10/29/2010 10:43 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Applying "Early Decision"

It's that time of year again. High school seniors are deciding where they will apply to college, and for a sizable fraction the pivotal question is, Should I apply early?

Early application options vary by institution, but the one that generates the most debate at kitchen tables and in college counseling offices around the country is "early decision," popularly known as ED.

The ED candidate chooses one college early in her senior year, and if that college admits her, she must enroll.

Critics of early decision, and there are quite a few, note that colleges created the system to serve their own purposes, not to benefit the applicants.True. Admissions directors face tremendous pressure to meet enrollment goals. Coming in significantly under, or over, the mark can mean either not enough money to pay the bills, or not enough dormitory space and faculty to house and teach the students who show up in September. Given the number of difficult-to-control variables in the admissions process, the chance to "lock in" a quarter to a half of the class by the end of December or January is difficult to pass up.

Skeptical counselors and parents wonder whether asking a 17-year-old to sign a binding contract with a single college just a month or two into his senior year is likely to produce a well-thought-out decision.

And for the growing number of students seeking financial aid, applying ED rarely makes sense, because the critically important opportunity to compare grant, loan, and scholarship packages from a number of colleges is lost.

So why do so many students check the ED box on their applications?

The desire to get the process over with clearly plays a role, but colleges aren't the only participants in the game who have something to gain by thinking strategically. The ED option deserves consideration for the following reasons:

- It's a chance to make the decision to apply count. Colleges with competitive pools receive enough applications overall that they must turn down some students whose academic records are roughly comparable to those of some they admit. For the student whose academic profile puts her in that it-could-go-either-way zone, applying ED can increase her chances of being admitted.

- There is little evidence that high school seniors make better college choices in the spring than in the fall. The occasional student who returns a year or two after graduation to talk to us about transferring is rarely an ED case. In fact, I can remember only one in almost 20 years who was. In the end she decided not to make a move.

- ED, like other early application and early response options, provides valuable feedback no matter what the result. A decision by a college to defer an applicant for later consideration in the regular pool can make it easier to predict how other schools on that student's list may respond to her applications. A rejection, though painful in the short run, often has the highly beneficial effect of focusing the student's attention on other, more realistic possibilities.

Ironically, some ED applicants fear admission almost as much as rejection. "If I get in, then I have to go!" True, but then the "worst-case scenario" is that the student must attend a place she has visited, spent some time thinking carefully about, selected, and ostensibly likes. That's not so terrible, and putting the choice off until spring won't make it go away.