College Applications: Early is Good, But Good is Better

It’s August 2nd and if you have a rising senior in your house, you’ve probably received a few dozen emails reminding you that most college applications opened yesterday. And for a lot of students and parents, the stress of college admissions cranks up because it seems like everyone else is ahead of you in this process.

First, don’t panic. You are NOT missing out or messing up if your kid hasn’t submitted applications yet.

Second, it is important to remember that college applications are one of those situations where you truly get only one chance to make a good impression, so it is better to take your time and get it done right.

As we head into the school year, lots of families want to get applications done and out of the way. I’m a fan of finishing applications sooner rather than later, but I also know a well put together application is key. Let’s break down a few of the issues around applying early:

  • What does it mean to “apply early”
  • What type of advantage does applying early provide
  • How late is still early (You have weeks, if not months left!)
  • The value of quality over speed

Applying Early

A lot of unnecessary stress is generated because the term “early” is misunderstood or used to mean multiple things.

The first and most identifiable definition of early applies to specific admissions policies: Early Decision, Early Action, etc. There are many early options and you are likely to see them listed with abbreviations like ED, EA, and REA. You will know this is something that applies to you because somewhere on the college application, you have to check the box for the decision plan that indicates you want to be considered early.

Early Decision and Early Action plans have specific notification schedules. For example, if you apply Early Decision to Rice University, you must submit a completed application by November 1 and Rice agrees to provide a decision on your application by mid-December. However, if you merely submit your application to Rice in October without indicating you are applying Early Decision, you may not receive a decision until April 1.

Sounds great, right? There can be some drawbacks to applying under these plans. The most obvious comes with Early Decision (ED) where students are limited to applying ED to a single school and when they do so, they commit to attending if admitted. So if Rice admits me under Early Decision, I’m going to Rice and I need to withdraw all my regular applications for other colleges. This makes it harder for me to compare scholarship offers because I’m essentially committing to Rice. (More information about the pros and cons of these options here and here.)

The next type of early admission doesn’t refer to any specific admission program. It is simply the practice of submitting a completed application sooner rather than later. If you want to apply to the University of Oklahoma, the application deadline is February 1. OU does not offer any early admission options. However, OU does encourage students to apply by December 15 in order to be considered for scholarships. So if you submit your application to OU on October 15, you are ahead of the deadline and might consider yourself early.

Just to complicate things, some universities seem to have options that are somewhere in between.

University of Texas at Austin does not offer Early Decision (ED) or Early Action (EA) options, but applications submitted by November 1 are considered for “Priority Decision” and will receive decisions by February 1; applications sent by December 1 are considered for regular decision and will receive notification by March 1.

Texas A&M University does not have ED or EA programs for general admission, but students interested in applying to the College of Engineering will find an Early Action deadline of October 15. These engineering students will be notified by mid-December.

Take time to check what official options are available at the universities on your list and make sure you understand all the requirements and restrictions if you apply under an ED, EA, or REA plan.

Advantages of Applying Early

There are some advantages to applying early or you wouldn’t hear so many people talking about it.

Obviously if you can receive a definitive answer early, particularly from a hard-to-get-into school, it makes the admission process less stressful. But applying early might also give you additional advantages.

Colleges want to admit applicants who will enroll as students. Think of this like asking someone for a date. You want the person you decide to ask to say yes. Colleges want admitted students to say yes to the offer of admission. Students who apply Early Decision are committed “yes applicants”; colleges can count on them to enroll.

When you look at the admit rate for Early Decision versus Regular Decision, you will typically find schools admit a higher percentage of early applicants. Yes, there is a little bit of the “want you to want me” factor, but it is more complicated than that. Think about who would apply early. The students who can meet an October 15 or November 1 deadline are the ones who have it together: SAT / ACT taken, schools researched, essays written, letters of recommendation secured, etc. In other words, often the early applicants are the go-getters who are already at the top of their classes.

