You hear about it every spring. Colleges and universities across the U.S. are becoming increasingly difficult to impress, with acceptance rates falling dramatically year after year. 2017 was no different, with schools like Duke University accepting a record-low of 7.3% of regular decision applicants. You may be asking what Duke means when they say “regular decision”. What separates this group from the entire applicant pool?
Regular decision refers to the “normal” application deadline that many schools establish—with varying deadlines that usually occur from late December to early February. This is the most straightforward application process—students apply in the winter, get notified of their acceptances in the spring, and are required to make their decision by May 1.
Early Decision: The Basics
So what is the alternative, you ask? Applying early, and in some cases, committing to a school before receiving an acceptance. The lesser of the two extremes of early applications is referred to as “early action”, and it simply consists of students applying to schools at an earlier date, to receive a decision earlier. The applications are allegedly considered with the same weight as a regular decision application, and are simply seen as a “fast track” for proactive students.
Early decision, however, is an entirely different and more complicated process. Students are only allowed to apply to one school early decision, and while it is similar to early action in that it notifies students of their acceptances at an earlier date, it requires students to commit to that school if they’re accepted—thus making it a binding contract. On the surface—it seems like a flawless idea. Colleges get first pick at the students that are most interested in their school, and students with a clear first-choice get to showcase their determination and interest in their application before the normal applicant pool does.
However, the early decision process has gotten increasingly controversial throughout the years, as students and parents continue to find loopholes, and colleges struggle to weed out artificial interest. One of the biggest controversies that has come out of the early decision process is that of “double depositing”, where students will pay the deposit for a school they got accepted early decision to, but will then forego that deposit once they receive their regular decisions (something that they are supposed to rescind after receiving an early decision acceptance).
Double Depositing – The New Loophole of College Applications
Justin Smith, Director of Admissions at Saint John’s High School in Massachusetts, has seen the issue from both sides after working in the admissions departments at Assumption College and Bentley University. “Too often students don’t withdraw all applications after they have been admitted to their ED school,” Smith explained. “They wait to see if they get a better financial aid package from a different school, and forego the deposit at the early decision school, citing financial aid, which is the one caveat that a student can exercise to get out of the agreement.” According to Smith, this practice is growing in popularity, and is such a difficult issue to handle because it’s impossible to find blame. “While school counselors do sign off on a student’s ED agreement, they are reluctant to require the student to withdraw all other applications, and in essence how would they enforce that?” Smith said. He believes there’s a solution to this problem, but it’s not a simple one:
“School counselors would have to partner with administration and implement a policy informing students before an ED agreement is signed that final high school transcripts will only be released to a student’s ED school if they are accepted,” Smith said. “Therefore if a student chose to break an ED agreement for an illegitimate reason, their final transcript would not be sent. This would be a difficult policy to implement especially at schools where a strong sense of entitlement would prevent such a policy from being adopted.”
Too Much Pressure on Adolescents
Marco Dinovelli, Director of International Enrollment at Rutger’s University, agrees with Smith’s belief that early decision results in more problems than positive outcomes. His main argument is founded upon the idea that high school seniors are too young and inexperienced to make such a binding decision at the beginning of their senior year. “From a developmental perspective I think that’s just really unfair to kids who aren’t even in college yet—they’re still in high school and trying to figure out what’s best for them,” Dinovelli asserted.
While he is aware that double depositing is an issue that occurs at some schools, Dinovelli is not sure of its prevalence because in his experience, he has not heard of students telling schools when they’ve double deposited. “I don’t have a lot of direct experience where a student has said ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to deposit to your school and another school as well’ because they know it’s a no-no and they generally don’t tell us about that, especially if they’re working with an agent,” Dinovelli stated. Smith, however, has had conversations with families of students who double deposited. “What killed us when I was working at Bentley, is families would actually have the gall to bring up another school’s financial aid package in an appeal when they’re early decision,” he said. “And our response is, not only should you not be doing that, but we are within our rights to rescind his acceptance because he did not adhere to the policy, which is once he’s admitted to the early decision school, you’re supposed to withdraw your application.”
Dinovelli believes the reason so many students apply early decision, even if they’re not fully committed to attending a school, is that they’re afraid they won’t be accepted otherwise. “They think it’s going to increase their chances of getting in, and that’s what they’re being told, and that’s what a lot of statistics show,” Smith said. “A lot of schools are locking students in earlier and admitting very few students in regular decision.” This is a fact. American University, for example, accepted 82.6% of its early decision applicants for Fall 2017.
The Benefits of Early Decision
Nicole Lentine, Associate Director of Admissions at Champlain College, agrees that the perception of early decision boosting an applicant’s chances plays a role in the prevalence of early decision applications. “We have some limited enrollment programs, and I think some students feel like, ‘Oh I don’t know if I’d get in regular decision so I’m going to try to do early decision,’’ Lentine explained. “I still think there’s a pretty reasonable size of that population where we are their first choice too, but I certainly think it helps them to kind of end up deciding, ‘I’m going to go with ED to see if it will give me a better chance.’”
However, Lentine feels that in general, early decision is a beneficial option for many students, and it has been part of Champlain’s application process for the past decade. “For those students who find a place that feels like home and feels like the right fit for them, I think it’s a really nice option because it’s a nice opportunity for us to see right away how excited they are about the school and how much they feel like there’s a fit for them here,” Lentine said. “And it gives us the opportunity to kind of take a look early and give them the peace of mind to know that they know where they’re going, and that they’re going to a place they felt was a really nice match for them.”
She believes it’s important for colleges and high schools to work together to educate students about the consequences of applying early decision, in order to prevent situations like the ones Smith referred to. “I do everything in my power to make the case for that when I’m speaking to students about that option, but I kind of count on my counterparts at high schools to also clarify to students if they’re doing early decision and say, ‘Ok this is what this means,’” Lentine said. “But I think there’s still a lot of confusion around early decision […] and I’ve had one or two counselors at some high schools not even be familiar with early decision.”
Lentine’s advice for students considering applying early decision? Do your research. “Definitely get to know the school well, and feel confident that this is the right choice and the right decision deadline,” she said. “And get to know the counselor for your region, and don’t be afraid to have a conversation with them and talk through any questions you have about that or anything about the school and the process. That’s what we’re here for, and I think especially for early decision students, it gives us the opportunity to dedicate some extra time to them and get to know them better, so really taking advantage of that connection and using them as a resource through that process is especially important.”
One thing is for sure: there are hundreds of colleges and universities across the U.S. implementing early decision policies, and this is not simply a trend that will disappear in a few years. Therefore, it’s important for high school students and counselors to be familiar with the pros and cons of taking advantage of it. While it may be the best choice for one student, it could be completely detrimental for another.