Sunday, September 16, 2012

Making Sense of Early Trends

Remember the time when you wrote the bulk of your recommendation letters and secondary-school reports in December?  The world would stop moving as you tried to encompass the academic and community careers of all of your seniors in writing, attempting to add some depth, humanity, and warmth to the cold black-and-white statistics on transcripts and standardized testing reports.  You longed for February, when the bulk of them would be done, and you would move on to the equally monumental task of advising students about course choices for the following year.

If you are like me, you have noticed that those days are long gone.  December, in fact, has, every year, become much less of a whirlwind, allowing me to even sit back and enjoy the cocoa on occasion.  Instead, trying to talk to me in October is just about impossible.  For the last two years, almost half of the seniors on my caseload have applied either early decision or early action to colleges and universities.  This means meetings with parents and students right as school begins, and then a non-stop flurry of interviews, conversations, and writing. Lots and lots of writing.

What can be a special challenge is trying to determine how best to advise these students on the early admissions process.  What students should and should not consider applying early?  What are the trends telling us?  What are the ethical standards that guide both us and our students in this process?  To answer these questions, let's play a game of "True or False":

True or False?  Early action and early decision are the same thing.

False.  Both early action and early decision applications will typically be due by November 1st, and student will usually receive a decision by mid-December.  However, early decision applicants can only apply to one school early.  They must apply to other colleges and universities using the regular admissions deadline.  Early decision is known as a binding agreement, meaning that if that student is accepted to the one school to which they applied early, they will withdraw all of their other outstanding applications and agree to attend that school.  Note that this would be in advance of seeing a financial aid offer.  Early action, however, is typically not a binding agreement (read the fine print, though, on college admissions websites, just to be clear).  Students receive notice in mid-December, just as in early decision, but they are not bound to attend the school, giving them time to receive decisions from other schools and compare financial aid packages.  Many schools have moved towards early action versus early decision for this reason.

True or False?   Any student should feel comfortable applying early decision or early action.

False, but with a lot of caveats.  The reason I wanted to do this particular post is that it seems as if the answer to this question changes each and every year, or at least I feel it does.  Even five years ago, early decision/action was really reserved for those elite students whose statistics (GPA's and test scores) were above the school's admissions pool average.  This was because the typical early application pool was full of more high-achieving (statistically speaking--numbers only) students, and in order to be competitive in that pool, students needed to be towards the top of the pack.  Then, in the last several years, the number of early applications has grown leaps and bounds.  This has increased the pool quite significantly, and we see more and more students who fit the average admissions statistics of a school applying early.  Further, in phone calls and conversations with admissions counselors in the last two years, they have stated to me that if a student has a real passion for attending their campus, they would like for them to consider applying early.  Applying early can be a sign to a school that the student is extremely interested in attending their campus next year.  However, I would still recommend that students only apply early if their statistics fall into the average or above for a given school--more on why that is important in the next section.  Additionally, any student applying early decision must be 100% sure that this is the college or university they want to attend, above all others, which means they have visited the school, have a feel for the campus, know that the campus has their major or many majors within their general area of interest, and that they feel they can reasonably afford to go to the school financially.  One very positive trend in early applications is the increase in diversity of the applicant pool.  A Forbes article discusses how colleges and universities are actively encouraging and recruiting students from minority groups and from low-income households to consider applying early, allowing a wider group of students to access this particular service.    

College Board has some excellent guidelines for students considering applying early decision or early action that I feel are a good standard by which to advise your students.  Early applicants:
  • Have researched colleges extensively.
  • Are 100% sure that the college is their first choice (a MUST if applying Early Decision).
  • Knows the school is a strong match academically and socially.
  • Meet or exceeds the average basic statistics (GPA, test scores, class rank if available) of the general applicant pool.
  • Have a consistent academic record over time. (source:
  • You should not feel pressured to apply early just because other students are.
  • You should not apply early decision if financial aid is a large consideration and you will need to compare aid offers.
  • You should not apply early if you feel your senior grades (7th semester) may be necessary to help an admissions committee decide in your favor.  (source:
True or False?  Students can expect a response of accept, deny, wait list, or deferral to the regular applicant pool.

True, but this is where it can get tricky.  Students can certainly be accepted or denied through the early process, and there have been several articles discussing how some colleges and universities are admitting a larger percentage of their early applicant pool than their general pool, overall.  For example, Bucknell admitted 65% of its early applicants as opposed to 30% of its overall applicants.  This US News and World Report article points out a list of schools where applying early action helps students.  However, I would again caution people to consider that the early applicant pool may look very different than the general applicant pool, as many of those applying early tend to meet or exceed the average admissions statistics for that college, making colleges or universities more likely to accept a greater percentage of them.  I would think very carefully about recommending that a student apply early to a school on their list that is a "reach" school because their statistics are under the average for a school.

Another trend that it is important to consider is that of deferring applicants to the regular pool.  It used to be that if the college was not completely sure about an early applicant and wanted to see them as compared to the regular application pool, they would defer their decision until after the regular application deadline.  Indeed, many of my students felt pretty safe applying early, because the general feeling was that if they were not accepted, they would probably be deferred to the regular pool where they could get another review.  However, through a conversation with a parent and then an admissions counselor at one of our area colleges, I have discovered this trend may be on the wane.  Indeed, more schools are trying to make a final decision on an early applicant versus deferring them to the regular admissions pool, as discussed again in this recent Forbes article.  Thus, some schools are simply giving a decision of accept, deny, or wait list, just as they would for applicants to the regular pool.  This should serve again as a caution to advise students to take a strong look at their black-and-white statistics in order to insure that they meet that school's averages, as it may be less likely that they will get a second review in the regular applicant pool.

True or False?  There are ethical guidelines and standards to guide both us as counselors and our students through this process.  

True! For counselors, there are guidelines from College Board about advising students properly about early decision, such as letting them know they have to withdraw all of their other applications if they are accepted and that they are only allowed to apply early decision to one school.  They also discuss the process for students who apply early but do not receive the financial aid necessary to attend, but that should be part of the conversation you initially have with a student before they apply early, because if that is a major concern the early application may not be the best choice.  There are also guidelines for secondary school professionals from NACAC on page five of their Statement of Principles of Good Practice

For students, I would highly recommend sharing NACAC's Students' Rights and Responsibilities in the College Admission Process--it is available in both English and in Spanish.  It details what students and families have a right to expect in the college admissions process, but also gives guidelines about their ethical responsibilities in the early admissions process.

Overall, though, each college and university is going to have a unique process and a unique set of standards by which they evaluate early applicants as well as in the types of decisions they give.  If you are looking for statistics on the percentage of early applications admitted at a given school, I recommend going to College Data, entering the school, and clicking on the admissions tab, or you can try to navigate the websites of individual colleges.  If you have specific questions about the process at a school, please pick up the phone and give the admissions office a call.  I have always been met with admissions counselors, assistant deans, etc. who have taken time to answer my specific questions--it benefits my students, as they get the best guidance possible for that particular school, it benefits me, as I am able to relate up to the minute advice and information, and it benefits the colleges and universities, who are then able to receive applications from students who are well-informed about the process, their own chances, and the possible outcomes.

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