Beyond Early Decision plans, what most universities do (including UT and A&M) can be described as rolling notification. This means that students are notified as soon as the university is ready to make a decision. So the highly qualified student who submits an application on August 19, might receive a letter of acceptance in September. Similarly, the completely unqualified student who applied at the same time might receive an early letter of rejection because his grades and scores are so far beneath the university’s standards, that even additional consideration won’t change the decision. (Applying early cannot erase low grades, scores, class rank, etc.)

In some cases applying early makes a difference. As colleges approach admissions deadline they have fewer spaces left to offer applicants and it may become more competitive to secure acceptance. But don’t let that idea cause you to panic. Colleges have been making these decisions for years and are generally consistent in applying their standards. The students who are likely to notice any difference are those who are “on the bubble”: they could be admitted or rejected. Highly qualified applicants won’t be rejected because they applied in November instead of September and unqualified applicants won’t be admitted just because they applied the day the application opened.

The more selective schools can’t make rolling decisions because they don’t know how competitive the applicant pool is until everything has been submitted. If you are applying to some of these more challenging schools, don’t be alarmed when you see friends getting early letters of admission and you are waiting until March to hear results.

When Is An Application No Longer Early?

The obvious answer is that applications sent after the deadline are late. Applications that meet the deadline for an early program (ED, EA, etc.) are early.

But if you are trying to show interest in a school with rolling admission, there isn’t an exact answer. In those cases, applications that are sent right before the deadline can’t be considered early. Your midnight submission on November 30th isn’t early for a December 1 deadline. Early can become a relative term in these situations.

This is where I see families getting stressed out. In fact, I’ve spoken to a handful of clients in the last week assuring them that they aren’t late if applications aren’t sent on August 1. Here’s my general policy:

  • All applications need to be sent by Thanksgiving. Life gets a lot better when college applications are no longer hanging over your head.
  • If you want to apply ED, EA, etc., make sure you met the deadlines.
  • If you just want to be considered “early” send your application in August or September (maybe even early October), but remember good is better than early.

Quality Beats Speed

Here’s my nightmare every August. Students and parents have been whipped into a frenzy because the Texas A&M application now opens on July 1 and neighbors are talking. Everyone starts feeling the pressure because they worry they are behind everyone else. Social media exacerbates this as post of college acceptance start showing up (even in July!). Parents and/or students hit the panic button and I get a call for help.

(Here’s the real nightmare part.) Often I can’t consult with someone that day and end up scheduling a meeting a week or two out. Then I get a call or email the night before our scheduled meeting that says, “Thanks, but never mind. Pat finished the application and sent it last week.” In other words, the pressure to apply early got too great and the student or family rushed the process.

If you only get one opportunity to present your case for admission, take your time and get it right. Don’t let the desire to be done keep you from doing a thorough job. Early is good, but a quality application is better.

There are some situations in which a rushed job won’t matter: if you already meet the criteria for automatic admission and simply need to submit a completed application. But I work with a lot of clients who desire scholarships or are applying to schools or programs where every part of the application will be examined. Unless you are an obvious slam-dunk for admission, take your time and get it right.

In most cases an extra week or two is all that is needed to polish essays, review responses for errors, and pull together all the details.

Take Away

  1. Understand the early policies at all the schools on your list.
  2. Work (don’t just plan) to submit applications in advance of any deadlines. (Nothing more stressful than computer problems or the application server going down hours before the submission deadline.)
  3. Don’t panic. Any applications submitted in August and September are early. (Even October is early.)
  4. Remember quality always beats speed. And a quality application doesn’t take that much longer than a rushed one.

Best wishes to all seniors and their families. I know this is a stressful time because my own daughter is applying to college this fall. Now I get to experience all of these issues from the parent’s perspective.



The Good & Bad of Early Application Options

college-prep-podcast-1400Although the benefits of Early Decision applications to college are huge, it can be a costly mistake for families who don’t consider all the angles.

