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How to Make an Early Decision Choice


In just about six weeks, the high school class of 2023 will be making its Early Decision (ED) choices. There is no more important decision in the application process, even if it means you decide not to apply ED to any college. There is a lot to think about when making these choices, but we like to think of the process as a series of three smaller decisions. Let’s consider each of the three:

Decision One: Am I Willing to Apply Anywhere Early Decision?

Like everything in the college admissions process, the concept of Early Decision is a lot bigger a benefit to colleges than it is to students. Colleges benefit by contractually locking in students since applying and being accepted requires the student to attend the college (unless there was some discrepancy with financial aid). ED takes good students off the board, and the colleges get them without having to dole out much if any, merit aid. And while the best colleges will offer to meet a student’s full need-based aid in ED, many parents don’t qualify for need-based aid and would love to get some merit aid. When you are accepted ED to a college, you don’t get the luxury of comparing scholarship offers. You take what the college gives.

we try to eschew the idea that there is a single “best choice” college for students

The big benefit students get when applying ED is a statistically better chance of gaining admission to highly selective colleges. The difference between Early Decision and Regular Decision admit rates at many schools is astounding, which happens when colleges choose to fill 40-60% of their class from the smaller ED pool of applicants. These higher admit rates can be very enticing if the cost of college is not an issue.

So the first decision that families must make is whether they will even apply to a college ED. Note, however, that even if you do not apply ED to a school, you should at least apply Early Action (EA) or Restricted Early Action (REA) to one or more schools, as those decisions are not binding. This requires that you be ready to apply by the fall of senior year, which we strongly encourage anyway.

Decision Two: Will I use my ED or REA Choice on My True First Choice College?

Once you’ve decided to apply to a college that has ED or REA, which limits where else you can apply, you need to make a decision about the single school to which you will apply. Many advisors and counselors suggest (and often insist) that you apply to the school that fits you best, regardless of the difficulty in gaining admission. The conventional wisdom suggests that since you are going to be obligated to attend the college if admitted, it needs to be your absolute, no questions asked first choice college. If Stanford is your first choice, then many would say you should apply there, regardless of the fact that kids don’t get much of an admissions advantage by applying REA to Stanford. If Stanford is your first choice, but you apply to Columbia ED and get in, you’ll never get the chance to find out if Stanford would have taken you.

We work with students that want to shoot their shot at these incredibly difficult REA schools, giving up their chances of increased admission chances at a more attainable ED college. And we support them in this decision, although we frequently suggest that they consider the third decision in the process, as described below.

Decision Three: How Do I Make a Strategic Choice Among Multiple Contenders?

At Union Hall Advising, we try to eschew the idea that there is a single “best choice” college for students. It is not invalid to say that one college fits you better than others, but for most students, many colleges will satisfy their academic and fit requirements. Especially for students and families that are prioritizing the prestige of the college, we believe it makes sense to make a strategic decision with the ED choice, considering a handful of potential fit schools, rather than simply choosing an ultimate favorite regardless of what admissions bump you get. We also advise families to consider what hooks, if any, they have at the various colleges. If you are a double legacy at Cornell, should you apply ED at Dartmouth? If you do, then you are choosing your love of Dartmouth over the increased admissions odds at Cornell.

So, how can you make a strategic choice among multiple contenders? It’s a complicated process that involves reading the tea leaves of admissions chances. But there are a few questions to ask yourself about each of the colleges on your shortlist:

1. Do you have any hooks at the college? This is legacy, development, or athletic. Even if you are not a formally recruited athlete but have been given an offer of soft support, that should factor into your decision.
2. Does the college like students from your high school? If Brown hasn’t taken anyone from your high school for the past five years, you need to consider whether you will be the one to reverse that pattern.
3. Who else is applying ED from your high school? This can be hard to know, but despite what colleges will tell you, they absolutely compare students from the same school, and they are unlikely to admit more students than they’ve done in previous years. So even if your school sends about three students to Penn per year, will you be among the ones chosen from the twenty or so applicants from your school playing the odds by applying to Penn?
4. Is your academic profile above average for the college? Students often believe that ED allows them to academically reach into a school that they might not obtain otherwise. While this is true to a point, if you fall below the average stats (including SAT or ACT score), you are unlikely to gain admission without a hook. The reason? Top colleges can wait for the RD round to find candidates that are better than you are. You improve your chances of being admitted if you are already a strong candidate for admission.
5. Are you going to be a full-pay applicant? Most highly selective colleges will tell you that they are need-blind and that it doesn’t matter. But most colleges know whether you’ll be one of the students that needs a strong financial aid package, which will require your academic profile to be even more impressive than the average unless you are satisfying some other institutional need.

These are just some of the questions to ask if making a strategic choice among a handful of potential matches.

We tend to spend a good bit of time with our clients making the ED decision because of its importance in the process. This is especially true if the family is also considering schools that offer Early Decision II (which is a second chance at ED that happens at the same time as the Regular Decision round) or where there is both Early Decision and Early Action.

Tim Brennan
September 7, 2022
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