To all you high school seniors mentally kicking yourselves because you didn't apply early to college and now have to endure months of nail biting, here's some good news:
Research suggests you could end up getting more financial aid than those who committed early to college. And 10 years from now, you could very well be happier with whatever college choice you ended up making.
Of course, the data clearly show that applicants who apply early to college are more likely to get acceptance letters.
[Check out a list of 50 colleges that accept lots of early applicants.]
And some schools are replacing the restrictive "early decision" programs—which are often criticized for requiring teens to commit to only one college in the fall of their senior year—with more student-friendly "early action" programs that allow applicants to try their odds at several colleges.
But experts who've studied the ins and outs of college admissions say that the relief and other advantages of restrictive "early decision" applications comes at a price for late bloomers, those who need aid to pay for college and several other kinds of students. In fact, they say, there are six kinds of students who shouldn't apply early decision:
1. Obviously under-qualified. Research by Christopher Avery, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, found that applying early only gave a slight edge to students whose test scores, grades, and other qualifications were slightly below the college's average. Significantly underqualified students were rejected no matter when they applied.
2. Obviously over-qualified. Students who were slam-dunk candidates were admitted no matter when they applied, Avery found, so early applications can unnecessarily limit their options.
[Get tips and advice from our guide on applying to college.]
3. Reliant on financial aid. Students who get into several colleges get more aid than those who get into only one, research shows. While students can appeal financial aid offers made by colleges, they're likely to have more bargaining power if they can leverage offers from competing schools. In fact, a growing number of colleges including Harvard University, Cornell University, and Carnegie Mellon University now state publicly that they will consider matching financial aid offers from competing colleges. Students who commit to a single college in the fall can't get any competing offers.
[Read about how to put yourself on financial aid eBay.]
4. Late bloomers. While many public colleges' regular admissions deadlines are as early as November, many other colleges accept admissions through the spring of senior year. Students who stumble academically sophomore or junior year—but are able to recover in their senior year—need the extra time to prove to admissions officers (and themselves) that they can succeed in college.
5. The undecided. Few teenagers have clear career goals and a realistic understanding of what specific kinds of educational qualifications they want. "At the time they need to be preparing for college (many high schoolers) are just forming independent ideas about who they are and what interests them academically and socially," writes Barbara Schneider, an education professor at Michigan State University.
6. Those who delayed their college search until senior year. It takes time to sort through hundreds of college options. Students need to spend time understanding themselves and the quirks of each college, Schneider believes. Applicants who only start doing research in their senior year often don't have enough time to find a "perfect match" by early deadlines, some of which are as early as Nov. 1.
Schneider, who worries that the pressure to apply to college early could worsen what she calls "college fever," says her surveys of college graduates have turned up "some evidence that students who make these choices very early without having opportunities to explore other options, later on (in their twenties) report some dissatisfaction with their college choices and lives."