by Kara Beitzer
The University of North Carolina in 2002 became the first major university to drop its early decision application program, starting a national trend.
With early decision, a student can apply to a single university as early as October and usually find out by year's end whether he got in. If he is admitted, though, he must enroll there.
A growing number of universities, including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, the University of Virginia and the University of Delaware, have joined North Carolina in doing away with this option. Some of these universities say many high school students haven't settled on a single college so early in their senior year, and they prefer students to make informed, rather than premature, decisions.
Fewer than one in ten universities now offer early decision, according to www.collegedata.com. But many of the colleges still offering this option are among the nation's most elite and selective, including Penn and several other Ivy League universities. Several colleges popular among Delaware Valley students continue to offer early decision.
Among them (with early decision deadline and date of notification in parentheses) are Arcadia University (Oct. 15, Dec. 1); Bloomsburg University (Nov. 15, Dec. 1); Bryn Mawr College (Nov. 15, Dec. 15); Bucknell University (Nov. 15, Dec. 15); Chestnut Hill College (Dec. 1, Dec. 15); Franklin & Marshall College (Nov. 15, Dec. 15); Haverford College (Nov. 15, Dec. 15); Muhlenberg College (rolling, Nov. 1-Feb. 1, notify in about 30 days); Swarthmore College (Nov. 15, Dec. 15); the University of Pennsylvania (Nov. 1, Dec. 15); and Ursinus College (Jan. 15, Feb. 1).
Traditional admission and early decision are not the only application methods that colleges use. Some colleges are turning to relatively new systems, such as early action or rolling admission. Here are the main college admission methods and the advantages to students that counselors and admissions officials say they offer.
A good candidate for this option knows exactly what type of college she's looking for, including college size, location and atmosphere, as well as departmental strengths, academic demands and degrees offered.
Because she doesn't know if she'll be offered financial aid, an early applicant must have alternative ways to finance her education.
Admissions officials say successful early applicants often are involved in extracurricular activities and their communities. They should have a strong passion for their chosen college and have grades that meet its standards.
This student isn't applying early just to get the process over with. When reading early decision applications, Kurt Thiede, dean of admissions at Bucknell University, says he looks for students "with a strong academic schedule and consistent achievement. We are looking for students who have a deep commitment to activities outside of school, like sports, clubs or a part-time job, students who are doing well in the classroom and beyond."
Laurie Grossman, a counselor at Cherry Hill High School West in Cherry Hill, NJ, says, "Early decision can work really well for students who are very focused and know what they want. These students must be very driven."
Here are some of the benefits to students who opt for early decision.
•Â Students who are sure of their first-choice college can usually learn by mid-December whether or not they have been accepted. If the answer is yes, the application process is over, though there's no turning back. Early decision applications are a binding contract to attend.
• Early decision candidates are admitted at a higher rate because applicants often are judged only according to set standards, not against other highly qualified students. According to U.S. News and World Report, some colleges admit almost the same percentage of applicants during early and regular admission, but many favor the early pool. Columbia University admitted 23 percent of its early decision applicants for the class of 2011, compared with 7 percent of regular admission applicants. Lafayette College in Easton, PA, took 61 percent of early applicants, compared with 33 percent of regular applicants.
• At most institutions, if a student is rejected for early decision, he still has a chance to get into that college by applying through the regular decision process.
A significant disadvantage of early decision is that some of the colleges using this option don't notify applicants until as late as Dec. 15. That means if a student is not accepted, he could have as little as two weeks to complete and send applications to other colleges by the traditional Jan. 1 deadline.
Therefore, students applying for early decision should complete applications to their backup colleges and have them ready to mail in case their early application is rejected. Other disadvantages include:
• Colleges with early decision often retain the right to cancel admission if the student's grades fall, putting the student at risk.
• Because early decision is binding, a student accepted early will be rejected by any other college to which he applies.
•Â Early decision can add intensity to parents' obsession about getting kids into a prestigious university, says one admissions officer.
The University of Delaware's director of admissions, Lou Hirsh, says that "early decision disadvantages students who want or need time to make one of the biggest decisions of their life. Regular admissions gives them that time."
Hirsh says Delaware dropped its early decision program last year because it disfavors students for whom money is an issue, and because the university wants to view the applicant pool as a whole and it prefers to look at high school grades through the fall semester of senior year.
Applying through regular decision gives high school students time to boost grades in the first semester of their senior year. Students should "keep grades up because we like to see trending grades," Hirsh notes.
Regular decision benefits include:
• Before choosing a college, students can compare aid packages offered by colleges that accept them.
• Regular decision can be less stressful, because students have several more months to gather information and decide where to apply. Students and parents have more time to adapt to the application process.
• A student can apply to as many colleges as she wants to.
For students who are almost sure of the college that's right for them, some institutions offer an early application process that is less restrictive than early decision. It is called early action, or as some colleges refer to it, priority select or priority application.
Early action allows students to apply in the fall, usually with deadlines similar to early decision. The difference is that the student does not have to immediately enroll if he is accepted. He can still apply to other colleges, and still has about five months to make his choice until May 1 at many institutions.
So, if his ideal university has early action but he is a marginal candidate, he can still apply to other "backup" choices. Even if he's accepted by his first-choice university, he can still opt for another choice after considering financial aid packages and giving the decision more thought.
"We steer students that are 100 percent sure towards early action. You don't have to know what you want at age 17, that's what college is for," says Cherry Hill West's Laurie Grossman.
Other benefits of early action include:
• Acceptance is not binding. The student can still apply elsewhere and have until spring to make her decision.
• Early action is really only early notification of admission. Financial aid information will come later, and the student can compare it to other offers before choosing.
Nearby colleges that offer early action or priority application include LaSalle University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rider University, Richard Stockton University of New Jersey, Rutgers University-Camden, St. Joseph's University, Shippensburg University, Villanova University and Widener University.
Others popular with Delaware Valley students include Duquesne University, Fordham University, Harvard University, the University of Maryland, Ursinus College, the U.S. Naval Academy and Yale University.
Another system that includes the ability to apply early without committing to a college is called rolling admissions. Under it, colleges accept applications year-round until all spots in the upcoming freshman class are filled. As applications come in, they are reviewed case-by-case. Students hear back within four to eight weeks of applying.
Anne Rohrbach, director of admissions at Penn State University, which has rolling admissions, says, "We never really stop accepting applications as long as there is space available into August of that year. And there is no deadline." Advantages of rolling admission include:
• Students can apply early without a binding contract and still hear back early.
â?¢ Students are not restricted from applying to other colleges and aren't tied down if accepted.
Officials caution that although colleges with rolling admission accept applications after the traditional regular admission deadline, students should not apply too late. Financial aid and scholarship packages could be unavailable.
Colleges with rolling admissions include Arcadia University, Elizabethtown College, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, LaSalle University, Michigan State University, Penn State, Temple University, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Wisconsin.
In addition to rolling admissions, Arcadia also has early decision and LaSalle has an early action program.
To check on which types of admissions programs a college offers, visit www.collegeboard.com and enter the college's name in the College QuickFinder window. When the college's information appears, click Deadlines under At a Glance.
Kara Beitzer is an editorial assistant at MetroKids.