Here is episode 12 of The College Prep Podcast, my free weekly show which covers a variety of college prep topics. (click here to listen)

In this 36 minute episode my co-host Gretchen and I go in depth to discuss options and problems with early decision.

First, we explain the three different ways that students can apply early for college:

▪   Early Decision (ED) –  ED allows a student to apply early for his or her top-choice school and receive early notification of acceptance. Typically, ED applications are due November 1, and students are notified of the college’s decision by December 15. ED is designed to allow students to apply to a single school; students admitted under an ED plan agree to withdraw all other regular-decision applications and commit to attending the ED school. This is a binding early option and is not appropriate for students who want to compare financial aid packages or other offers of admission before selecting their college.

▪   Restrictive Early Action (REA) –  Many families are hesitant to apply ED because it is a binding decision; REA is a non-binding alternative. Under REA, students apply to one school and receive early notification, but the offer of admission is not binding. Students get the benefit of an early response from their top-choice school, but they have the freedom to compare this offer of admission with other offers made later in the year. Families have until May 1 to make a final decision, which allows time to compare financial aid and scholarship offers from other colleges.

▪   Early Action (EA) – Early action, unlike ED or REA, has no restrictions or required commitments. Students simply submit applications early and receive early notification with no further restrictions. A more flexible option, EA is not binding, and often students apply to more than one college under this option.

Next in the episode, we discuss the benefits and dangers of applying early. Benefits include peace of mind and higher chances of getting accepted at high tier schools; a significant danger includes having to choose a school before knowing exactly how much you’ll be spending on that school. I provides some tips for thinking through how to decide which kind of early decision application is right for you.

Finally, we take on the following questions:

  • What should you do if you accept an Early Decision offer, and then your family’s financial circumstances change suddenly and you can no longer afford that school? (Short answer: Call the school!)
  • Is there a benefit to applying to more than one school and then playing the schools off each other to haggle for a better financial aid package? (Short answer: No!)

Link to the podcast episode here.


Six Costly College Application Errors

Do's and Don'ts Graphic

Errors in college applications can cost students offers of admission or scholarship opportunities. Luckily, most mistakes are preventable—many are the result of procrastination. Students should allow plenty of time to complete necessary college application elements, focus on the details, and stay organized to avoid these common college application errors.

1. Missing Deadlines

Colleges are forced to send rejection letters to highly qualified students each year because those students failed to submit completed applications on time. Students who wait until the last minute to submit online applications run the risk of technical difficulties or delays due to overloaded systems. Students can avoid missing application deadlines by beginning applications early, tracking deadlines, and submitting complete applications at least a few days before the deadline.

2. Careless Errors

Misunderstood questions, poorly written essays, and grammatical errors all undermine an otherwise good application. Typos, spelling mistakes, or word omissions make students appear uninterested or potentially incapable of completing college-level work. Most of these errors result from students rushing to complete applications on time and failing to proofread their work. Students may find that it helps to print a hard copy of online applications in order to review them for errors. It’s also a good idea to ask a trusted friend, counselor, teacher, or parent to check applications for errors.

3. Omitting Required Elements

Some students inadvertently leave an entire section of an application blank, while others fail to submit required documents such as test scores or transcripts. Most colleges will not review a student’s application until it is 100% complete, so omitting even one required element can delay evaluation or result in rejection.

4. Waiting Too Long to Request Letters of Recommendation

Some applications require one or more letters of recommendation. Teachers, counselors, and mentors usually are willing to accommodate requests, but they may need a week or two to write letters or complete application forms. Students should request recommendations as early as possible and provide recommenders with all the information necessary to complete and submit the letters. It is customary to allow two full school weeks for teachers and counselors to complete recommendations; during peak times, more time may be necessary.

