Episode 109: Early Decision and Early Action Anxiety in College Admissions–Part II

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This is the third in our series of episodes discussing issues in higher education, and it’s the second part of a two-parter that looks at the Early Decision and Early Action options for high school students who will be applying to colleges next fall. I mentioned last week that I was infuriated by this issue. I meant that I was infuriated on behalf of the kids and families who are trying to figure out how to play this college admissions game, which is hard enough without having to calculate the advantages and disadvantages of various Early Decision and Early Action options at various colleges and how those options interact with each other.

Last week, we discussed the pros and cons of Early Decision. I won’t repeat all of the reasoning here, but I will repeat my conclusion, which is this: Early Decision is better for an individual applicant than it is for the pool of applicants. In other words, Early Decision might be great for your own teenager, even though it could well be concerning for the futures of all of our teenagers collectively. Of course, you have the luxury of thinking only about your own teenager. You aren’t setting policy for colleges or high schools across the country, and you don’t have to be fair to all high school seniors. You are likely to do what is best for your own teenager.

In that world, I believe that many of you will end up considering an Early Decision option very seriously, given everything we said last week. However, if your teenager just isn’t ready to make such a big decision around November 1–a decision that will be a binding decision–then let’s look at an alternative option for you. That alternative option is Early Action, the option that some would call the kinder, gentler option in the early admissions game.

1. Early Action

Under the Early Action option, high school seniors can still apply early–around November 1–but they are not ethically committed to enroll at the college if accepted. That is, the decision to apply Early Action is not a binding decision by a high school senior to attend that college and only that college. Early Action enables kids to apply to more than one college that offers an Early Action option and hold onto any acceptances until April–before having to make a final decision among all of the acceptances that come in on both the early and the regular schedules.

In counseling students myself, I encourage them to apply under the Early Action option to as many of the colleges on their final list as they can. I just don’t see a downside. And it can certainly take the pressure off a student to know in December that he or she has a guaranteed acceptance from a college or two or three well before April comes.

Here is one thing you have to keep in mind, however. Students have to take the SAT or ACT early enough to have the scores before November 1, and a student has to believe that the scores he or she has by November 1 is about as good as he or she can get. Because most students are going to take the SAT and/or the ACT more than once, that means taking the exam in the late spring of the junior year and again in the early fall of the senior year. Or, perhaps, it means taking the exam in late summer and again in the fall. There are, of course, pros and cons to these choices.

For example, we often advise good students who have had a rigorous high school program to take the test in the late spring of the junior year, to study and prep over the summer, and to take it again in the early fall of the senior year. Students who might not be as strong and who are not well prepared by the spring of their junior year might be better off studying and prepping over the summer and taking the test for the first time in September of the senior year. Here is one thing we do know: Taking the test just a couple of months apart and doing nothing to prepare in between the two testing dates is a waste of time and money; not much is going to be gained in regular school learning or in maturation in a couple of months.

Here is another option we have recommended. Apply Early Action to one or more colleges using your available test scores if you think you are likely to be accepted. In this case, the Early Action colleges would likely be your safety schools–that is, schools you can probably get into without improving your scores. If there are more selective colleges that you are holding out hope for, but for which you need better scores, re-take the SAT or ACT in November or December and don’t apply to those colleges until the regular deadline of January 1 or later.

2. Single-Choice Early Action or Restrictive Early Action

Let’s look at a mixed approach that has now been taken by some colleges, including some prestigious ones, and that is an option called Single-Choice Early Action, or Restrictive Early Action. This option means that applicants cannot apply to any other college under an Early Action or Early Decision option, but may apply on a regular decision timeline. If an applicant is admitted under this single-choice or restrictive option, that student may have until about May 1 to make a decision. Could it get any more confusing?

So, Single-Choice Early Action, or Restrictive Early Action, is like Early Decision in that the student is permitted to apply to only one college early, but it’s like Early Action in that the student is permitted to wait until regular decision acceptances come in before making a final decision about enrolling. You can see how that is pretty good for the student and pretty good for the college, though not ideal for either one. You can also see how this option just further complicates an already-complicated admissions process. This option, we believe, is not nearly as widespread among colleges as either Early Decision or regular Early Action.

3. The Craziness of Some College Admissions Options

I must confess that I myself have had to read and re-read some colleges’ website information on admissions many times to figure out what all the options meant. I cannot imagine how a high school kid by himself or herself ever completes and submits a college application anymore, especially if that kid has parents who do not speak English or cannot help for whatever reason. That’s probably the subject for an episode of its own!

