Playing The Early Decision Game

Rules vary from school to school--and it may not be right for you

Applying for early acceptance to college used to be simple. If you were a top-notch candidate and willing to commit to a specific school by the fall of your senior year, you could often win admission to one of your leading choices and spare yourself months of angst.

It's not that simple anymore. Today, college applicants and their parents must sift through a confusing array of early-decision choices with varying deadlines, rules, and such bizarre terminology as Early Decision I and Early Decision II, nonbinding early action, early open, and rolling admissions. Laments Carol Halstead, president of New York public relations firm Halstead Communications, whose daughter is a senior at Brearley School: "I'm a bewildered mother--and I've worked with colleges and universities for 20 years."

According to the College Board's latest Annual Survey of Colleges, a quarter, or 460, of the nation's 1,789 four-year colleges and universities offer some form of early-decision program. But that number includes virtually all of the most sought-after colleges.

Early acceptance is not an unqualified boon for students, who often must commit to a specific college before they can evaluate other schools that might fit them better. And early-decision programs can be skewed to favor rich kids who don't need financial aid. Although it's illegal to discriminate against early-decision candidates, many high school counselors and college-admissions officers advise students who need aid to apply to several schools and compare offers. Some admissions officers, though, insist that early-decision students have the best crack at available funds.

More colleges are adopting early acceptance because having more student commitments helps a school score marginally higher on college rankings: The higher the proportion of accepted students who enroll, the more popular the college is deemed to be. More than 90 colleges offer an early plan in two rounds, typically with deadlines in November and January. The second round gives procrastinating seniors more time to choose and allows colleges to scoop up students rejected by other schools in the first round.

A disproportionate number of colleges with early-decision programs are private institutions in the eastern and mid-Atlantic states. The competition has become so fierce that this year, Harvard, Brown, and Georgetown switched to nonbinding early action, which allows candidates to file multiple applications to other schools. As a result, Harvard's early applications rose over 30%.

Student enthusiasm for early decision is based on the widespread perception that early application makes it easier to get into the most competitive places. "Colleges are accepting 25% to 40% of the freshman class on early decision, vs. about 15% to 20% five years ago," says independent college counselor Zola Dincin Schneider, director of College Advisory Service in Chevy Chase, Md. It's not unusual for 30% to 50% of the senior class at some high schools--and up to 70% at some private schools--to apply for early acceptance.

Savvy students, like warring generals, use early decision as a tactical strategy. Says Rachel Bernard, 17, a senior at Maryland's Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, who has been accepted early to Princeton University: "I thought my chances would be better early because no one else at my high school was applying there." Adds Brett Hirsh, a senior at private school Montclair Kimberley Academy in Montclair, N.J., who has been accepted early to Trinity College: "I was honest with myself about the schools I could get into. The Ivy League would have been a big stretch. Since many kids use Trinity as a safety school to the Ivy League, I applied early."

Some blue-chip schools, such as Stanford University and Yale University, which are drowning in qualified candidates, deny that early-admissions candidates have an edge. But another Ivy, the University of Pennsylvania, concedes that children of alumni, even if they have slightly lower class rankings and SAT scores, have an advantage in the early pool. Other colleges are unabashedly willing to overlook a few minor flaws in a candidate who is ready to commit for the long haul. "Early-decision candidates get preferential consideration and financial aid and have first choice in housing and course selection," says Christopher Hooker-Haring, dean of admissions at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. Adds Richard Shaw, Yale's dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid: "There's no question that in general, the early-decision applicants are better off economically."

Candidates accepting early decision have only one way to get out of the binding agreement. That's if the financial-aid package doesn't meet the family's needs--a rare occurrence. Many parents, however, "confuse the concept of want with need," says guidance counselor Sue Biemeret of Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill.

The early-decision system needs reform. Guidelines on the proportion of students admitted under it and on definitions and deadlines are expected soon from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which represents guidance counselors and college-admissions and financial-aid officers. Stanford has already consolidated two rounds of early decision into one and reduced the proportion of early-decision students it admits to 30%, from 40% last year. "We wanted more control," says Robert Kinnally, Stanford's dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid. He adds, only half-jokingly: "My nightmare is that ninth-graders will soon be making campus visits."

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