Learn from economists and apply early

You know who has the easiest college admissions season? Seniors who are accepted early. They only do one application, they finish it early, and then they're done. While everyone else is scrambling to finish essays in the fall and then going through the decision process in the spring, the seniors who applied early and got accepted get to use that time doing other things. Or doing nothing. 

What got me thinking about early admissions in the middle of May is a recent episode from one of my favorite podcasts, Planet Money. In episode 769, "Speed Dating for Economists," Planet Money explains how virtually every Economics grad student applies for jobs and PhD programs at the same time, and then they all show up to interview for those jobs at one time--often going to over 20 interviews in just three days.

According to the podcast, the economists do it this way because economists love efficiency. Rather than spreading all the job postings and interviews all over the place and all over the calendar, they instead set up a single, efficient job market. Virtually everyone who has job openings for economists posts the jobs at the same time, and they all do interviews during the annual economists conference. That way, all 1,800 or so job seekers can be evaluated at the same time. So these future economists apply for all the jobs they're interested in, and then they hope to get interviews.

The optimized market system ran into a problem, though. When everybody's applying for 100 or more jobs and interviewing for 20, employers don't know who is really interested in working for them, and they spend time going through applications they don't actually expect to amount to anything. It's called "congestion." It can have strange results, like one year when a lot of the top candidates got no job offers because everyone assumed they were going to be snatched up by someone else. This congestion sounds familiar to anybody dealing with undergrad college admissions, where it's very common for students to apply to over 10 colleges, and many colleges reject the majority of their applications.

One way the economists made the congestion better is to set up a website where each candidate is allowed to let two employers know ahead of time that they're really interested. The employers still go through all the applications, but they have a sense of which are more interested than others. They also established a sort of second-round market for the job candidates who didn't get matched up with an employer in the "speed dating" round.

Of course, admissions to undergraduate college is very different than Economics grad students hoping to score jobs. Instead of just a few thousand applicants, there are millions. And instead of a few hundred prospects, there are thousands of colleges. Although the Common Application has streamlined things a lot, there's not going to be a single weekend for college admissions.

Still, there are some ways that college admissions might be more like economist job openings. I'd love to see a system where all the universities have the same early application date, where students are allowed to apply to two--or even three--universities early, and where most students apply early. I've ranted before about the huge waste that goes into so many students applying to so many schools, and a system where everyone applies to a few favorites early might help unclog the system. Then, after the early expedited round, everyone who still needs to find a school can apply to as many as they want and need. 

This isn't the system we have now, but you should still consider applying early. Currently we mostly talk about early applications for people who know what their "dream school" is and think it's in reach. But if there are several schools that you think you'd be happy at and you think they may be in financial reach, then choose one and go for it. You just have to have a little faith that the benefits of skipping over most the stress is worth the FOMO. And it is.

So how do you get yourself ready to apply early?

Understand the rules. There's a generally-agreed-upon difference between "Early Decision" and "Early Action." Many schools also have separate deadlines for "Priority," or an early deadline to be considered for scholarships. For each school, understand the what their different deadlines are, what the parameters are for each deadline, and apply for the earliest that works for you. Understand if the application is "binding," and understand when you can back out of a binding decision anyway (usually it's for financial reasons).

Maybe you'd like me to explain the differences right here, right now. But it's important that you look up the differences for each school you are interested in. You've got to do your homework. I'm a compass pointing you in the right direction, not a chauffeur dropping you off at the doorstep. This is true of anyone giving you advice.

Some people will point out that even if a decision is binding, and even if you're supposed to commit to only applying early at one place, it basically works on the honor system and nobody will do anything if you cheat. Ignore those people. They're the ones causing the congestion and complexity that make this process so stressful in the first place. Also, even if they don't do anything about it, your school will likely find out that you took advantage of them, and do you really want to begin your next four to six years at an institution that suspects you're a cheater? But most important, your integrity and honesty are more important than admission at any particular school. College is great, but not worth selling yourself.

Have a realistic view of how much you can pay. One of the primary reasons more students don't apply early is that they literally think they can't afford to. "What if I apply early to only one school, and they don't give me an affordable financial aid package, and then I've lost the opportunity to apply to other schools that might give me a better deal?" This fear is very real for most families. Even if you don't end up applying early, you can start to tackle this fear by understanding early how much you can pay. Talk to your family about money. Talk early. Talk often. Have a definite answer to the question "how much are you able to pay for college?"

Have a realistic view of how much aid you can expect. You never know how much aid any particular college is going to offer you, and you absolutely cannot make decisions based only on the published "sticker price" of a school. However, there are net price calculators that will give you an estimate of how much you might be asked to pay for any particular school. Use these calculators before you decide that you should skip an early application because of money. If a school seems within reach, then you should really consider the early application.

Have your back-up plan ready. If you listened to the podcast, you know that things don't always go smoothly even for great candidates in an optimized market. So you have to have your back-up plan ready, no matter when you apply to a school. But especially if you do apply early to only one school, have answers ready to the following questions before sending off the application:

  * What will I do if I get accepted early and can afford to go? (This should be an easy one to answer!)

  *  What will I do if I get accepted early but have to decline because of the aid package?

  * What will I do if I apply early but don't get accepted?

Universities really should do more on their end to make this process more effective and efficient for everyone. But there's no need to wait for them. There are many things you can do to make it more effective and efficient for yourself, and applying early is likely a better option than you currently think.

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