Before we look at a few examples of colleges with crazy admissions options, let’s put one more option on the table: two rounds of Early Decision, or Early Decision I and Early Decision II. (By the way, colleges may also have Early Action I and II, though Early Decision I and II appear to be more common.)

So, why Early Decision I and II, with Early Decision II having a later deadline? One reason is that some students want the college to have access to later college admission test scores or to their first semester senior grades, in case either of those is better than earlier scores or grades. Another reason is that a student who gets rejected from his or her first-choice Early Decision college in December can then apply to his or her second-choice college in a round II of Early Decision. Both of these situations happen to favor the student.

But another reason is that having two rounds of Early Decision is a way for a college to improve its own statistics–in this case, the “yield rate,” or the percentage of students who are admitted and then attend. It has been said that this statistic might affect a college’s ranking on some publication’s list or other. So, that might be reason enough for how we got to this place.

Now, let’s look at a few real examples of colleges, all of which shall remain nameless:

  • Take this private Southern university, which has both Early Action and Single-Choice Early Action options, but no Early Decision option.
  • Or this public Southern university, which has three options: Early Decision I (with notification in late December), Early Decision II (for those who need a little more time to apply, with notification in mid-February), and Early Action (with notification in late January).
  • Or this Midwestern college with only about 1,000 undergraduates, which offers Early Action I and Early Decision I as well as Early Action II and Early Decision II options (with all decisions no later than February 15)–plus a regular decision option, of course. That’s five options!
  • Take this private Northeastern college, which offers the following information, quoted from the website:

Students who apply by the November 15 deadline for [Early Decision] Round I will be notified of the decision on their application in mid-December. Those who apply by the January 15 [Early Decision] Round II deadline will hear by February 15, as will those who convert Regular Decision applications to Early Decision by February 1. While Early Decision candidates may initiate applications to other colleges, if they are accepted under one of the Early Decision plans they must immediately withdraw all other applications and enroll at [this college].

  • Or this Ivy League university, which offers the following information, quoted from the website:

If you are a Single-Choice Early Action applicant to [this university], you may apply to another institution’s early admission program as follows:

  • You may apply to any college’s non-binding rolling admission program.

  • You may apply to any public institution at any time provided that admission is non-binding.

  • You may apply to another college’s Early Decision II program, but only if the notification of admission occurs after January 1. If you are admitted through another college’s Early Decision II binding program, you must withdraw your application from [this university].

  • You may apply to another college’s Early Action II program.

  • You may apply to any institution outside of the United States at any time.

My view is this, not that the university asked: If a student can follow that, he or she deserves to be admitted right now!

And one last word, parents: Remember that your teenager can be deferred when applying early, in which case the application will go into the pile to be considered with the applications submitted on the regular decision timeline. Or, your teenager can be rejected, in which case he or she cannot re-apply in some cases on the regular decision timeline. So that’s one more piece of the puzzle that you will need to consider.

4. A Personal Anecdote

Permit me a final personal anecdote. It may give you an idea of what awaits you next fall. This is a real story about a high school senior we worked with last fall. Let’s call her Kate. Kate had great grades (straight A’s, including in AP courses and honors courses), great activities (including excellent community service activities, a variety of school activities, and championship school and community sports teams), and satisfactory (but not great) SAT scores.

We helped Kate apply under Early Action plans to three universities, where we thought she would be accepted, based on her record. In fact, Kate got three Early Action acceptances in December: from Binghamton University (one of New York State’s best public universities), from the University of Colorado Boulder (a great public flagship university in one of the most beautiful settings in the U.S.), and from Baylor University (a very good private Southern university, which gave birth to one of the great medical schools in the U.S.). Kate got good scholarships from both the University of Colorado Boulder and Baylor. By the way, listeners, this is what it means to get outside your geographic comfort zone; be the New Yorker applying to colleges in Colorado and Texas. So, three Early Action acceptances are making life in Kate’s household a lot easier these days–while she waits on answers from eight more highly selective private universities, including two Ivies, in April.

Now, I will be the first to tell you that I lobbied hard for Kate to apply to Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences under its Early Decision plan. Kate wants to go to medical school eventually, and the Ag School (as we Cornellians call it) is a good stepping stone to that. I believed that she might barely get into the Ag School on the Early Decision plan, given her academic record and the high proportion of Early Decision applicants who are accepted into the Ag School’s freshman class. Furthermore, she is a New York State resident, and the Ag School is one of the State-supported colleges within Cornell (which is a unique private-public partnership that we have spoken about several times at USACollegeChat). Finally, I did not believe that Kate would get into Cornell on a regular decision timeline, largely because of her less-than-stupendous SAT scores.

