Preparing for College

ED I, ED II ... Skidoo

Question: Some of my son's friends are plotting an Early Decision strategy that entails applying to a first-choice college in the Early Decision I round. Then if they are deferred (not even denied outright) they plan to apply to a second-choice college in the ED II round without ever knowing if they might have gotten into their first choice. Is this legal? Ethical? What do you think about it?

This ED I/ED II gambit has been around for a while, and I've seen it in action many times. Frankly, I'm a fan ... at least in some cases. Although conventional wisdom suggests that a student should only apply via a binding Early Decision program when he or she has a clear-cut top-choice college, I actually find that many seniors have several colleges where they're convinced they will be happy and engaged. So ... I don't think it's unreasonable to select one of these schools as the top-choice candidate for the first round of Early Decision but, then, if the news isn't good, to give the second choice a shot in the ED II round, rather than waiting for a final verdict from the #1 school in April.


First the pluses:

Early Decision, whether it's Round I or Round II, typically boosts admission odds, sometimes really significantly. It's the old bird-in-hand-theory. That is, colleges are more apt to say yes to borderline applicants in an ED round, knowing that they are committed to enroll.

Sometimes, at "need-conscious" colleges, borderline ED applicants who need significant money will be admitted and aided, while similar Regular Decision applicants with comparable financial need may not make the final cut.

Even though ED II students usually have to apply to other colleges (because ED II decisions won't be issued until after many Regular Decision deadlines have passed), it can still take the heat off of senior year to get good news in February while classmates are sweating bullets over spring outcomes.

Now ... the drawbacks:

Students who are deferred from first-choice colleges in December and then admitted via ED II to second-choice schools may spend the rest of their lives roaming the planet and muttering lines from "The Road Not Taken," as they wonder what might have been. So, I recommend that only those who find little difference in their passion for their ED I and ED II colleges should follow this route.

Sometimes--though not always--colleges with merit aid don't make their best offers to "sure-thing" ED applicants, hoping instead to reel in some big but undecided fish in the spring. So if students who are counting on non-need-based aid are rejected or deferred from a "dream college" in the fall, it may make sense to skip the next round of ED in order to compare aid offers in April.

Legal, Ethical ... and Effective:

Overall, although students who play the ED I/ED II game may be subject to criticism for their fickle hearts, I've actually seen many happy endings that resulted from this ploy. Students must keep in mind, however, that if the ED II school is their own second choice but is equally selective as the ED I school that already said "No" or "Not now," then more bad news may be in the offing. (But, given the sometimes-capricious nature of the admissions process, this isn't always true.) The savviest students (and parents) typically ratchet down their sights when applying to the ED II college following an ED I denial or deferral.

Some of the winning combinations I've seen in recent years include:

Bowdoin (deferred ED I); Bates (admitted ED II)

Middlebury (deferred ED I); Hamilton (admitted, ED II)

Washington U. in St. Louis (deferred ED I); Emory (admitted ED II)

U. of Richmond (deferred ED I); Hobart and William Smith (admitted ED II)

Dartmouth (rejected ED I ... makes it easier to pick an ED II school); Colgate (admitted ED II)

Once a student has been deferred by an ED I college, it is completely legal and ethical to apply elsewhere ... even via a binding option. The signed commitment to the ED I school will vaporize once the ink has dried on the deferral notice.

My greatest reservation about this strategy is that sometimes I see students who hastily select an ED II college on the heels of an ED I rejection, much as a scorned lover may jump into a bad rebound relationship too quickly. Since many colleges don't offer an ED II round (and some have no Early options at all), students can sometimes talk themselves into the schools that do, even if they're not the most suitable matches.

Yet, more and more, I'm seeing students--perhaps like your son's friends--who are plotting out their EDI/II choices from the get-go, and as soon as they spot the words "We're sorry ... " on their first Early decision, they're hitting the "Submit" button for a second try.