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Early Decision: Your Ticket to College Admission?

Article appeared in Worcester Magazine, January 2004

As competition for admission to the country's most prestigious colleges and universities has increased in recent years, the number of students who apply under Early Decision or Early Action plans has skyrocketed. With some top colleges accepting as much as 40% of their freshman class under an early admissions plan, it is not difficult for applicants to figure out that the odds are stacked against those students who do not jump on the bandwagon.

The picture is not as simple as it appears. Approximately 200 colleges, most of which are ranked highly selective or most selective, offer either an Early Decision or Early Action option or both options. Early Decision is a binding agreement between the student and the college. The student files an early application, typically in November or December, and agrees that, if accepted, he will attend that college. Early Action is a non-binding option. The student files an early application and receives an early response, but is not obligated to decide until May if he will attend that college or another college. Most colleges respond to an early application in one of three ways. The college may accept the student, deny the student, or defer the student for consideration in the regular applicant pool. The deferral option is typically used when the college wants to see midyear grades or additional testing. A college might also defer an Early Action applicant if it thinks the applicant is likely to reject the college in favor of another school. While both early options have raised questions among people who work in college admissions, the Early Decision is more controversial because of the ways in which it has been used by both institutions and applicants.

Popular though it has become with students, the Early Decision option was never intended to benefit the student. It was created as a way for small east coast colleges to attract highly desirable candidates whom they feared losing to the more prestigious, wealthier Ivy League universities. The belief was that a student would appreciate the opportunity to make a commitment to Wesleyan or Amherst, for example, in December rather than wait until spring and take his chances on Yale or Harvard. In spite of the fact that some admissions personnel touted this as a good option for a small number of outstanding students who were clearly interested in attending a particular school, benefit to the student was, and remains, a byproduct.

Today, Early Decision is one way that colleges can skew the public's perception of quality without changing academic offerings, instructional processes, or the quality of student life. We have evolved into a culture that measures the quality of our educational system by what goes in, rather than by what comes out. We have not yet devised a reliable way to measure how much learning takes place in a university or how successful students are once they leave the university. "Great" universities are defined by who gets in, or more specifically, by how many students don't get in. Schools that admit students with high SAT or ACT scores and high GPA's must be good, we believe, because they've got smart kids. And if those schools have high demand, as measured by how many students apply and how few are accepted, they must be outstanding because all those smart people can't be wrong. Accepting a large number of students under a binding Early Decision plan means that the college needs to fill just a percentage of its class during the regular application period because it knows that all early accepted students will enroll. Therefore, the college can accept fewer students to meet its quota, thus appearing more selective than it really is.

The process of selecting a college can be daunting. For many adolescents, it is the most significant decision they have made in their lives. It was a process that used to begin in the student's junior year of high school and culminated at the end of his senior year. That gave the student four full years of high school to mature before making a commitment to a college. The pressure to select an Early Decision school has pushed the process up for many students by six or seven months. There is no question that students change a lot during their final year of high school. The college that seemed perfect on November 1 is not always the best option the following September.

Just as colleges use Early Action and Early Decision plans to their benefit, some students try to make strategic use of early admissions plans. The problem is that they sometimes think, "Where can I apply early?" rather than, "Which is the best school for me?" I believe that the reason for this is both the belief that an early application always improves the student's chances of being admitted and the student's desire to get through a difficult process as quickly as possible. The dean of admissions at one highly selective liberal arts college reports that the question he hears most often at daily information sessions the college runs for potential applicants is, "Are my chances enhanced by applying early?" He regrets that students who visit his school seem less interested in the school's academic offerings than in the advantages bestowed by Early Decision.