Here was the problem: Kate had her heart set on Yale or Georgetown. I was pretty sure she would not get into Yale, and I doubted that she would get into Georgetown. I thought Early Decision at the Ag School would be her best chance to get into a highly selective university, but that meant giving up any hope of Yale or Georgetown. In the end, I was not persuasive, so I settled for getting her to do those three Early Action applications. Now we are all waiting for April. Since I believe she will be happy at either Boulder or Baylor, I am less concerned than I might otherwise have been. She is less concerned, too–thankfully–and that is the beauty of Early Action.

So, what’s our advice? Well, it’s nothing straightforward. You are going to have to lay out the Early Action and Early Decision options and rules for each college your teenager is going to apply to next fall and figure out the best path. We are afraid that each case is unique. We are convinced, however, that making some use of some early options is likely to be in your teenager’s favor. Good luck, and call us when you get stuck.

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Episode 14: Focus on The City University of New York and The State University of New York

This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by focusing on the City University of New York (CUNY) and the State University of New York (SUNY).

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This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by focusing on the public college and university options in New York State.

NYCollegeChat is now available on iTunes, Spreaker, Stitcher, and TuneIn!

NYCollegeChat podcast: Focus on the City University of New York and the State University of New York. Brought to you by Policy Studies in Education.

Because we are NYCollegeChat—emphasis on New York—we want talk in this episode about choosing between The City University of New York (CUNY) and The State University of New York (SUNY) as well as choosing among the branches of each of these college systems. Though most of our episodes have information useful for parents anywhere, this episode is especially for New York City and New York State parents—or indeed for parents anywhere who might like to send their children to our public higher education institutions.

1. Students Interested in CUNY Campuses

As we said in an earlier episode in our first series, Understanding the World of College, CUNY serves about 270,000 students taking credit courses on 24 campuses—11 four-year colleges (which CUNY refers to as “senior colleges”), 7 two-year community colleges, The Macaulay Honors College for undergraduate students, and 5 graduate and professional schools, located throughout New York City’s five boroughs. CUNY is the nation’s largest urban public higher education system.

If you currently have a high school junior who is an outstanding student, with a high GPA (in the 90s) and excellent SAT/ACT scores, you should have a look at The Macaulay Honors College right now. Tuition is free, and there are other financial incentives, too. There is also the prestige factor to consider. The Macaulay deadline is a bit earlier than the regular deadline for most colleges (it was December 1 this year, so it is too late for current seniors), so you have to be ready when school opens next fall to get the application put together. This year’s application was not too difficult (for example, it had just two relatively short essays), but you will need to get teacher and/or counselor recommendations lined up. During the admissions process, a Macaulay prospect is accepted first to whatever CUNY four-year campuses the student listed in the application. So, if the student is not accepted to Macaulay, he or she will still be able to enroll in one of CUNY’s four-year colleges and might even be accepted to an honors program at one of those colleges.

Now let’s look at the 7 two-year community colleges and 11 four-year colleges. The first question, of course, is whether you are interested in a two-year or four-year college. We talked extensively about this in our last series, Understanding the World of College. Generally speaking, stronger students with better high school records should choose four-year colleges, while students in need of boosting their academic skills and improving on their high school academic record should choose two-year colleges. But which two-year or four-year college?

The obvious next thing to consider is location. Because most New York City residents are likely to live at home while attending a CUNY college, the commute to the campus is an important factor in college choice. While subway transportation is relatively reliable, fast, and inexpensive, no student really wants to be commuting from the far end of Brooklyn to the Bronx to attend classes every day. Furthermore, some campuses are not as public transportation friendly as others. For example, Queensborough Community College is in a lovely, rather suburban location in Bayside, Queens, but there is no subway service close by; or, to take another example, unless you live on Staten Island, the College of Staten Island is not a quick ride away.

Another thing to consider—and likely the most important thing—is what majors the college offers. Because the colleges are part of a public system, all majors are not offered at all colleges. This is one way the government saves taxpayers’ money—that is, by not duplicating majors on all campuses and, thus, not running smaller-than-cost-efficient programs on campus after campus. For example, you can earn a bachelor’s degree in German at just two CUNY campuses or a bachelor’s degree in archeology at just one CUNY campus. Then, you also need to think about the colleges that specialize in certain fields—like New York City College of Technology, which specializes, obviously, in technical fields (like engineering and architecture and computer studies) or John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which specializes, obviously, in criminal justice, but also in pre-law, fire science, forensics, and studies focusing on social action.

