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Early Admissions Process Strategic for Students

The number of students applying to college through early admission processes is on the rise, according to data released in December. Early applicant pools for Brown and Columbia are up 5 percent from last year. Northwestern and Boston University each saw a jump of 15 percent. Duke University saw a dramatic increase of 25 percent. The percentage of a freshman class filled via early decision can be quite staggering: 54 percent at the University of Pennsylvania, 47 percent at Duke and 45 percent at Northwestern.

Applying early doesn’t always increase a candidate’s chances for acceptance. Even with this uncertainty, however, I advise almost all my candidates to consider the early admissions process as a strategy for building confidence and gathering information to hone their applications.

Let me clarify the difference between “early action” and “early decision.” Students may only apply to one college in the latter category, and must commit to attend if they are accepted. I recommend this strategy only when students are 100 percent sure about their ideal school. By comparison, applying for “early action” can open more doors than it closes. Through this process, schools accept, reject, or defer decisions about an applicant, but do not consider an invitation of admission to be binding. If scholarships—either based on merit or need—are important to a student’s school choice, then I recommend discussing the specifics with his or her educational consultant to determine how applying early might affect the ability to compare financial aid packages.

Early admission deadlines are usually in November, with decisions announced in December. Students who apply for early action might receive acceptance letters before the holidays, which can ease the burden of worry that students often carry through most of their senior year. If students are denied or deferred, they can take advantage of this time to strengthen future applications.

Remember, admissions officers genuinely care about students and want them to find a place to thrive. These individuals are often receptive to phone calls from students (not parents) who want to learn from the process. They respect students who inquire in a nonconfrontational manner about the weaknesses of an application, and how they might be improved. This information can be used to refine applications students submit for January deadlines.

Please don’t misunderstand this as an unnecessary acceleration that ratchets up pressure for students. From my experience, targeting early admission deadlines can achieve the opposite effect: starting the process earlier deflates its “looming” quality, receiving early news of acceptances builds student confidence, and receiving “bad” news early gives students time to regroup. 

While college may seem far off to this year’s juniors, now is a great time to begin thinking about it. Spring and summer travels often bring convenient opportunities to visit campuses. Just stepping foot on a college campus can make the whole process more real as teens start to envision themselves as college students—they will be soon enough.

Linda Magnussen is a professional affiliate of The Bertram Group and president and founder of LM Educational Advisory LLC.  She can be reached at