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Early Applications

Early application programs represent one feature of college admissions that has definitely changed since most parents applied to college. First, applying early is much more common, and second, there are a lot more types of early application programs. What they all have in common is the feature that students apply early – often around November 1st – and get an admission decision anywhere from mid-December to mid-January. Beyond that, however, there are some critical differences between programs, so be sure you and your son understand what he’s committing to before he signs on the dotted line.

Early Decision Programs

In this type of program, an applicant makes a commitment to the college to attend if accepted. This would preclude your daughter from seeing which other colleges might have accepted her and what level of financial aid they would have offered. However, on the positive side, many colleges give preferential consideration to students who have demonstrated their interest in the school, as documented in a 2014 survey of colleges by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC). The survey found that in fall of 2013, the acceptance rate for early decision applicants across the board was 64% compared to an overall acceptance rate at the respective colleges of 53%. However, this higher acceptance rate may not mean that it's easier to get in early as early applicants tend to be strong students - those with a solid record of achievement by the beginning of senior year.

For a college, nothing says love quite as convincingly as an early decision application, so if your daughter’s heart belongs to Whispering Pines University, an early decision application would probably increase her odds of getting in. 

Early Action Programs

Applicants apply early and get an answer early in this type of early program, but they’re not bound to attend the college if accepted. They are free to apply to other colleges and to wait until the regular spring deadline to decide whether to accept or decline the admission offer. This allows students to compare financial aid offers from several colleges, so it’s a great option for seniors who aren’t sure where they want to go or need to factor the availability of financial aid into their decision. In addition, the NACAC survey of colleges mentioned above revealed that early action applicants to the colleges surveyed also had a slightly higher acceptance rate than the overall acceptance rate of the respective colleges - about 67% compared to 65%.

Single Choice or Restrictive Early Action

This variant of early action, employed by a small number of very selective universities, allows students to apply and learn their fate early without being bound to attend, but places restrictions on a student’s ability to apply early to other colleges. For example, Harvard' s Restrictive Early Action policy allows students to apply early to public and foreign universities as well as Harvard, but not to any early programs at private universities.  Each university has its own restrictions, and they're complicated, so pay close attention to the rules at each school.

Other Early Programs

Some colleges have rolling admissions, in which they evaluate applications and make decisions as they come in, so applicants may learn whether they’ve been accepted within a few weeks of applying. Better still, some colleges even offer immediate decision, wherein a student brings a completed application to the admissions office and gets an answer on the spot.

Is There Any Reason Not to Apply Early?

Short answer – yes.  As noted earlier, students who apply to early decision or restrictive early action programs may get a little extra favorable consideration from a college as a result of their demonstrated interest in the school. There is at least one circumstance, however, in which applying early can be a disadvantage.

Colleges may make three possible decisions about an early applicant; accept her, defer her, or deny (a polite way of saying reject) her. Some colleges tend to defer most early applicants who are not accepted and re-evaluate them in the regular admission cycle. In this scenario, a student gets credit for having made a commitment to the college and still has the opportunity to strengthen his application before the regular admission review.

Other colleges, however, tend to make final decisions on the majority of early applicants. On the web page describing its Restrictive Early Action program, Stanford notes that its "philosophy is to make final decisions wherever possible. As a result, only a small percentage of restrictive early action applicants is deferred."  They aren't kidding. According to an article in the Stanford Daily (the student newspaper), 7297 students applied to Stanford in the 2014-15 early admission cycle. Of these, 743 were accepted (10.2%) and 562 were deferred (7.7%). According to my calculations, this means that 5992 applicants were rejected, a whopping 82%!

At a school like this, there can be a considerable downside to applying early. If a student is a marginal applicant in the fall, he may be rejected before his outstanding first semester grades or the national science fair award he wins in January can be seen by the admissions committee. Therefore, if your son is a relatively weak applicant at a college that denies a substantial percentage of early applicants, he should consider using the first semester of senior year to strengthen his grades and extracurricular accomplishments and then apply in the regular cycle.

To find out what percentage of early applicants is rejected at a particular college, check the admission pages of the college website or have your son call the admissions office to ask. That said, there’s no reason for him not to submit a non-binding early action application to another college where he is at the top of the pool. Getting an early acceptance to even one college you’d like to attend makes for a much nicer senior winter!

What If Your Daughter is Deferred in the Early Cycle?

First, reassure her that her application will be thoroughly re-evaluated in the regular cycle. To strengthen it, she should send a letter restating her interest and updating any senior year accomplishments. She should also strive for stellar first semester grades – and keep her fingers crossed for better news in the spring cycle.  However, while there’s reason to hope for eventual acceptance, she should also face the possibility that it may not happen, and should make sure she is applying to several other colleges she would be happy to attend.

What If She’s Denied?

The most disappointing news that a student can get is that she’s been denied in the early pool. The final realization that her dream of attending a certain school will not come true can be very painful. Be sympathetic and patient as she deals with her disappointment, and when the time seems appropriate, reassure her that there is more than one “right” school for her, and that as a result of learning her fate early, she has time to find and apply to those other choices. 

Next article:  The Interview



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