Senior Yelin Mao works on his California State University application in college counselor Jane Bauman's office. Mao is applying early action to Northeastern University. (Photo by Jacqueline Chao)

Over half of seniors apply early to top colleges

Everyone wants to get into the college of their dreams – and it seems like applying early decision (ED) or early action (EA) might be the easiest way in.

And colleges are profiting off of this mindset:  The College Board states that approximately 450 colleges offer ED and/or EA plans.

According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s State of College Admissions Report for 2017, colleges saw a 15 percent increase in ED applicants and a 16 percent increase in admits.

But numbers can be deceiving.  

The two most prevailing “early plans” are ED and early action. While both require students to apply earlier than regular decision deadlines, there are key differences, college counselor Chris Kuipers said.

Students who apply ED/EA usually apply on Nov. 1 and receive the college’s decision on Dec. 15. If accepted on EA, they can apply regular decision to other colleges, but ED plans are binding. A student who is accepted through ED must attend the college and withdraw all other applications.

On the other hand, EA plans aren’t binding. Students receive an early response to their application but do not have to commit to the college until the normal reply date of May 1.

And Country Day students are using them more and more.

Of the 32 seniors polled on Oct. 11, five said they were applying ED to colleges, and 21 said they were applying early action.

Of those 21 students, 11 said they are applying EA to one college, two to four colleges and one to five colleges.

Senior Kyra LaFitte said she is applying early to five colleges.

“I applied to those five so I can find out if I actually got in earlier,” LaFitte said. “If I don’t get in, I can apply to my backup schools.”

Seniors Alex Rogawski and Nate Jakobs are both applying ED.

Rogawski is applying ED to Brandeis and EA to the University of Minnesota, the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of Oregon and the University of Maryland.

He said he is applying ED because Brandeis is his top school, and his GPA is slightly lower than that of most applicants.

“It’ll basically boost my chances, and I’m sure that I would go to the school if I got in anyways,” Rogawski said.

Jakobs is applying ED to Pomona College and EA to the University of Colorado, Boulder and potentially the University of Oregon and Loyola Marymount University.

Unlike Rogawski, Jakobs said he chose to apply early to Pomona College because of his passion for baseball.

Jakobs said he will also have a letter of recommendation from the Pomona-Pitzer (combined team of Pomona and Pitzer College) baseball coach, Frank Pericolosi.

“As an athlete, that’ll help my chances and demonstrate that I have a little more interest for the school,” Jakobs said.

Like Rogawski, he also said he believed it would compensate for his lower grades and higher test scores.

But is their logic correct?

Director of college counseling Jane Bauman and college counselor Chris Kuipers didn’t fully agree with Rogawski.

“It’s a great thing to do if you know where you want to go and find the school that’s really a good fit for you,” she said.

But both agreed it isn’t for everyone.

Kuipers, who was also an admissions officer for Stanford and Amherst, said that as colleges are admitting students, they’re building their class, and they want students to “fill up” certain spaces if they have special skills.

“Whether you have an athletic or a music talent, or if you have alumni legacy connection at a particular school, it can absolutely be advantageous to apply early because the college is locking you up,” he said.

“It will probably give you a boost.”

Another reason for students to apply early, Kuipers said, is if they are one of the “most qualified students” applying, although this benefit is marginal.

But in general, he said, the higher acceptance rate is not because colleges are lowering their standards. It’s because, despite recent raises in the number of ED and EA applicants, there are fewer people applying early than regular decision. And those who are applying are often those who have a “hook,” like a legacy connection.

“Colleges certainly are not lowering standards,” Kuipers said. “So if you aren’t particularly competitive for a particular college, your chances are not better.”

But what Kuipers said he is seeing more often are students who are thinking that there’s an extreme advantage to applying early.

Thus, they apply to their reach schools, where they might not have a hook.

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Kuipers said. “But I tell students that, almost always, if they’re questionably competitive, it doesn’t matter when they apply, they’re probably not going to get in.”

