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Weighing the Option of Applying to College Early Decision II

Decisions, decisions. Many high school seniors are inundated with them right now.

With transcript requests due this week, students need to finalize their list of colleges. For those with a strong favorite, there is the dilemma about whether to apply Early Decision II.

A quick review of the terms:

Early Decision I - Students apply to one top-choice school in the fall and, if chosen, enter into a binding agreement to attend.

Early Action - Students send in their applications ahead of the normal deadline, and colleges let them know early if they are accepted, but the student does not have to decide until the spring to commit or not.

Early Decision II - Students apply to one top-choice school by Jan. 1, and like Early Decision I, are committed to attend if selected.

At this point in the fall, the first two options have passed, so the issue is whether to enter the ED II process, So, who's offering ED II, and when is it the right decision? I spoke with Sally Rubenstone, senior adviser for College Confidential for some insights.

Although the option has been around for awhile, ED II has gained popularity among schools in the past five years or so, says Rubenstone. Of the 456 Common App colleges, about 15 percent offer ED II. It's prevalent among the better-known liberal arts colleges, including Swarthmore, Bowdoin, Middlebury, and Tufts and a number of smaller private universities, such as Brandeis, Vanderbilt, Emory, Carnegie Mellon, and Wesleyan. ED II is not offered at any of the Ivies or Johns Hopkins, Washington University, Rice, Amherst, Williams, or Wellesley.

According to Rubenstone, ED II is a good option for seniors who:
-Need more time for college searching or application completion than a November deadline allowed;
-Were disappointed with junior grades and want colleges to see one and maybe even two senior quarters before applying; or
-Couldn't complete required testing by November or who want to try again.

Many students who Rubenstone works with opt for what she's dubbed the "ED I, ED II Skidoo." This is where a student applies to a top-choice college in the first Early Decision round. Then, if the student is rejected outright, or, often, even if deferred, he or she takes a shot at a second-choice college. The ED II school should be slightly less selective than the first one in the ED II round, she advises. "This can be a wise strategy, especially if the ED II college is really a close second in the student's heart," she says. "Applying early—whether in November or January—usually provides a significant admissions-odds boost."

Students must remember that by applying early in either round, they are making a binding commitment. If the school doesn't offer enough financial aid to allow them to attend, however, students can back out of the decision without penalty. Rubenstone cautions students applying early who need financial assistance that they may not get the best possible financial-aid package from an ED school, so they should come up with a number in advance that they need. If the college says yes in an ED round and is able to meet that amount, the student should feel honor-bound to accept the offer, even if it means not sticking around until April to see if some other college might have awarded more, she says.

For students, the advantage of applying Early Decision I in the fall is that they hear back from their top-choice school early enough that they don't have to spend time filling out other applications. That's not the case with ED II. The deadline is Jan. 1, along with all the others—removing the allure of sending in one solid early application and saving time on others. Still, Rubenstone says, if students have a strong preference for one school, it can be a good strategy that improves your admissions chances.

For schools, having another round that attracts students with a strong interest in their program will likely lead to higher yields and a more committed freshman class. Some colleges pass, however, on the process because it's another layer of work for their already maxed out admission office.

Perhaps, the enrollment practice will gain momentum in light of research, like I wrote about in yesterday's post, that links early decision and early action choices with improved college-completion rates.

According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, last year Early Decision activity declined while Early Action grew. Only 38 percent of colleges with ED policies reported increases in the number of students accepted through Early Decision for fall 2010, down from the previous three years when about half of colleges reported increases. Another 36 percent reported increases in ED admissions, compared with 65 percent in 2009 and 43 percent in 2008. However, 72 percent of colleges with Early Action policies reported increases in EA applications, and 68 percent reported more EA admissions.

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