More High School Students Seek Early Word on College

Many say early application gives them a competitive edge

For Marc Shipp, the waiting game is almost over. Like tens of thousands of other high school seniors, Marc applied to college under an early decision program. In the next week, Marc will be among those to find out if he's been accepted to the college of his choice for the following fall.

"I really didn't want to have to wait until April," says Marc, a national merit scholarship semi-finalist at Lower Merion High School who is waiting to hear from the University of Chicago. "If I applied regular admission, there is the possibility that there wouldn't be a spot left for me."

Many seniors seem to share the concern. An increasing number of elite institutions have seen early-application mailbags increase dramatically this year.

While many students who opt for early decision cite their strong preference for a particular college, another driving factor is the belief that the odds may be slightly better than in regular admissions.

Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., for example, routinely receives applications from more high school valedictorians (2,900 for the class of 2000) than it could admit - even if it were admitting only valedictorians. Further, almost half of last year's class was filled in December through Harvard's early-action program. Sixteen of 17 applicants in the regular pool were rejected.

Judged the same?

The competition has also become stiffer at other highly competitive colleges.

At the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, early applicants are up 5 percent over last year. "We're very concerned about this trend," says John Blackburn, dean of undergraduate admissions at U-VA. "We tell prospective students time and time again, 'You will be judged the same - regular or early admission,' but the message does not seem to be getting through."

At Lower Merion High School on Philadelphia's Main Line, which sends 94 percent of its graduates to college, so many seniors are applying early decision this year that another guidance counselor needs to be hired to handle all the additional paperwork.

"This is a very competitive high school and the perception among students is that applying early may give them a slight advantage for admittance," says Rogers Frassenei, a Lower Merion guidance counselor. "For some colleges, that may actually be true."

Indeed, like Harvard, Princeton University filled nearly half of its fall 1996 class with early applicants, while Brown, Emory, and Georgetown were among those that took more than a quarter of their entering class early.

The large increases in early decision applications have led many admissions officials to actually caution high school seniors to think twice before applying early.

"Students are often thinking, 'I have to apply early somewhere, now I have to decide where'," says Dan Walls, director of admissions at Emory University in Atlanta, which has seen early applications grow 33 percent over the last five years. "We probably spend as much time explaining why students may not want to apply early decision and articulating what binding early decision means."

Early decision was originally meant to reduce the anxiety of applicants, who otherwise waited until spring to receive a decision.

Students willing to apply to only one college by an early date - and to commit to attend if accepted - get an early response. Some colleges also give students early answers through "nonbinding" early decisions. Georgetown, Harvard, and the University of Chicago are among schools that have such "early action" programs that don't require an early commitment.

But some admissions officials say the programs are now being used for other reasons.

"With some schools that don't have need-blind admissions, students may be concerned that if they don't apply early, there may not be any financial aid left for them if they apply later," says Emory's Dan Walls. "It's unfortunate, but for those schools, there obviously isn't as much financial aid at the end of the admissions process than at the beginning."

Minority admissions

Another possible consequence is that there may not be as many minorities in a freshman class. "The fact of the matter is that we see relatively fewer minority students in the early pool," says UVA's Dean Blackburn. "As the number of early acceptances grows, that may affect the enrollment percentages of minority students."

Cognizant of this and of the perception that it's easier to get admitted by applying early, many colleges are emphatic that they do not give any preference to early applicants. "We try to educate the seniors that the competition is great in both the early decision and the regular pool," says Judy Pezza, senior associate director of undergraduate admissions at Georgetown University in Washington.

So will the trend continue? Although it doesn't appear the popularity of early-decision programs is fading, Michael Goldberger, the director of undergraduate admissions at Brown University in Providence, R.I., believes that day will soon be here. "Fewer and fewer kids are going to get in early decision, and word of mouth will convince them to back off from using these programs. It may take a year or two, but it will happen."

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