Understanding Early Admissions
Earlier this year, Common App shared with members a recent analysis of a record-breaking November 1 deadline. For the first time, the number of applications submitted for early decision (ED), early action (EA), and regular decision deadlines (around 860,000 applications), exceeded the number traditionally submitted on January 1 (around 720,000). To explore this shift on a deeper level, we asked Steve Frappier, Director of College Counseling at Westminster in Atlanta, GA, for his thoughts on the changes, and the important details students and families should consider before deciding on an admission plan.
You recently participated on a panel at the College Board Forum about Early Decision and Early Action. Why do you feel this is an important topic and what were some of the topics you discussed during your panel?
While Early programs are not new, Early Decision and Early Action are gaining in both supply (the quantity of institutions offering one or more Early programs) and in demand (quantity of students participating). Early application programs align with a desire for quickly accessible information and immediate gratification, and observing parents might see more benefits than downsides to that approach to applications.
Applying to college usually involves interaction with an academic advisor or school counselor. But most students attend high schools that fall far short of meeting the student-to-school counselor ratio of 250:1 recommended by ASCA (the American School Counselor Association). Districts do not employ enough school counselors who can connect students to multiple post-secondary options: careers, military service, gap years, and two-year and four-year colleges – with Early admission plans being a subset of this last choice.
At many colleges, being in an Early Action pool maximizes important opportunities, such as limited-space majors, merit-based scholarships, and on-campus housing. Without more counselors who know these details, including how to prepare juniors to fulfill the requirements for applications in the early-fall of senior year, a gap stands to grow.
Some may say that schools are selective anyway – but a 2019 poll conducted by Gallup found that 52% of surveyed four-year universities in the United States didn't make their enrollment goals. Talented high school graduates are out there, yet information, access to the application process, and affordability are not all lining up.
With many more students applying Early Decision or Early Action, what are the most important things students (and families) should consider before choosing an admission plan?
1) Know that these are options, but not "musts;" all colleges will offer a Regular Decision or Final Deadline. Only a minority of four-year colleges even offer Early Decision or Early Action plans.
2) Know the difference between the two primary kinds of Early plans. Early Decision represents a philosophical and financial commitment: If admitted, I shall enroll (with an exception granted for students who applied in good faith for need-based financial aid and did not receive an affordable package). On the other hand, Early Action always offers flexibility: admitted students are not obligated to enroll until the stated enrollment deadline, which has historically been May 1st of senior year.
3) Not all Early Decision or Early Action programs share the same instructions or philosophy regarding timeline of decision notification, requirement of senior-year grades, offering of interviews, merit-based scholarships, and other factors. These are must-research aspects, which each admissions office's Web pages will clearly outline.
4) It is often the case, but by no means a universal, that it's "easier to get in" by applying Early Decision or Early Action. At some schools, for their own unique reasons, it can be more difficult to gain admission via Early Decision or Early Action.
5) While instructions are essential, know that colleges annually update their decision plans and requirements in the late-spring or early summer, so looking "a year ahead of time" might be too soon. Tip: check that the instructions on a Web page align with the graduation year of the applicant.
"Talented high school graduates are out there, yet information, access to the application process, and affordability are not all lining up."
What advice would you have for students considering ED/EA options?
• Get organized – and ahead of time. For the hundreds of Common Application Member Colleges, use the module's filters to get to know schools by deadlines, requirements, and other criteria that you get to pick. If you have a school in mind, yet are missing a requirement (a standardized test, a recommendation from a teacher in a specific subject area), you will be thankful that you didn't wait until the last minute.
• Form positive relationships with recommenders (one or more teachers and a school counselor or administrator) and ask their willingness to write a positive letter on your behalf, according to the asking policies of your school and with ample notice (one month or more) ahead of the college's deadline. This rule for asking applies to Early and for Regular decision, and it's especially important if your school starts in September and your first college deadline is in October.
• Don't assume. The vast majority of students enrolling at four-year colleges do not apply early. Not "all colleges" expect students to have their applications ready between October and December of senior year.
• Recharge your battery before traveling further. I have been reading college applications and counseling students in schools for 20 years, and while students should feel free to get a head-start by making a Common Application account as soon as they are ready, many rising-seniors do not do themselves any favors by insisting on completely finishing their applications in the summer going into their final year. The voice of an exhausted junior is clear. Somewhere between foolish procrastination and not allowing yourself a break after junior year lives the "sweet spot" in which you stand to prepare your best applications.
Common App applicant data demonstrates that first-generation students and applicants requesting a fee waiver are applying to college via early admission plans at far lower rates than students with higher family incomes, or parents with higher levels of education. In your opinion, what can colleges and universities do to address this gap?
• We say this often as school counselors: students don't know what they don't know. The volume of admissions lingo and the fear of college debt are just two aspects that can feel isolating and intimidating, especially for students from a lower socioeconomic status.
• Instill test-optional and test-flexible policies. Fairtest.org lists over 1,000 colleges that already have a testing policy. Beyond that precedent, national data show that while Caucasian and Asian American students will take a standardized test prior to senior year, college-bound students from African American, Hispanic/Latinx, Native American, and Pacific Islander populations are most likely to take a standardized test for the first time as a senior. By the time the results are available, the deadlines for many colleges' Early programs have already passed.
• Prepare to respond to externalities. Over the past few fall seasons, more and more externalities have interfered with Fall testing and the school year in general – including natural disasters, school strikes, and cancellation of test scores due to security issues.
• Develop or increase the number of informational workshops related to financial aid and to essay-writing – at public libraries and other public spaces.
• From previous applications, colleges can see their own data regarding students' home language(s). In acknowledgement of how the process involves a partnership with a whole family, colleges would benefit from offering more materials, Web sites, and tips in languages other than English – in addition to proactively hiring and retaining admissions professionals who are proficient in languages that serve prospective families.
Knowing that a shift in processes takes time, what other reforms or updates to the ED/EA process would you recommend colleges and universities make the process more logical for students and families?
• Be clearer about requirements and timing of materials. Colleges with the same "Early deadline" can operate with separate dates for students, counselors, and the testing companies.
• Provide more explicit assurance of affordability and the obligation to enroll (or not).
• Convert instructions into how-to videos or other visualizations.
• Transparently report results by headcount and by percentages for each Round. Very few Early-offering colleges report "the flip side of the coin," regarding the differential in admission rates between one or more Early rounds and their admission rate for Regular Decision.
• Accept self-reported testing, and specify the method in your instructions. Are the scores simply listed in the application, or sent via screen-shots or a student portal upload?
• Another major reform is considering the fundamental question: Can you fulfill your school's mission without any Early deadlines at all? Some will argue that's the most logical for students and for families: one deadline, one response date.
Any final thoughts for students and families considering an early admissions path?
Students, take a look in the mirror. If your best academic work is taking place during senior year, not all colleges will look at those grades during an Early application. It could be best to wait, because if you are denied, there will not be a chance to show your upward-trending first semester or trimester of grades to the committee. Are you starting senior year having already researched why one or more colleges deserve to be your next home as you continue to grow, ages 18-22 – or are you pursuing Early programs simply for subjective qualities such as prestige and rankings? How will you handle the decisions (yes, no, maybe) arriving in December and January with respect to your academic motivation?
Parents and Guardians, also take a look in the mirror. Do you have a self-motivated student who can start senior year with the additional time management skills to fulfill Early applications within the first 6 to 10 weeks of school? If you are pursuing need-based financial aid, will you have last year's tax information available to file financial assistance documents between October 1 and November 1, via the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and potentially other forms that a university might require?
Do not put all of one's eggs (strategically, emotionally) into just one basket.