For the record, I’m not a big fan of early decision plans. Applying for early decision requires young people to make a big decision in junior year (or early senior year) of high school to choose the one perfect university they will commit to.
I am a lifelong student of education and human development. I know that making this type of decision at this stage of life is unrealistic and, in most cases, not developmentally appropriate. And from my experience working as a university admission officer and counseling hundreds of students through the application process, I (and many others) have come to the clear conclusion that early decision is primarily in the interest of colleges and quite a bit less in the interest of students.
The Temptation to Rushing the Decision
It is tempting to apply early decision because it can speed up a process that often feels tedious and long. While it is hard to patiently wait until the end of high school to find out whether a student has been admitted or denied, there are good reasons why waiting is better than rushing this decision.
For one thing, there is great benefit to waiting a relatively short additional five months for the traditional release of regular admission decisions because important growth, development and maturity happens in this time. While students may not have the perspective to see this in themselves, parents—as well as educators and experts in psychology, human development, and brain science—know that young hearts and minds are still changing significantly in this stage of life. Most students are not the same person at the end of senior year compared to the beginning.
I realized that waiting is hard, but “there is a method to this madness” because letting the decision-making process take a little longer usually yields healthier results. Students (and their families) deserve more time to think, weigh options, and reflect on who they are and want to be.
Sadly when people focus on treating college admission as a race with winners and losers, they are often convinced that applying for early decision is a strategy for winners—and those who forgo this strategy are “suckers.” I find, however, that it is regrettable that some are looking at this remarkable right of passage into young adulthood in this way.
The Shades of Gray of Early Decision
Ultimately, if I can’t convince students to see it differently, then it’s important that students and families remember that early decision is not a simple binary choice. It’s true that applying early decision can give students an advantage in the admission process to more selective colleges. But whether it is a good choice for an individual student is, I believe, an answer with at least three shades of gray.
Shade #1: “Nope.”
Most students set on applying early decision are under the impression that this is the rocket fuel without which they could not possibly be admitted to a good college. But the well-known boost from early decision is misleading. For most students, the benefit is not enough to make any difference.
Students who objectively know that they are far from competitive for their “dream” school may believe that early decision is like a magic charm that erases the wide gap between their academic profile and the expectations of the college. These students often think that applying early decision is like walking down the street and finding a penny. They reason: “Well, it’s my lucky day. I can’t actually buy anything with this penny, but surely good luck is way more valuable than a penny.”
That might work in the movies, but it does not happen this way in college admission.
Shade #2: “Be careful what you ask for.”
Other students are so caught up in the idea that they can’t “waste” their early decision chance that they are like the dog that caught the car.
Their academic profile and extracurricular achievements typically align with the college they are applying to—in some cases, their record even exceeds the average for admission to the college to a high degree. The boost they will receive from early decision will almost guarantee they will be immediately admitted. And as a result, they can celebrate. But they will have to cancel all their other applications.
Most students in this situation almost immediately start feeling regretful. They’ve used their early decision chance because that’s what they’ve been told to do to “win” the college admission race. But they haven’t actually decided that this is the one and only college they want to attend.
They sincerely want to consider other colleges they have thoughtfully applied to. But now, sadly, they have closed all the doors before truly making a careful decision.
Shade #3: “It’s a definite maybe.”
After careful research, campus visits, soul-searching, and family conversations, a smaller group of students sincerely believe they have found a college that would make them happier than any other.
They are not pressured to apply early decision because they are not desperate to get admitted to just any highly selective school. Their academic and extracurricular profile is close to the range of admitted students at the college—it’s neither very low nor far above the average. The early decision boost is a smart choice for this small group of students.
There is no guarantee they will be admitted, but they are grounded in the reality of the statistics they face. And the time they spend perfecting their early decision application is well spent and does take time away from other, more likely applications.
This student is rare but is the best candidate for an early decision application.
I find that students are hesitant to look in the mirror and ask themselves which shade of gray of early decision they truly are. Objectively analyzing oneself and one’s situation isn’t easy. If you would like help to examine your personal situation and learn how to make the most of your college admission journey, please contact me. I’m looking forward to using my many years of experience as an Independent Educational Consultant to help guide you.