High school seniors weigh advantages of applying early for college

Sunday, September 19, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:43 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 6, 2008

For Katie Bauer, getting an early start is habitual.

The Rock Bridge High student wakes at 5:15 a.m. to catch an aerobics class before school. She arrives at appointments 10 minutes ahead of time. She took the SAT 10 months prior to any college application deadline.

And when Bauer applies to Duke University in six weeks, the 17-year-old hopes finishing the task pronto will give her an edge over the school’s other candidates.

Bauer is one in the nation’s pool of advanced high school seniors applying for early admission to their top school of choice.

Counselors at both Rock Bridge and Hickman high schools estimate less than 10 seniors at each school will apply for early decision or early ac-tion.

By filing an application Nov. 1, Bauer will know before Christmas whether she can head to her dream school next fall.

In the process, the Rock Bridge senior may also lock herself out of the chance to attend any other school. Under the early decision admission pol-icy at Duke, Bauer must attend the university if she is accepted.

“Since there is no other school I want to go to as much as Duke, early decision is a perfect option for me,” she said.

College-bound students gambling on early admissions have two choices: apply for early decision or early action. Early decision candidates submit an application to their No. 1 choice by the start of November and typically receive a letter of acceptance, rejection or deferment by New Year’s Day.

If accepted, early decision applicants like Bauer have a binding agreement to attend the school and must withdraw their application to any other college or university. Early decision policies exist at more than 270 four-year colleges and universities, according to U.S. News and World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” website.

Under early action policies, high school seniors also hear from their top pick by the end of the winter holidays. However, early action students have until May to submit a response. They may apply to other colleges by regular application deadlines, and then choose from their acceptances in the spring.

Critics of early decision say the binding plan forces seniors to narrow their school choice to one college or university too early. The policy has also been panned for benefiting privileged students who do not need to compare financial aid packages from other schools.

Hickman Director of Guidance Ann Landes said binding early decision plans are suitable for students who know their selected school offers the best fit for their study interests. The plan is not for students who want to simply secure a place at a reputable university, she said.

“I always think there’s not just one college for everyone, so putting all your eggs in one basket is not always the best choice,” Landes said.

The Hickman counselor also said applying for early decision can discourage strong students who might not stand out amid the highly competitive pool of early applicants.

Kim Girse, the college and career counselor at Rock Bridge, offered two reasons why students may not be applying in droves for binding early decision. First, extremely motivated students often like to gain admission to several schools, Girse said. Although guidance counselors encourage seniors to limit themselves to applying to five schools, Girse said honors students may want to exceed that maximum. Applying for early decision limits a student’s admission to a single college.

“I think there’s something about being accepted to more than one school that they enjoy,” Girse said.

Financial assistance is also a consideration for students, the Rock Bridge counselor said. Schools with early decision admission do not necessarily offer as many automatic scholarships as other schools, since the applicant pool is so competitive, Girse said.

Hickman senior Adam Francis said the non-binding early action policy is appealing to students unsure of their decision. But the 17- year-old also said even if Yale University had a binding policy (versus its current early action plan), he would still file ahead of the regular deadline.

“It definitely improves your chances to apply early, because the university knows you’re committed to going to that school,” said Francis, who hopes to study biology at Yale next year. For the last two years, Yale has accepted 21 percent and 17 percent of its early action applicants, according to the Wall Street Journal’s College Journal Web site. Kaplan Inc., a nationwide college-prep company, reported Yale accepted 11.4 percent of its 17,735 applicants in the regular deadline pool in 2003.

Francis said he selected Yale this spring after visiting his brother, Nathan, at the Ivy League institution. Nathan, a 2001 Hickman graduate, was accepted under Yale’s then early decision policy.

Nathan said applying under the binding admissions plan gave his application extra leverage.

“Even if higher caliber students apply for early decision, Yale tends to take two or three times as many students during early decision,” Nathan said. “I think there’s a slight advantage to early decision, despite the fact that stronger students apply.”

Neither Landes nor Girse thought applying for early admission would drastically improve a student’s chance of acceptance, since the pool of early applicants tend to exhibit highly competitive qualifications for admission.

But in their book, “The Early Admissions Game,” Harvard professors Christopher Avery and Richard Zeckhauser and former Wesleyan admis-sions officer Andrew Fairbanks say applying for early admissions provides high school seniors an edge equal to an increase of 100 points on their SAT score.

Jere Francis, Adam and Nathan’s father and an MU business professor, said early decision or action policies have great appeal to universities and students.

“If the student knows very clearly where he or she wants to go, then this saves everybody a lot of anxiety,” Jere Francis said. “If you feel very confident that you know where you want to go, then it’s actually a good thing.”

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