Early can be good: first in line, best seat at the concert, first to start an incredibly cool new trend. It can also be bad: awkwardly early to a party; waiting hours for an event to start; or first to start what you hoped would be a trend, but turns out to be a huge embarrassment about which your so-called friends, when they stumble upon your profile years later, will make epic and humiliating Facebook posts (and yes, I am grateful for the ability to delete tags from pictures, particularly pictures from the 80’s).
As in life, being early has plusses and minuses in the admissions process. Fortunately the colleges and universities all got together many years ago to create a series of terms and policies to clarify all of these issues. When that got too confusing, we came together again and re-clarified, adding new and more wonderful terminology. As with most of college admissions, this has left the process clear as mud.
For the detailed terminology, I recommend the website of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. They break the kinds of admissions processes down into “restrictive” and “non restrictive”, which I think is helpful. Those of you who are high school seniors, however, will likely think “early” and “not as early”, since this time of year your life is dominated by deadlines, so I’ll just focus on the early options.
Disclosure note: George Mason University has an Early Action program, and not early decision.
The big grand daddy of early admissions processes is called, “EARLY DECISION.” I write it all in caps to make it appear appropriately ominous. The theory is that you pick just one school to apply “ED”, and if that school offers you admission you are committed to attend.
Colleges and universities largely rely on high schools to enforce this commitment, so high schools are only supposed to send a transcript for one ED application. If you receive an ED acceptance you’re supposed to withdraw any other applications you’ve submitted.
ED was designed, I’m told, for all of you super, hyper-achieving students who already know for sure where you want to go, thereby reducing the long stressful wait for admission decisions in the spring. I have to admit, however, that I suspect it was (or at least is) really designed to allow colleges and universities to lock in you super, hyper-achieving students without giving you as much time to consider your options.
As you might have guessed, I’m not a fan of ED. Most of you can’t even decide who you want to date from day to day let alone having less time to decide which school to pick. You should also note that you won’t have any chance to compare financial aid packages, although in theory you can drop your ED if the financial aid ends up being “insufficient”.
Every admissions officer I’ve met HATES when admissions is compared to buying a car. I understand – this is an educational decision, and car sales have a bad reputation, and we try not to upsell you on the satellite radio package and rust-proofing when you select a college. That being said, I see ED as kind of like walking into a car dealership and saying, “I definitely want THIS car from THIS dealer – no worries, I’m not going to look anywhere else!” I mean, who does that?
Of course, that would make sense if that really was the ONE car you really wanted and that dealer really was the only one that had that car, and they had a limited number, and your chances of getting your hands on that model improved somewhat if you made such a declaration. But remember – the college selection process is NOT like buying a car.
Simply put – early decision means early commitment. It is true that for many schools with ED applying in that process improves your admission chances to some degree, so I can’t tell you it’s a bad idea for you. I can, however, remind you that there are over 4,000 colleges and universities out there and that it’s very likely more than one is a great fit for you. Next up – the OTHER early options. Be seeing you.
Editor’s note – Dean Flagel asked that I note that he managed to use dominated, restrictive, ED, and early all in the same article and still kept the tone appropriate. So noted.
Author’s note – not even ONE reference to a little blue pill!