In March of last year, when the pandemic first took hold in America, Casey—our Executive Director of College Counseling—and I spent considerable time gazing into our semi-fabled yet fully fictional crystal ball to understand where admissions was heading in the chaotic year to come. I’m embarrassingly proud that we were nearly entirely correct with our predictions—though some did take longer to come to fruition than others.
By mid-May, it was clear the vast majority of schools would be test optional, and when Early Action/Early Decision app surges were reported in November, it was clear that test optional was here to say. Deadlines moved, and schools did indeed get more aggressive with “merit-based” aid. (If you’re wondering why I put merit-based in quotes, read anything Ron Lieber, the NYT personal finance writer, has written on this subject recently. Here’s an excellent place to start: High School Grades Could Be Worth $100,000. Time to Tell Your Child? It’s a great companion to my colleague Liz’s recent piece: Please Talk to Your Kids About Money.)
But let me come back to focus on Early Decision; in 2020 it was living in my head rent-free! I totally believed that many schools (if not all) woud add a second round of ED to their application cycles. The way I saw it, if schools were concerned about securing revenue at any (reasonable) cost, this was a simple and straightforward way for enrollment managers to do so. Lock down guaranteed tuition dollars. (Early Decision inherently favors those with means because it typically eliminates the opportunity to compare/contrast financial aid packages—including the “merit-based” kind.)
I was wrong. Not dead wrong, as some schools certainly did add ED II, but it was nothing like the wave I expected to wash over the landscape. From my view of things, I’m glad to have been wrong because a decision like applying ED requires not only a greater understanding of the admissions process, but for the student, it requires a greater understanding of themself, too.
Nearing the mid-point of 2021, I’ve come to realize that Early Decision doesn’t only live in my head rent-free! I’ve seen a rise in rising juniors (many to become seniors as early as next week—hooray!) and their parents focusing, sometimes obsessing, right now about where to apply ED in the fall. I fully recognize this as anxiety misplaced. In yet another year throwing out so much uncertainty, there’s much comfort and security to be found in firming things up and finalizing decisions—that’s not even speaking to the strategic power of ED. In general, I think much of the hand-wringing about decisions within the admissions process is overwrought, and I fully support students, doing the hard work of gathering information and making confident, well-informed decisions when possible.
Buuut when it comes to deciding on Early Decision, let me be clear: it’s too early to make that decision. Well, at least it’s too early for 95% of students to make that decision today or even in the coming months. (A handful of you dear readers may indeed be a next-level compsci whiz and know Carnegie Mellon is absolutely perfect for you or you’re the parent of a ballet prodigy and Julliard fits the bill in every which way.) Why so declarative? Well, for starters, it’s May! There’s still so much to happen between now and the earliest ED deadlines of November 1st.
There’s a whole summer ahead. A whole vaccinated, mostly mask-free, glorious summer that’s not only time to explore new interests and dive deeper into existing interests, but one that should include plenty of recharging and reflection after what was, well, another crazy year. Our communities are slowly opening up more and more, and we’re all finding our ways to a new normal. After a year of Zooming in our favorite yoga pants and pajama bottoms, these upcoming experiences will inevitably shape and impact goals and visions. So artificially imposing a decision—a critical decision—without the insight of the coming months will only heighten the anxiety some students face around the application process.
Instead, I push all students (and those guiding them) to continue to think more broadly about “Why College?” and more specifically about building a smart, well-balanced list. (We have a ridiculous array of free resources to help around both these things. I’ll highlight two: the online Runway course and To Do Great Research, Try Thinking Smaller by my colleague Ian.) Not to mention in a strictly mechanical sense, colleges are opening themselves up to campus visits again! While visiting a college isn’t essential to including them on your list—and may even be a bit overrated—for a college you’re willing to commit to for four years, going in sight unseen does feel a touch risky. And by a touch, I mean “quite.”
So almost-seniors and the adults who support them, amidst the BBQs and shuffling that I hope your summer is filled with, keep asking yourselves the hard questions about why you want to go to college and what you want from your experience and how you wish to be transformed. Give yourself the room to continue building perspective here in the coming months and save the ED question for later down the road. There’s time. And don’t worry, we’ll meet you right back here in the late summer when you’re rested and invigorated to help you think through exactly that!
About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the student. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for you to be your best self - whether it’s in the classroom, in your applications or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of tools include counseling, test prep, academic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, leading to a 4x higher than average admissions rates.