“ED can be an advantage at the right school, but students are throwing that possible advantage away for a school that’s going to be a roll of the dice admissions-wise (by not applying to) a better match for them.” 

Furthermore, Kuipers said, if students apply early, they’re making their decision in October of their senior year. 

And in his experience, both on the college and the college-counseling side, students’ thoughts can change dramatically from October to May. 

Moreover, for a student who is on an “upward trend,” applying early might actually hurt their changes.

“Maybe they got off to a bit of a rocky start ninth grade,” Kuipers said.

“They start to hit their stride at the end of 10th and into 11th, taking their most rigorous classes in 12th grade.” 

If students are applying EA or ED, their applications show only the grades of their junior year because colleges view the applications in December. 

However, if students wait until regular decision, they also send in their first-semester grades of senior year. 

Thus, a student who actually might stand a chance regular decision with a strong first semester of senior year could actually be at a disadvantage applying early. 

Readiness to make a binding decision is also an issue. 

In the conversations he has with seniors, Kuipers said, the sentiment from many is that they don’t know where they want to go to school. 

Kuipers urges these students to apply regular decision – except if they plan to go into engineering.

Many students are admitted early to engineering programs, so if students need to wait and apply regular decision to get their grades up, they could be at a slight disadvantage. 

Furthermore, ED plans have been criticized as unfair to students from low-income families, since they do not have the opportunity to compare financial aid packages, Bauman said. 

Moreover, Bauman said that another trend troubles her.

Some schools (such as Vanderbilt University) have their early application deadline as Nov. 1 but don’t inform students of any merit aid until later – after students have already applied. 

Bauman said she felt this was an “exclusionary” practice because it limits the type of student who could apply to the college. 

For example, a student who was in the middle income range and would benefit from merit aid would have to make their decision without knowing their aid. 

But to escape criticism and offer more options to students, Kuipers said, some colleges also offer other forms of application: restrictive EA (REA) and ED II. 

Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Boston College and Stanford offer REA. 

It’s a nonbinding decision, but colleges ask students to not to apply elsewhere early. 

“It’s something that a small handful of schools could do,” Kuipers said. “They’re forcing students to say, ‘You are my first choice.’”

Kuipers said he likes the REA process because it doesn’t lock students in. 

However, he also said it’s not a trend that will be common in other schools. 

“They don’t have the clout to say, ‘We are the only college you can apply EA to,’” Kuipers said.  

But Bauman said she doesn’t love the idea, as it limits students too much. 

“Say you’re applying to Stanford restrictive early action, but you want to apply to five other schools early action, then you can’t,” she said. 

Some colleges also offer ED II, which locks students in but extends the deadline to the regular decision date. 

Kuipers said he likes ED II because it allows students to think their decision through. 

“It gives seniors a little bit more time to reflect and do research, but it also allows them – without rushing the schedule – to still make a statement to a school that this is their first choice,” he said. 

Some independent organizations are also offering their own version of the admissions process.

Senior Yanele Ledesma is applying to colleges through QuestBridge, a non-profit program that links students from low-income households with educational and scholarship opportunities at some U.S. colleges and universities.

The application is separate from the Common App; to complete it, Ledesma said, she ranked colleges and completed essays. If the colleges accept her, she will recieve a full ride there. 

Her deadline for the general QuestBridge application (without ranking colleges) was Sept. 27. 

Her biggest struggle, she said, was planning her test dates.

“I got them in on time, but the October SAT was way too late, and the August one was just in time,” Ledesma said. 

“If I had wanted to improve my score, it would have been tough.” 

While students have mixed results from early applications, the colleges benefit immensely, Bauman and Kuipers said. 

“ED is designed by colleges to benefit colleges,” Kuipers said. 

“They sell it to students through this vague promise, and maybe there’s a little bit of an advantage, but from an admissions office perspective, it’s to benefit the college.” 

First, according to Bauman, the workload in applications is crushing for the admission officers, who have to read tens of thousands of letters, essays and transcripts. If the colleges can start that process any earlier, Bauman said, they will. 

