With the November early application deadlines fast approaching at approximately 450 colleges and universities around the country, it’s time for high school seniors to decide whether fast-tracking the waiting game is right for them.
Like everything else in the college application process, there are many different factors to consider. But one thing is clear.
While the idea of knowing you’ve been accepted to your top choice by the end of December sounds like the perfect scenario right about now, applying as an early applicant is only for students who know they’ve done their best possible work during every grading period for the last three years, according to people who work in college admissions.
“We’re very cautious and very selective with that early pool,” said John Mahoney, director of undergraduate admission at Boston College.
He said a student applying early should be someone who has done all the research and is sure Boston College is where he or she wants to be for the next four years.
“It’s also someone who looks back and is very confident in their profile by the end of junior year, who says to themselves, ‘I’ll stand on that, I’m ready to be judged on those grades, those test scores, those accomplishments,’” he said.
“But, if you look back and see maybe a semester where you may have had some personal problems and your grades slipped, you would be better off to let us see another semester of grades,” he added.
Courtney Minden, dean of undergraduate admission at Babson College, agrees.
“It’s not for a student who didn’t really step on the gas until junior year and needs to show us they are keeping up the momentum senior year,” she said.
For students satisfied with their academic and extracurricular performance through junior year, there are two general categories of early acceptance to weigh before the application deadlines.
Early decision, whereby students get decisions by the end of December, is generally binding. Early action, whereby students can be notified anywhere from mid-December through February, is not.
Rolling admission is also used by many colleges and universities across the country. With this admission policy, applications are read as soon as all the required information is received, and students are notified quickly as decisions are made, rather than waiting until one date to let every applicant know at once.
Early decision is for students absolutely sure about their first choice because they can apply to just one college, and if admitted, must attend that school provided they receive an aid package that the family can afford, according to information provided by the College Board website.
Any applications they may have submitted to other schools while waiting for the early decision must be withdrawn, and high school guidance departments are often asked to sign agreements that students’ transcripts will not be sent to any other institutions.
While this option can benefit students who are sure of their choice, it can be less attractive for students who depend on financial aid to attend college, since their decision must be based on the aid package from just one school.
With early action, students have more flexibility because the decisions aren’t binding. And for high achieving students, this can be an option that will give peace of mind as the process unfolds.
For example, Mahoney of Boston College said this is a pool where he sees some of the brightest, highest achieving students applying.
“These are the kids at the top of the national pool, they’re looking at the top schools, they go off to win Fulbrights and Rhodes Scholarships,” he said.
This is a chance for those students to get an acceptance secured early in the process while waiting to hear from some of the most selective schools in the country, he said.
On the other side, the early action option gives colleges a chance to court some of these top students. At Boston College, Mahoney said students applying early there may also be considering Ivy Leage schools, as well at BC’s Catholic rivals, Georgetown University and Notre Dame.
“We are all competing for those students,” he said.
He said Boston College invites students admitted in the early action process to campus in January, and has current students call them to talk about classes and campus life.
Last year Boston College received approximately 9,800 of its 29,000 applications in the early application process. Of those 9,800 applicants, 2,700 were admitted, and 675 enrolled.
“We wish that yield were higher,” he said.
Mahoney said the acceptance rate for early admission was approximately 30 percent last year, and approximately 27 percent for general admission.
Admission figures provided by some other local colleges show a different picture.
At Stonehill College in Easton last year, students who applied using the early admission option were admitted at an 87 percent rate, while 65 percent of students who applied at the regular January deadline were admitted, according to figures provide by the communications office there.
Of those students who applied early, the overwhelming majority chose the early action option, rather than early decision.
At Wheaton College in Norton, Grant Gosselin, vice president of enrollment, dean of admission and student aid, said students applying under the binding early decision option get a very close look, and are admitted at a much higher rate than those who apply later.
“These are a self-selected group of students who have already done the work, and who have already decided that Wheaton is a good match for them,” he said.
He said about 80 percent of those who use the early decision option are admitted, while the figure drops to about 57 percent for regular admission.
Gosselin also said Wheaton works with students to determine the financial options available early in the process, so they are not forced to decide before they know what aid might be available.
And at UMass Lowell, 56 percent of students who used the early action option to apply were admitted, while the figure was 48 percent for those who applied in the regular admission pool, according Nancy Cicco, assistant director of media relations.
“Candidates who apply early present very strong academic credentials,” she wrote in an email to the Globe.
At Babson, Minden said the early application process is for strong students who are not only sure they want to study at a small college, but also sure they want to study at a business school.
Like at Boston College, Minden said the pool at Babson vying for early admission is strong, and that they don’t take chances on students at this stage of the process.
“There’s nothing worse than getting to February and telling my staff, OK, stop reading those thousands of applications, our class is full,” she said.
She said she wants to make sure there is plenty of room for students who are using the regular Jan. 4 deadline, and waiting to hear in May.
Students applying early can be admitted, denied, or deferred where their application is put back into the pool of applicants applying for admission in May.
Minden said at Babson, the majority of applicants applying early are deferred.
“But we are going to have a purposeful discussion about those students on the edge,” she said. “We are asking ourselves, ‘Are we just trying to be kind? Are we just postponing the inevitable?’”
Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. College Bound offers tips and perspectives on preparing, applying, and payng for college.