Defining Early Decision
Early decision programs allow students to apply to colleges and universities around November and receive a decision by mid-December. However, these decisions are binding. That means that if an applicant is admitted, they must attend unless it is not financially feasible. As a result, admitted students must withdraw all other college applications.
Now let’s take a look at the benefits and drawbacks of early decision.
Higher Acceptance Rates This is overwhelmingly the greatest benefit of applying early decision to a school. There are a few different hypotheses as to why exactly these acceptance rates are higher. Sometimes schools will argue that early decision applicants are simply “more qualified,” so they, in turn, will admit a greater percentage of applicants. However, most acknowledge that it is in every college’s benefit to admit many students through the early decision program. This is because one criterion for US News and World Report rankings is yield. A school’s yield is the percentage of admitted students who actually choose to attend. At Harvard, the yield is as high as 81%. Other schools like Drew University are as low as 11%. All ED students yield 100% (except for the occasional student with an extenuating circumstance who breaks the contract). The more ED students admitted, the higher the overall yield and thus the higher the US News and World Report ranking.
Keep in mind that an unqualified applicant who applies to a college early decision is almost certainly not going to get admitted. Typically students who benefit from ED programs are highly qualified students applying to schools like Dartmouth with extremely low acceptance rates, qualified, but below average for the school, applicants at competitive colleges and universities, and students with “hooks” (e.g. recruited athletes, legacy applicants, and large donors).
Reduced Stress Students who are admitted ED to their schools of choice are finished with the college process in mid-December, almost 5 months before most of their peers. This allows many EDers to relax and enjoy the rest of senior year rather than get caught up in the fierce competition and anxiety over college selection.
Financial Aid When students apply ED, they have to withdraw all of their other applications and attend their ED school. This means that students get to see exactly 1 financial aid package. The EDers don’t have the freedom that the RDers have in comparing financial aid packages. For schools like Swarthmore that pledge to meet 100% of demonstrated need for domestic students through grants, this is less of an issue. But for a student who needs financial aid to decide to apply ED to New York University, which does not meet 100% of need through grants, would be making a very risky decision.
Some people believe that students admitted ED to a school are legally bound to attend and pay for their first year of college. This is not exactly true though. Early decision is not a legal contract, it is a human contract. In this contract, however, it states that students must attend unless they are unable to afford tuition. So what exactly does afford mean? Well it’s really up to the discretion of the family. If your family says you can’t pay, then you can’t pay. It is then in the college’s best interest to allow you to attend another school.
No Wiggle Room Senior year is a big year for social, emotional, and intellectual growth. A student might have very different ideas about themselves and the world in December than they do in May. Early Decision is a big commitment. Students who apply ED should be certain that they want to attend the schools to which they applied. If you are feeling even slightly uncertain, it’s best not to apply ED.
Less Time to Improve Transcript Some high school students may need the first semester of senior year to retake the SATs or boost their GPAs. Students who apply early decision, however, only apply with their grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities from the first three years of high school.
Decreased Chances for Merit Scholarships Most colleges state that ED and RD candidates are both eligible for merit scholarships. However, merit aid is used as an incentive to attract highly qualified students to attend their colleges. Colleges do not need to attract ED applicants because they have already committed to attending if admitted. In addition, like with financial aid, applicants cannot compare merit scholarships from other schools as well. Students who are counting on merit scholarships to offset the cost of college should consider applying early action and regular decision.