To ED or not ED?

worried-girlThis morning, as I enjoyed my first “cup o’ college” and perused a long lineup of unread emails, I almost choked on my chai at one of the subject lines. It was from a wonderful small college in the Midwest that shall go unnamed for the moment. The subject line that got me so riled up: an unabashedly bold “Why You Should Apply Early Decision.”

This wasn’t aimed at me, the college consultant, of course, but rather at high school seniors on their mailing list. Stressed-out young people likely weighing important choices in the next few weeks and months. Young people looking for answers and direction. And if a college they really like writes to recommend that they apply Early Decision, well, maybe that would be a great idea. After all, the college says (and I quote): “You’re done! You don’t have to wait by the mailbox throughout your entire senior year. You will have made your plans and finalized your search before the holidays!”

Sounds like a pretty solid idea, right? Who wouldn’t want to get this college admissions process over with as quickly as possible?

But let’s step back a minute and take a look at what Early Decision really means. Is it the great deal this college makes it out to be? And should you be considering it?

First, a quick lesson in the difference between ED – Early Decision – and EA – Early Action. You’ll hear both terms bandied about a lot, and a fair number of people confuse the two. Both share the word “Early” – you will need to apply early, usually by November 1, and you will hear early, usually before the end of the year.

But there the similarities end. A quick way to remember the difference: In Early Action, you ACT early and get your application in. And the college will ACT early as well and get you a decision by the end of the year. You don’t have to sign anything, commit to anything, do anything when you get that admissions offer… you just celebrate, put it in your pocket and have until May 1 to make up your mind. In the meantime, you can continue applying to other colleges, visiting campuses, weighing financial aid offers as they come in. You have plenty of time to decide. Early Action is often a very good choice.

Early Decision is a completely different animal. I always tell my students that the “D” in ED means Definite. As in Drop-Dead Definite. (I know, it’s a bit dramatic, but it makes my point.) Again, you will apply early, the college will let you know early, but this time, you are making a real commitment. The student, the parents and the high school counselor must all sign paperwork (usually electronic, but still a contract) at the time of application saying that yes, they all understand that this student is applying ED. Yes, they know that the decision is binding. Yes, they are signing on the virtual dotted line. If the college decides to admit the student, she’s in … and the deposit check will be due shortly. There’s no turning back.

Put this way, it sort of ups the ante, doesn’t it? It’s not just “wow, think how nice it will be to get this all over with before the holidays and enjoy the senior year.” It’s “wow, I need to be absolutely sure about this.”

Applying Early Decision isn’t something to be done on a whim. Students and parents need to look at a lot of factors, from “how well do I really know this college?” to “how much will this cost?” There are ways to analyze the situation thoughtfully, and there can be true strategic advantages. But there also can be disadvantages that could sabotage your next four years from the get-go. Never choose Early Decision simply so you can enjoy winter break (appealing as that may seem at the moment).

My friends at Depauw University, which sent this email, know all this, too. I visited this handsome liberal arts college in Indiana last spring and was very impressed. Lovely campus, excellent music program, stand-out job placements. It really didn’t need to encourage students to apply ED, even subtly. The better message would have been: ED could be the right choice for you. Think it over. Very carefully.