Should you apply Early Decision?

As I’ve been talking to clients and other 12th-grade students lately, Early Decision keeps coming up. Whether or not to apply E.D. is a difficult choice for a lot of people. While I’m generally more “pro-E.D.” than a lot of other advisors, that enthusiasm is tempered with a number of reservations. So let’s go over some of the reasons to apply Early Decision, and also some of the reasons not to. (Remember, E.D. is the “binding” early application process. You can read more about it, including why schools even offer E.D., here.)

Reasons to apply E.D.

You would definitely go there if you were accepted. A lot of the times we overthink E.D. It doesn’t have to be your “dream school” or a place you’ve been researching for the past seven years. Applying Early Decision is essentially telling a university “If you accept me, then I will definitely enroll.” That’s it. So for a lot of high school students, the question really ought not be “will you apply E.D.?” but “to which school will you apply E.D.?” If you’ve been doing your homework, then it’s very likely you’ve found more than one school you’d definitely attend if you were accepted. In fact, that’s one thing that can cause a lot of consternation in the spring of 12th grade if you actually are accepted to multiple schools you always thought you’d definitely attend if you were accepted.

You’re not too worried about the finances. The common perception of Early Decision is that it favors people who are wealthy enough that they can apply and commit to a school without receiving—or even expecting—a financial aid offer. And that perception is right. If you do happen to be lucky enough that your family doesn’t have to worry about the cost, then you’re certainly a great candidate to apply E.D. But you don’t necessarily have to be that wealthy. If you’ve interested in a college, have used their net price calculator, and found it within your budget, then the risk you’re taking is not zero, but it’s small. If the net price calculator gives you a cost you can afford and the school has a policy of meeting full need, then the risk is even smaller.

And what are you risking? If you end up unable to afford a college that accepts you E.D., then that’s grounds to walk away from the commitment. You shouldn’t take that lightly, and you shouldn’t apply E.D. unless you have a reasonable belief that you’re going to afford it with financial aid. But if it tuns out that you can’t, nobody is going to force you to go and pay the price. They’re not going to arrest you or sue you. If you’re applying to other schools that are more aligned with your budget, in case the E.D. school is untenable, then you can manage that risk.

You want a much easier spring. For many seniors, the spring semester is actually a lot more anxious than the fall. In the fall, you’re researching schools, filling out applications, and writing essays. That can be stressful, but it’s also still fairly abstract and in the future. In the spring, you have actual acceptances, actual financial aid offers, and have to make your final decision. Unless, of course, you apply to one school E.D., get accepted, and are done. That makes for an intensely easier spring.

You’re at risk of being undermatched. If you meet all these criteria:

* You’ll be a first-generation college student,

* You’re ranked in the top 20% of your high school graduating class,

* Your total family income is less than $60,000 per year, and

* You’re probably going to go to the local state college, or community college, because it’s more affordable,

then I hope you’ll do the following:

* Research the schools that are need-blind and meet full demonstrated need,

* Choose the one that seems the best fit for you, and

* Apply to that school Early Decision.

This is the academic equivalent of buying a lottery ticket. There’s very little chance that you’ll get accepted. Not because of who you are, but just because at these schools there’s very little chance of any applicant getting accepted. However, the cost to you is low. All it takes is filling out one extra application and sending it early. If you’re not accepted, or if you are but the finances still don’t work out, then the local state college you were planning on is still very available to you. But, like a winning lottery ticket, an acceptance can be life-altering in very positive ways. Do it.

Reasons not to apply E.D.

You’re not ready. A strong application that you’ve spent time on and sent for regular admission is always better than a shaky application you haven’t spent enough time working on and send for Early Decision. Always.

You think it will increase your odds of getting in. You can look at a school’s acceptance rate for Early Decision applicants, see that it’s higher than the acceptance rate for regular applicants, and conclude that you have “better odds” of getting in if you apply E.D. It doesn’t really work this way. The acceptance rates are higher because the students who apply early tend to be the stronger students who have a strong desire to go that school and therefore put together good applications. Your application doesn’t magically get stronger just because you applied early.

I talk about treating your college choice like a relationship, and I often compare it to dating. So let’s think about this. Imagine Prom season is coming up, and you’re expecting several people to ask you out to Prom. If someone you’d really want to go with is the first to ask you, you’ll probably says yes and be done with it, even though other people are interested. But if someone you’re not sure you want to go with is the first to ask, you’ll probably decline, assuming you’ll get a better offer when other people ask you. You don’t say yes just because they asked first. E.D. works the same way. The schools say yes to a lot of E.D. applicants because they’re good applicants. If you’re not a good applicant, then they have no reason to accept you just because you asked early. They’ll get more applicants, and they have little incentive to give you a boost in your odds.

Fear Of Missing Out. If you like to keep all your options open until the very last minute, you can do that. You can apply to dozens of schools, and you don’t need to make a decision until May 1. If you think it may drive you nuts to get an E.D. acceptance and then have to withdraw your other applications knowing that you may also like those schools, then don’t do it. The point is to make things easier and calmer for you by limiting your options. If FOMO means you don’t want to limit your options, at least until May, and you will not be calmer by committing early, then skip the E.D. That’s ok.

You think it’s unfair and don’t want to participate. Because Early Decision does give an advantage to wealthier students who can feel more at ease making that kind of commitment, you may decide that it’s unfair and you don’t want to participate, even if you can afford it. That’s a tough call to make, but I for one would be proud of you for making it.

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