5. Failing to Confirm Receipt of All Application Elements

Many students assume that once they’ve submitted applications and requested transcripts, test scores, and recommendations, they are done. However, from time to time, required application elements do not make it to a student’s file in the admissions office. A week or two after submitting their applications, students should follow up to confirm that all of their required elements have been received. Some colleges allow students to check the status of their applications online. Whether by checking the college’s website or calling the admissions office, students should confirm their applications are complete.

6. Forgetting to Submit Payment

Sometimes, in the excitement of completing all the essays, short answers, and background data, students overlook a key step—submitting the application fee. Colleges and universities will not process a student’s application without payment. Students should confirm that their application fee payment was processed as part of verifying that their application is complete.

High schools and colleges used to send records by mail, but with the increased popularity of online applications, most institutions now send transcripts, test scores, and recommendations electronically.  Students should make sure to provide correct information to their high school counselor so electronic submissions can be received accurately by all colleges on their lists.

Applying to undergraduate or graduate programs can be time-consuming and stressful. In the process of writing essays and submitting test scores and transcripts, students may overlook key factors. By avoiding these six common application errors, students can apply on time and be evaluated on their accomplishments rather than lose out on an opportunity due to errors, procrastination, or missing information.


Avoiding Problems with Online College Applications

laptop with pen and books

Most colleges and universities have adopted online methods for submitting applications. Some schools use shared systems such as the Common Application, which is accepted by more than 400 schools, while others accept a state-specific application that’s accepted by public universities,and some private schools, (ApplyTexas). Whether using a specific college’s application or a common version, there are steps students can take to avoid problems with the online college admissions process.

1. Wait a couple of weeks after open date to begin submitting online applications.

Many online applications open to students on August 1. While it is tempting to complete and submit applications as soon as possible, students may benefit by waiting a week or two. As with other online programs or newly released systems, online applications commonly have bugs or system glitches that need to be worked through. Some bugs are minor annoyances, but some have been major flaws requiring students to reenter information multiple times. Students who can wait a couple of weeks will reduce their frustration because they’ll allow time for system problems to be fixed.

2. Record and save login details for every online application.

Forgetting usernames and passwords is one of the most common reasons students are delayed in submitting online applications. Because each college and university’s online application may have a different login requirement, students frequently end up with a variety of usernames, student identification numbers, and passwords. Creating an electronic or paper list of login details and keeping it in a safe place can help students avoid frustrations and delays.

3. Don’t wait until the last minute to apply online.

Online college applications are notorious for freezing up in the hours or days before the submission deadline. Too many students wait until the last minute, all try to log in in at once, and the system gets overloaded. Avoid the panic that comes with last-minute technical delays by starting applications early: Never wait until the week prior to any deadline to submit an online application.

4. Read all instructions for every application.

Yes, this suggestion seems simple; however, many students expect questions to be obvious and answers to be intuitive, when they often are not. Some questions are reserved for out-of-state or international students, and others require school codes that are not listed in the application itself. Students should take time to read all instructions and when in doubt consult the help guide or explanations videos included with most online applications.

5. Preview finished applications before submitting them.

Each online application system has its own preview or print options. Because what students see on their computer screens may not match what will be submitted to colleges, it is essential to preview responses before completing the application. A common problem is that some applications truncate too-lengthy answers to match word or character limits, but students may not realize these changes have been made until they reach the print preview screen.

Completing online applications for college can streamline the admission process. Most high school students are familiar with submitting information online, but for something as important at college admission, students should take care to avoid problems and insure they submit the strongest application possible. Being informed about application dates, prepared for the types of questions that will be asked, and paying close attention to the details of online applications all will help students present their best-possible work and have the highest chance of acceptance to the college of their choice.


Fun Fact:

The Common Application launched its first online version in 1998; at that time, 191 colleges and universities accepted it. In 2013-2014, the Common Application introduced its fourth-generation online system, completely retiring the paper version of its forms. In 2013, 517 institutions accepted the online “Common App.”