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Early Decision Up, Yet Still Small Part of Admissions Pie

Lunch rooms, hallways and Facebook are abuzz with news of who got in where as colleges begin to send out early decision and early action notices this month. Perhaps I'm hearing about it more because I have a high school student or is this the new pathway into college?

First, to clarify the terms:

Early decision is when a student applies to his first-choice school and, if accepted, the decision is binding.

Early action is similar to early decision, but the student doesn't have to commit immediately. She can still apply to other colleges and wait to make a decision until spring.

About 18 percent of colleges offer early decision and 24 percent have early action plans, according to the 2010 State of Admissions Report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). These plans are more common at private colleges.

For students who have their hearts set on a school, it can boost their chance of getting in over the regular admission process. Colleges with early decision policies reported a higher acceptance rate for their early decision applicants as compared to all applicants (70 percent versus 55 percent), and the gap between the acceptance rates has grown in recent years.

Students are catching on. For the third year in a row, about half (47 percent) of colleges reported increases in the number of early decision applications and nearly three-quarters (74 percent) had an increase in early action applications.

Colleges are finding it's a helpful tool, as well to gauge who is most interested in their school. About 65 percent of colleges report admitting more students under these plans in 2009, and 43 percent in 2008 also reported an increase.

Still, early decision applicants represent only a small portion of the total applicant pool at colleges that have these policies. Only 7 percent of all applications for fall 2009 admission to early decision colleges were received through early decision, the NACAC report showed.

So, it's somewhat of a gutsy move to go early decision—a little less so for early action. Both scenarios require students to be focused and get their act together early in their senior year. Those lucky ones who now know where they are headed next fall can enjoy the holidays—hopefully with no second thoughts about their commitment—while many of their classmates will spend winter break filling out more applications and agonizing in the coming months about their future.

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