With the college admissions process looming on the horizon, an element of strategic thinking is beginning to emerge in many households as families assess their options and calculate the odds of gaining admission to selective colleges and universities.
Given the overall competitiveness of the admissions field, especially at elite institutions, a determination is made to target one of these places with an early decision application. In short, "we need to find an ED college."
In such instances, getting into a "reach school"—any reach school—has become the priority, and the assumption is that the best chance of getting in is to apply ED.
[Read more about applying to college early.]
By the numbers, this assessment is on the mark. Early decision, an option students can pursue to learn the fate of their applications early in the process in exchange for an absolute commitment to enroll if accepted, does provide a statistical advantage for applicants at most schools.
However, the rush to ED often means that good judgment—and a systematic deliberation leading to the identification of a short list of "good fit" colleges—is set aside in favor of the potential to score a big prize.
When this happens, the exhilaration experienced in the short term often gives way to long-term regret. In pursuing such a strategy, you might get in to a "reach" school, but as the euphoria wears off, the chances are good you'll soon have second thoughts about the commitment you just made.
[Get tips on finding the right school.]
This came home to me when, as my son was preparing to apply to schools, the early decision question was raised in a slightly different context. It was clear that one school had emerged as his first choice. While his credentials matched up reasonably well for that school, he did not project to be an automatic admit.
Having managed the selection process myself for many years, I understood that his best chance of getting in would be as an early decision candidate. When I asked whether he was considering an ED application to that school, his response surprised me.
"It's still early. While I really like that school now, I can't be sure I'll feel the same way about it in April," he said. He chose not to apply ED, a decision that probably cost him his best chance of gaining admission.
While he didn't get into that school as a regular decision candidate, I was proud of the wisdom he displayed in making the decision. Had he pursued the ED option, there is a very good chance he would have been admitted to the school. Would he have been happy with the choice? Who knows?
He decided to put off a commitment in order to further evaluate all of his options in search of the best fit. Today, he couldn't be happier with his ultimate selection.
[Learn about finding a good college fit.]
My advice: don't "game" the ED option. Resist the temptation to put yourself in the position of seeing momentary elation give way to regret over a misplaced commitment.
The application process isn't about winning a "prize." Instead, focus on establishing a short list of schools that are good fits. Think about it. The best schools for you are those that value you for your accomplishments and for your potential to achieve in college. If one of them emerges as a strong, unequivocal first choice, then—and only then—consider applying ED.