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To “ED” or not to “ED”, that is the question

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what is early decision for college - the complete discussion

ED (Early Decision) season is here. For millions of students within and outside of United States who are applying to the US colleges for the undergraduate program, ED season comes every year, like a Flu. And with it comes the question “what is early decision for college”, the agony, rising tension, cold calculation of tuition cost and of course, an amazing display of amateur game theory.

What is Early Decision for colleges – ED?

what is early decision for college - the pros and cons

Let’s start with the “What” of the Early Decision, widely known as ED. This is a common policy used by selective US colleges, and increasingly non-selective ones too, under which an applicant to the incoming freshman class declares only ONE university as his / her top choice. So… what’s wrong with that? Legally, nothing is wrong with that. Practically, ED ushers in several complications and opportunities alike.

Let’s start with the complications

Can you apply early decision to multiple schools?

How many early decisions can you apply to?

Now that you know what is early decision for college, let’s delve deep. By design and by policy, timeline to submit applications under ED is several weeks ahead of the Regular Decision (RD). Typically, ED deadline for most colleges is Oct 15-31 while RD goes all the way to Jan 1-15. When a student applies under ED, s/he declares College X as top choice and commits to join the college, if accepted. Admissions decisions under ED program comes by early to mid-Dec before RD timeline expires.

Meaning a student who applied to College X under ED can hold out for the decision before hitting the “submit” button for the rest in Common Apps, the near- universal college application portal. If already applied, the student needs to officially withdraw from all other colleges. It is legally binding though there has always been debate about enforceability of this clause.

Critiques of ED fervently argue that expecting a 17-year-old to precisely know which college she/he wants to attend before having other choices is illogical and unscientific. There is merit in that argument though the counter-argument could be – how would the same student make a manifestly better decision if they have one or two more college options in RD?

A stronger argument against ED is really around financial aid

Most EDs come with no financial aid and students and their families know that. So, for candidates needing that critical financial support will have to make a blind decision of joining a preferred college without truly checking resources offered by other colleges, if she/he is admitted in the RD cycle.

Which brings us to the core and often unsaid criticism of ED – is this an elite, front-door way of getting into top colleges? Is this designed to admit good students from wealthy families who can pay full tuition fees and, therefore, does not factor in financial aid in the acceptance equation. Is this another way of preserving legacy admission practice with the assumption that most legacies become financially wealthy.

History of the ED 

The history of what is early decision for college goes back to late ‘70s when University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) Dean of Admissions. Willis J. Stetson came up with this novel idea to make UPenn attractive amongst peer Ivies and recover its sagging prestige, partly driven by its location in the heart of crime-ridden South Philly (Philadelphia).

It had no ranking in the US News and less than 40% of its incoming class would consider UPenn their first choice. Which means, more than half the class wished they were somewhere else! Not a pretty situation for an Ivy League institution. A combination of shrewd marketing of “Early Decision”, urban revival of South Philly and of course, rigorous academics lifted UPenn’s standing to one of the most selective universities in the country in less than 30 years.

Why Early Decision – ED?

Now… let’s focus on the opportunities; rather “Why” of ED. Assuming the seventeen-year-old does actually have a clear and logical preference for College X and the financial aid is not a major variable in his / her admission decision, ED offers a unique and unparallel opportunity. Numbers prove that.

A study was done in 2020 analyzing acceptance rate of “top 16” universities for past ten years.  The result is quite stunning – ED applicants have 2x probability of getting admitted relative to RD applicants. Typically the ED acceptance rate in the cohort varied from 29.5% for the class of 2012 to 24.3% for the class of 2020.

At the same time, RD acceptance rate varied from 19.9% to 11.7%, respectively. Clearly shows that top colleges are getting incredibly competitive just in a span of ten years but ED applicants continue to enjoy over-sized advantage over RD applicants where the heat of the competition is even more severe.

That brings us to the last question that gave rise to a legion of amateur game theorists, largely amongst overly anxious parents and opportunistic college counselors. And it is … “Where” to ED. Should we ED to College X or College Y? Will I regret for life if accepted by College X under ED or better to hold out for College Y under RD? What if my classmate (or the neighbor’s daughter, if you chose to use parental lens)

EDs to College X and gets it and I wait until RD and don’t, will my family be living under eternal shame? I know I am exaggerating here but it is really to make the point. Families and students alike have taken ED to such an exasperating level that it is adding enormous stress and frustration in an already stressed US undergrad admissions process. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Distil it down to the core question – what makes the student happy. If you wish to know more about that, read my last article.

Two guiding principles that a student needs to use while deciding on the ED application –

(a) is this college ambitious enough for me that the 2x advantage in acceptance is really meaningful, and

(b) if selected, will I experience pure joy?

If the answers to both are resounding YES, go for it and don’t look back! Let the ED season begin.

I hope you liked the discussion on what is early decision for college and the complete discussion around it. Best of luck!

Arindam Mukhopadhyay
Arindam Mukhopadhyay
Financial Services at Wall Street | [email protected]

Arindam has been a weekend educator by passion and a full-time financial services executive by profession, working in the Wall Street for the last 20 years. A father of two, one currently in college and one recently graduated, Arindam is a passionate advocate of  the higher education reform everywhere. He has been closely following the undergraduate education in the United States, especially the admissions system for the last decade.

In his spare time, Arindam guides students from various socio-economic background to prepare for college.

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