it might make sense to roll the dice, select one of these colleges, and get the whole mess over before Santa hits the skyways. But some admission folks are horrified that any student would be counseled to say "I do" without true love.