Thursday, November 4, 2010

Early Application Plans: A Choice Not a Statement

When I last posted, I was on my way to St. Louis for the National Association of College Admissions Counseling conference. That seems like such a long time ago. Since then, I have been to Denver, Hawaii (recruiting, not vacationing, although I have a hard time convincing my staff), and Washington, D.C. My team has been travelling too, visiting schools and attending college fairs all across the US and the world. Hopefully you have had the chance to meet with them in New England, Florida, Louisiana, Illinois, Texas, Washington, Oregon, or Arizona, just to name a few of the places they’ve been. We have spent time in Hong Kong, the Middle East, and India, too. We have been meeting with students, counselors and parents, like you, helping them understand more about the University of San Diego and the application process in general.

Wherever we have travelled, students and parents share a common trait – they’re anxious about applying to college (and paying for it, which is a future post). The perception is that there is so much riding on this collection of forms and information and the anxiety is fueled by all sorts of wild stories about how the slightest misstep can ruin one’s chances of getting into the college of their dreams. The fact is that while it is important, there are some very basic things students can do to submit a strong application and most schools and colleges look at the substance of the information provided, and are not looking for ways to trip up applicants and find fault with how they completed the application.

So now that your student has taken ownership of the process – hopefully (see last post) – let’s look at one of the most common questions and areas of concern surrounding the completion of the college application.

Should I apply early or regular? There are a variety of different “Early” options that schools use. The most common are Early Decision and Early Action. Early Decision is a binding agreement between student and college that says that if a student applies and is accepted through such a plan, they will commit to that school. In fact, according to the NACAC guidelines I referenced last time, the student will be asked to withdraw their application to any other schools they applied to and the High School counselor will only send one mid year and final transcript. This is obviously a very limiting option and should be used only for students who are absolutely sure of where they want to go and who may not be as concerned about financial aid. Because of the early nature of this plan, families won’t know about financial aid at the time they commit.

Early Action is quite different and is the plan used by USD. This option allows a student to apply early (November 15th in our case) and they will find out earlier what the decision is (no later than January 15th in our case; many will hear before the Christmas holiday). However, the big difference with this option is that students still have until May 1 to make their final decision. The advantages of early action are that first of all, students get these applications out of the way and they can move on with their senior year and all the other things competing for their time and attention. Second, students will find out earlier whether they have been admitted or not, relieving some of the anxiety of waiting, and because they know where they stand, families can plan for campus visits well in advance.

From the college’s perspective, early action provides some benefits, too. It allows us to start reviewing applications earlier. This is important, especially when you consider the time it takes to process, read, and decide on over 12,000 applications. For USD, last year about 3400 – or 28% - of our applications were early. This allowed the staff and me an extra month or two of reading and decision making before our regular deadline of January 15th.

So, back to the original question, should a student apply regular or early? I would say it depends on a couple of factors. First, it depends on where a student is in their college search. If they have a set of schools picked out and are fairly comfortable with them as choices, applying early might be a good idea. If they still aren’t sure and haven’t really settled on a list yet, then maybe they should wait for the regular process. Also, students should feel pretty comfortable with the admissions criteria at the schools they are applying early to. At USD, it isn’t any easier or harder to be accepted early, but it is important to note that one of three decisions will be made. First, of course, a student may be admitted. In some cases, we will deny a student if we feel they are really not competitive. We think it’s important to let them know so they can move on to some other choices. Finally, we may defer a student to the regular applicant pool. This will happen if a student’s academic measures – grades and test scores – are a little lower than our general averages, or if a student has a steep upward trend in their grades. We may be unsure how many total applications we may get, so we may not be able to know where a particular student fits academically. By deferring the student, we will ask for the senior grades and review the student again with the regular pool. If a student feels like maybe their grades and scores are not as strong as the school may like, or they have that upward trend, perhaps applying during the regular pool would be better.

For many, the decision whether to apply early or not is a much more practical one. Fall sports, concerts, marching band and any number of other activities during this time of year often leave a student with absolutely no time left over to think about college applications. For these students, using the time over the Christmas holiday and winter break to focus on the application and essay will be the best use of their time and allow them to do the best job on them. Last year, when my son was going through this he was involved in marching band and he had tournaments and games every weekend. He also wasn’t ready to consider an early option, so he worked on his applications over Thanksgiving and Christmas (with just a little nudging from Dad).

Students should talk with their high school counselor or the admissions representatives at the schools they’re considering because there can be some other advantages or disadvantages of applying early action to that particular school. If this is an option you’d like to consider for USD, our early action deadline is November 15th.

Applying early or applying through the regular application deadline is an important decision and can have different implications at many schools. Whichever option your son or daughter chooses, I would offer this as this week’s takeaway. Don’t apply somewhere early because you think there is some sort of statement being made to the school about your child’s interest in that school (I’m talking about early action, not decision). No one should think that not applying early will in some way hurt their chances of getting in or say something about them as students. In fact, understanding your priorities, managing your time well, and careful planning are qualities that will serve students very well once they get into college and should be applauded, not viewed as a negative. Students should apply when they’re ready and when they can do the best job on the essay and personal statements. They should apply early action because it is the right decision for them – not for us. The process is stressful enough without reading too much into these application options. Finding the right set of schools, thoughtfully completing the applications and weighing all your options should be the focus right now. Of all the things that colleges look at when making our decision (a future blog topic), which application plan you chose is generally pretty far down the list (if it’s on the list at all).

At USD, we are getting ready to start reading those early applications – 1400 so far as of this morning – and next time, I will talk about what happens once you hit that submit button and how we get all those applications, test scores, essays, letters of recommendation and transcripts ready to be reviewed. It’s one of the mysteries surrounding this process and it is a remarkable set of activities. Stay tuned.

For now, it is good to be off the road, although I do miss Hawaii. Let the reading begin!

1 comment:

Susie Watts said...

As a college consultant, I think you have offered some excellent advice. The question of applying early is a big issue for high school seniors. Keeping the dates organized and understanding the different types of early admissions programs can be quite confusing. I am not a believer in early decision for most students, but think almost everyone wins with early action.

Susie Watts
Denver, Colorado