Second, colleges craft their class, and when the decision is nonbinding, there’s so much guesswork. 

Even at Harvard and Stanford, Kuipers said, the yield rates – the number of people who choose to attend the college – are not 100 percent but rather in the 80s or 90s. Most schools have yield rates below 50 percent. 

So colleges need to accept two or three students to yield one, but they don’t want to overfill the class while still needing to fill up various extracurriculars, like the band or the basketball team, and accept students from different geographic and socio-economic backgrounds.

“Admission offices like certainty as they’re building their class,” Kuipers said. 

“And so ED really works for them.” 

And while colleges profit from students applying earlier, teachers are at a major disadvantage.

ED, EA and REA deadlines tend to fall around Nov. 1, the end of the first quarter, Bauman said. 

And this year, Kuipers said, a higher-than-average percentage of seniors are applying early.

“I have about 16 advisees this year, and 12 or 13 of them have a Nov. 1 deadline – one even has an Oct. 15 deadline,” Kuipers said.

“Just five years ago, writing load was spread out from October to December. Now it really is all in October.” 

This is especially tough, according to Kuipers, because the counselors meet with seniors in the fall and don’t want to start their letters until they’ve had that meeting. 

And the counselors are lucky if they get through those meetings in September. 

“I think both (Bauman) and I spend, in terms of collecting the information and actually sitting down and writing it and uploading it, four hours at least per letter,” Kuipers said. 

“That’s another full week of work on top of other classes the teachers are also doing.”

Biology teacher Kellie Whited agreed. 

A significant amount of time goes into writing each letter of recommendation, she said, and when a majority of students have a letter due on Nov. 1, it complicates finding time to write letters and put the necessary amount of effort into them. 

“I’m not going to change the time and love I put into a letter because of the due date,” Whited said. 

However, Whited said students occasionally ask her for letters late or ask her for letters while being in only their first year with her. 

In the end, Kuipers said, the college admissions process has become a “frenzy feeding.”

“There’s this notion that this is your one shot, right?” Kuipers said.

“You only apply to colleges one time in your life. There’s no learning from mistakes. 

“I think if there’s even the smallest glimmer of advantage, people sort of feed into that.” 

The irony of all admissions, Kuipers said, is that the more people who jump at a chance and start to apply, the lower the acceptance rate is going to be, which makes it tougher to get in.

“And then the next year, people look at it and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s tougher to get in! I better take advantage of whatever small slice of advantage I have and apply early,’” he said. 

“And then that drives more people to apply earlier, which decreases the acceptance rate.” 

This is similar to what is being driven by the Common App, Kuipers said. The Common App allows you to, if you have the financial means, apply almost endlessly to colleges. 

“Back when I was applying, I remember five or six was the average number of schools because we had to fill out a paper application every single time,” Kuipers said. 

However, the average number of colleges students apply to now might be a dozen, especially with UCs, according to Kuipers. 

“It gives them a lot of options,” Kuipers said.

“But if everyone across the nation is applying to more and more schools, app numbers are going up, which is going to drive selectivity down, which is going to drive more people to say, ‘Oh, I need to give myself more options because it’s harder to get in.’ 

“It just feeds into itself.”  

Fortunately, Kuipers said, at Country Day, students are well prepared, so the influx of applicants is not a huge crisis. 

“But at some other high schools, it’s starting to really affect students,” Kuipers said.

“Last year, there was a lot of unpredictability with UC admissions – and that’s due to the extraordinarily high numbers of applicants.” 

So what should students do?

Kuipers said they should realize the admission rate is a “meaningless” way of measuring the quality of a school and shouldn’t dictate where or when they apply.

It’s simply a reflection of how many students are applying to a particular school and how many they can afford to admit. 

“I see super smart students who can analyze and think critically about everything in my classroom who are just latched on to this one percentage, the acceptance percentage, which is just silly,” Kuipers said. 

“There are over 3000 schools out there, so most students would be perfectly happy at hundreds of schools that they probably never even heard of.”

—By Héloïse Schep

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