Seven Things You Need to Know About Early Action

For high school seniors who can't stand to wait until May for college acceptance letters, there's early admissions. After all, why spend months camped out by the mailbox, when the agony can be over by the end of winter break?

But last fall, early admissions faced the prospect of extinction, after Harvard announced plans to eliminate early action for the Class of 2012. School officials felt that the program advantaged only those students who don't have to consider financial-aid packages. Many speculated that other schools would soon follow suit. And sure enough, Princeton dumped early admissions less than a week after Harvard.

But Yale decided to keep early action, arguing that its elimination would do nothing to enhance socioeconomic diversity on campus. Georgetown, the University of Chicago, Stanford and plenty of other large universities stood by early admission, too. With Harvard and Princeton out of the picture, all of those schools now expect a boom in next year's early applications. Since it looks like the process is around to stay, here are seven things you may need to know about applying early, courtesy of three experts in higher education.

Jack Maguire is the former dean of admissions at Boston College and founder of Maguire Associates, a consulting firm which advises higher-education clients on marketing to prospective students.

Jonathan Reider is the director of college counseling at San Francisco's University High School and a former senior associate director of admissions at Stanford University.

Chris Avery is the Roy E. Larsen professor of public policy at Harvard University and co-author of The Early Admissions Game. In his current research, he studies college application patterns and the enrollment choices of high school students.

1. Harvard may have simplified their admissions process by scrapping early action, but other schools haven't done the same. That means you need to be familiar with five options.

Depending on where you apply, you'll probably have at least two options from this menu: regular decision, early decision, single-choice early action, multiple-choice early action, and rolling admissions.

Regular and rolling admissions are the least complex. With regular admissions, you can apply to as many schools as you'd like, and weigh various financial-aid packages before making a final decision. But you may not find out whether you're accepted until April, and at many schools, the acceptance rate for regular admission applicants is lower than for early applicants.

With early decision, you apply in the fall and find out in December if you're admitted. The decision is binding; if admitted, you must withdraw all your other applications.

Early action has two variations: single-choice and multiple-choice. With both variations, you apply early and find out your decision in December, but the decision is nonbinding. You are allowed to also apply to schools through regular decision, and compare financial-aid packages.

2. Some students benefit from early decision; others don't.

At selective schools, the acceptance rate for early applicants is almost always higher than for the pool of regular applicants. "If you know exactly where you want to go," says Chris Avery, "it will help your admissions chances to apply early."

But early decision presents what Jack Maguire calls a "catch-22" for students who need financial aid: "If you apply early, you might have a higher chance of getting in, versus if you apply late you might have a higher chance of getting money."

3. Applying early isn't good for a high-school student's stress level (not to mention their parents'.)

Instead of digging into their senior year classes, early applicants may end up spending way too much time focusing on their application.

4. Early application can come back to haunt you in freshman year.

Many early admittees slack off the second they get their December acceptance. That may sound good to high schoolers, but what colleges have found is that many of these kids have gaps in their senior year education as a result.

"Both college and high school faculty are concerned that seniors aren't working hard enough," says Maguire. Harvard's decision will mean that their applicants will have to work throughout the spring in order to be accepted in April.

5. For those schools that drop early action, like Harvard, the decision won't have dire consequences for legacy applicants.

Harvard's "not going to forget about legacy and development cases. They're not going to revolutionize the process," Reider says. Nor should overachievers worry. If you're the head of your class and president of the Drama Club and scored a 1600 on the SATs, there's no reason to think this decision will affect your chances.

"The top kids — the wicked smart kids who were getting in early — are still going to get in regular later," says Reider. "What's going to change is a little bit at the end of the process, you're going to have more spaces to fill."

6. Schools like Harvard can afford to abolish early action, but not every school can.

Harvard's yield is the highest in the country. Almost 80 percent of the students admitted to Harvard's Class of 2006 decided to enroll, so the school doesn't have to worry that ending early action will have any impact on the profile of its student body.

"A kid has to be very thoughtful about turning Harvard down," Reider says.

Schools that lack Harvard's clout are less likely to drop early admissions in the foreseeable future.

7. Don't think about cheating the system if you are applying early decision.

No matter how sneaky you are, your high school counselor must send your transcripts out. And a counselor will not send out more than one transcript if you've applied early decision or single-choice early action. But what if you somehow manage to outfox your overworked counselor? Then you could be in big trouble — if the schools find out, they'll all reject you.

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