Christopher Avery, a Harvard professor, and his collaborators, Richard Zeckhauser and Andrew Fairbanks, studied more than 500,000 admissions decisions at fourteen highly selective colleges and universities. Their chief finding, documented in their book, The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite, was that applying early does significantly increase the student's chances of acceptance. Ten of the campuses that Avery and his co-authors studied had Early Decision programs; the other four had Early Action programs. The researchers also interviewed 3,000 high school and college students. The study concluded that applying early sharply increased some students' chances of admission. It found, for example, that on average, the ten Early Decision colleges accepted seventy percent of the students with SAT scores between 1400 and 1490 who applied early, but only forty-eight percent of those with the same scores who applied during the regular admissions process. The four Early Action colleges accepted fifty-one percent of the students with those scores who applied early, but only thirty-nine percent of regular applicants with those scores. The authors calculate that the advantage of applying early is the equivalent of one hundred additional points on the combined SAT scores. They report that an Early Decision application doubled an applicant's chances of being accepted at Brown University and nearly tripled his chances at Princeton. According to their calculations, an Early Action application nearly tripled the student's chances at Harvard. They report that half of all current Harvard students were early applicants; only ten percent of the regular applicants to Harvard were accepted.

Colleges claim that early admissions candidates are stronger than the regular pool, but the authors of The Early Admissions Game dispute this. Their study found that for the ten colleges with Early Decision programs, the Early Decision applicants were slightly weaker, on average, than the regular admission applicants. They report that Early Decision applicants at Princeton are admitted at almost three times the rate of regular applicants in spite of lower SAT scores. This was not true for colleges with Early Action programs. At the four schools with Early Action programs, the early applicants were somewhat stronger than the applicants in the regular pool.

Avery states that the fact that Early Decision applicants are accepted with less impressive credentials than regular applicants points to another advantage that Early Decision offers the college, the opportunity to construct a freshman class that effectively meets the needs of the institution. That means that colleges seek students who will fill specific niches. During the early selection process, colleges are free to accept students with lower academic credentials who will fill the roster of athletic teams and the marching band, meet geographic and gender needs, and populate majors such as Greek and philosophy. Knowing the makeup of the class in January gives the admissions committee greater flexibility in January. At that point they will know exactly what niches remain to be filled. They have a skeleton around which to construct their ‘ideal’ class. The advantage to the college of being able to predict the composition of a portion of the class in January is a disadvantage to the student, who cannot know which niche they might fill at any given school. The tap dancing baton twirler may be a hot commodity in November, but be of little interest in January if the spot on the pep squad has already been filled.

Bill Matthews, college advisor at St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire wrote, "I have a theory that nine out of 10 candidates are on the bubble somewhere; they are right on that thin, viscous, filmy line between being admitted and being denied. The secret in college admissions is to know where your bubble or your line is. Applying early can boost your chances of admission if you're close; it obviously won't if you're not. At most Ivies, it unfortunately has become easier than it used to be to determine whether you're close. If you have test scores in the mid 700 range and an A average in demanding classes, then you're close. You might make it early; you probably won't later in the process, unless you possess a particularly significant talent or characteristic, and if you do, you'll get in whenever you apply."

Avery hopes that his book will awaken people to one of the injustices of early admissions plans - the socioeconomic inequality among applicants. The authors believe that these programs benefit privileged students, who are more likely to receive information about the advantages of applying early. Many public school guidance departments do not begin working with college bound students until well into their junior year. At that point, students do not have a lot of time to consider their options and prepare for early admissions deadlines. By contrast, students in more privileged schools, both public and private, often receive encouragement and direction at an earlier point and are urged to consider the advantages of exploring college choices and preparing themselves for an early application.

Bill Matthews wrote in 1997, "Because of the pace and pressures of the current process, and especially because this process is not serving young people well, admissions directors at the competitive colleges will probably in two or three years reach an agreement on Early Decision. Most likely there will be a common filing date for all early and regular application. Some directors support a mid-January date when students could indicate whether they were applying under an Early Decision plan or a regular plan. This would not resolve all the current problems, but at least it would give youngsters a little more time to make important decisions. Until that time, the race is on, and it is being won by those who get the earliest start and by those who have access to the best information and advice."

Seven years after Matthews' 1997 statement, we are still struggling with the inequalities and uncertainties of the college application system. We must acknowledge that the process does not serve the best interests of our children and we must work to both change the system and protect and guide our children through it.

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