How to Know if You Should Apply to College Early

The bar might be lower, but a search for financial aid could suffer.

Financial aid prospects could be slimmer for students applying early to college.
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Connor Cerniglia's application to Bates College looked highly promising. The Annapolis, Md., senior was in the top third of his class at St. Mary's High School, played football and lacrosse, and was active in student government and the environment club. But the likely clincher given the applicant pool the college attracts, his college adviser Dave Gibson says now, is that he applied early decision (ED), promising to attend if accepted.

"I wanted to express to the school how much I truly wanted to go there," says Cerniglia, now a Bates sophomore.

Contrary to speculation five years ago that early admissions was on the wane, following decisions by Harvard University, Princeton University, and the University of Virginia to drop their early options as a disservice to racial and socioeconomic diversity, the programs have only grown in popularity.

[See U.S. News's Best Colleges rankings.]

"More students are using their early card than ever before," says Bev Taylor, founder of the admissions consulting firm The Ivy Coach in New York City.

Of high school seniors who filled out the Common Application last year, nearly 51 percent applied to some form of an early program, says Rob Killion, the Common App's executive director. The programs range from simple early action, which doesn't obligate you to attend, to binding early decision.

Not wanting to miss out on all these choice candidates, the three universities that ended early options have re-entered the game. Harvard and Princeton restored "single choice" early action last fall, which restricts applicants from applying early to other private schools but doesn't require them to attend or even decide until May 1.

U.Va.'s early action option isn't restrictive. Greg Roberts, dean of admissions, says the university is responding to strong interest in an early plan from parents and students—and that, without one, U.Va. may have been losing applicants.

[Read more about the return to early admissions.]

The programs clearly are a boon for the colleges. Early decision, in particular, is the proverbial bird-in-hand for admissions staffers facing increasing uncertainty in picking a freshman class as high schoolers hedge their bets by applying to 10 or more schools.

By securing in some cases nearly half of the incoming freshmen by December 15, colleges can avoid coming up short after May 1. They also boost their yield, the percentage of admitted students who enroll, which has become a key indicator of popularity.

Early decision applicants can't automatically assume a lowered bar; Miami University in Ohio offers them a mere 1 percent advantage, for example, and Wake Forest University, too, characterizes any edge as slight. But as a strategic move, ED can make good sense for students who know what they want and "may not have all the A's, the scores, the activities, or the talent," says Taylor.

Many institutions readily acknowledge that their early acceptance rates are higher than for regular admissions. At Vanderbilt University, 13 percent of those who apply for regular admissions are accepted, compared to 24 percent who make the cut in the early decision pools. The former are more competitive, with the middle 50 percent scoring 1470 to 1590 on the two primary parts of the SAT and 33 to 35 on the ACT, compared to the early-bird middle 50 percent, who came in at 1390 to 1520 and 31 to 33.

Bates takes 47 percent of its early decision pool and 22 percent of regular applicants. Lafayette College most recently admitted 56 percent of those who applied early decision, compared to 31 percent of the regular pool.

[See 50 colleges with high early admission rates.]

The big hitch with binding early decision is that students hoping for the best possible financial aid package won't be able to compare offers, which are made in March. When an award turns out to be too skimpy, schools will typically release you from your commitment. But by then it may be too late to apply elsewhere.

While financial aid offices will typically estimate your share of costs before you apply, being proactive is key. "Say, 'These are my numbers, can you give me a rough estimate?'" advises Barry Baker, director of college counseling at the California Academy of Math and Science in Carson.