Another thing to consider is reputation. All colleges are not created equal. You can learn about the two-year and four-year colleges by reading about them on their own websites (for example, the history of City College is fascinating and quite moving), and you can learn about their reputations by talking with professionals in any field who have lived in New York City for a while, by talking with graduates of the colleges, and by talking with some high school teachers and counselors, if they have experience with more than two or three of the CUNY campuses. For what it’s worth, five of the CUNY four-year colleges are ranked by U.S. News and World Report in the top 20 regional public colleges in the North: In no particular order, they are Baruch, Hunter, Queens, Brooklyn, and City College.

2. Students Interested in SUNY Campuses

As we said in an earlier episode in our first series, Understanding the World of College, SUNY serves about 460,000 degree and certificate students in 64 higher education institutions, including research universities, state colleges, colleges of technology, community colleges, medical schools, and an online learning network. The institutions are located throughout New York State—from Plattsburgh in the far north to Buffalo in the far west to Stony Brook in the far southeast. Looking at a map of New York State with the campuses located on it is actually quite impressive.

Just as with considering CUNY campuses, the first question when looking at SUNY campuses is whether you want a two-year community college or a four-year college—and, as we said earlier, we have already talked a lot about that decision. So let’s talk about the three other questions we raised about the CUNY campuses because they also apply to SUNY campuses: location, majors, and reputation.

If you thought that the CUNY campuses were spread out over the five boroughs of New York City, the SUNY campuses are really spread out—over virtually the entire state. For a student living in New York City, going to a SUNY campus in upstate in New York is hours farther away than going to a college in New Jersey or Connecticut or even parts of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. As we have said before, we had students at the high school we co-founded in Brooklyn who had no idea where many of SUNY campuses were, yet they thought about going to them. To repeat our minimum standard for choosing a college is this: You should not go to a college you cannot find on a map.

And part of location, when it comes to SUNY campuses, is whether you want to be in a more urban, suburban, or rural location. They are all available—from the University at Buffalo or the University at Albany and the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan (which people often forget is a SUNY campus) in the more urban category to Nassau Community College and the State University College at Old Westbury and Westchester Community College in the suburban category to the College of Technology at Canton and the State University College at New Paltz and Finger Lakes Community College in the rural category.

Just as with CUNY campuses, the most important thing to consider is what majors the college offers. Again, because the colleges are part of a public system, all majors are not offered at all colleges in order to save the taxpayers’ money, so you have to check carefully if your child has an interest in a particular subject field. What is definite is that almost whatever your child can think up to study, it is being taught on one SUNY campus or another.

Just as CUNY has New York City College of Technology, specializing in technical fields, SUNY has colleges that specialize in technology in Canton, Cobleskill, Delhi, and more. But SUNY also has colleges specializing in other technical fields—like the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Maritime College, the College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and the New York State College of Ceramics (which actually includes both engineering and art and design majors and is located at Alfred University, a private university).

For some students, the three public colleges that are part of private Cornell University are a great financial bargain. Cornell houses four private and three public colleges: the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Human Ecology, and the ILR (Industrial and Labor Relations) School—an Ivy League education at State tuition prices.

So what about the reputation of the SUNY colleges? There are probably many opinions about which colleges are the best and probably no way to prove which colleges are the best. In a list of top national public universities, U.S. News and World Report lists the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at number 30 and Stony Brook University and Binghamton University tied at number 38. In terms of campuses being known for specific academic programs, one of the clearest examples is Stony Brook, which is well known for its undergraduate and graduate science programs, including its School of Medicine, and for its co-managing of the prestigious Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island.

Generally speaking, among the four-year choices, the SUNY universities have more prestige and higher admissions standards than the SUNY state colleges and the colleges of technology—though that does not necessarily make one of the SUNY universities a better choice for your child.

3. Choosing Between CUNY and SUNY Campuses

The choice between applying to and indeed enrolling at a CUNY campus vs. a SUNY campus is probably most present in the minds of high school students who live in or near New York City. For those students, there are several factors to consider—including, at least, living arrangements and prestige (assuming, of course, that the campuses offer the right major). For New York City residents, CUNY colleges and SUNY colleges cost just about the same (and some New York State residents who live outside of the City might be eligible for the same CUNY tuition rates as City residents are). But the living arrangements can be substantially different. Is it cheaper to live at home in Queens and attend Queens College than to live in the dormitory at SUNY Albany? Of course it is. But would the student rather have the chance to live away at school as part of the whole college experience? If so, then attending a SUNY college outside of the City is the better choice.

Is a SUNY college automatically better than a CUNY college because it is part of the bigger State system? Definitely not, even when comparing the four-year SUNY universities and the four-year CUNY colleges. Again, which individual colleges are “better” than which other individual colleges is a matter for debate among educators and graduates and faculty members and interested observers. But it is clear that there are some excellent choices in both systems—choices that are right for New York’s best students as well as for New York’s average students.

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