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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:
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.
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.
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:
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.