Early Decision: Better for Colleges Than for Students

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Early decision — you apply to one school, and admission is binding — seems like a great choice for nervous applicants. Schools let in a higher percentage of early-decision applicants, which arguably means that you have a better chance of getting in. And if you do, you’re done with the whole agonizing process by December. But what most students and parents don’t realize is that schools have ulterior motives for offering early decision, and in many cases, it’s better for students to use nonbinding options like early action or to simply wait to apply at the regular time.

Early decision, since it’s binding, allows schools to fill their classes with qualified students; it allows admissions committees to select the students that are in particular demand for their college and know those students will come. It also gives schools a higher yield rate (the percentage of students admitted to attend the school), which is often used as one of the ways to measure college selectivity and popularity. In short, it’s a tremendously useful tool for colleges and universities.

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The problem is that this process effectively shortens the window of time students have to make one of the most important decisions of their lives up to that point. Under regular admissions, seniors have until May 1 to choose which school to attend; early decision effectively steals six months from them, months that could be used to visit more schools, do more research, speak to current students and alumni and arguably make a more informed decision.

Early decision also feeds into one of the most pernicious myths of the college-admissions process: that there is a perfect, “first choice” school, a kind of educational equivalent to the soul mate. There are, frankly, an astonishing number of exceptional colleges and universities in America, and for any given student, there are a number of schools that are a great fit. When students become too fixated on a particular school early in the admissions process — especially if that school is a highly competitive school — that fixation can lead to severe disappointment if they don’t get in or, if they do, the possibility that they are now bound to go to a school that, given time for further reflection, may not actually be right for them.

Moreover, the advantage early decision seems to give its applicants is probably not so great as the numbers might imply, since recruited student athletes (whose admission is all but guaranteed) and legacies (who have a much higher chance of admission) tend to apply through early decision, and the quality of applicants in general tends to be higher. But insofar as early decision offers a genuine admissions edge, that advantage goes largely to students who already have numerous advantages. The students who use early decision tend to be those who have received higher-quality college guidance, usually a result of coming from a more privileged background (a private school or a higher-quality public school that can afford more and better guidance for its students). In this regard, there’s something of an ethical argument against early decision, as students from lower-income families are far less likely to have the admissions savvy to navigate the often confusing early deadlines.

Students who have done their research and are confident that there’s one school they would be thrilled to get into should, under the current system, probably apply under early decision (unless their top-choice school has the option for early action). But for students who haven’t yet done enough research, or who are still constantly changing their minds on favorite schools, or who frequently second-guess major decisions, the early-decision system needlessly and prematurely narrows the field of possibility just at a time when students should be opening themselves to a whole range of thrilling options.