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All, College Admissions, College Fit

What Are Selective Colleges?

What does it mean to label a college as selective, most selective, or very selective? How does that relate to other labels like target, safety, and reach? Selectivity is a shorthand way to discuss colleges in terms of their admissions rate. Admissions rate is the ratio of students who apply to a college compared to students who were admitted (usually reported as a percentage). Selective colleges are not always higher quality than less selective schools. 2/3 of colleges admit more than half of the students who apply. This can include a number of quality institutions, especially small liberal arts colleges and excellent value public universities.

Admissions rate often says more about how well known a college is than how good the education or experience will be. It can also be drastically affected by factors like an increase in the number of colleges students apply to, trends in applications from international students, or college notoriety (schools often rise in popularity after winning sports championships or admitting a famous student).

What Does Selective Mean?

A selective college admits fewer than half the students who apply. This means that any college with an admissions rate of 50% or lower could be considered selective.

Because selective could include a public college with a 50% admissions rate or a private college that turns down 95% of applicants; many books and advisors try to use more specific labels. One website might use selective, very selective, highly selective, and most selective; while another might use moderately selective, very selective, extremely selective, and most selective. There isn’t an industry standard on what these labels mean.

Most selective often refers colleges that turn down the vast majority of applicants, even though they are highly qualified students. This would include colleges that admit 15% or fewer of the students who apply — or to turn it around, colleges that turn down 85% or more of applicants. You might also hear colleges like this called Wild Card schools, to convey that even for a highly qualified applicant, there is a great deal of chance involved in these applications.

How to Label Colleges

Instead of relying on squishy categories that use selectivity as the main criteria, I help students put colleges into categories like High Chance of Admission, Medium Chance of Admission, Low Chance of Admission, and Wild Card. (A Wild Card college is unlikely to admit the majority of highly qualified applicants. You might also think of these as Highly Rejective, a term coined by Akil Bello.) This system considers not only the average admissions rate of each school, but also the student’s profile relative to the profile of admitted students, as well as other factors like state residency, that can affect admission.

I use these terms instead of Target, Reach, and Safety, because I have found that labeling a school as a Safety or as a Reach school tends to influence how positively a student views the college. It is challenging for a student to resist viewing admission to a Reach school as a more positive outcome than admission to a Safety school – regardless of how high quality the student outcomes may be. For this reason, I avoid using these terms and encourage students and families to also use other labels. 

Do Most Students Attend Selective Colleges

It’s also worth taking a moment to consider how many colleges we are talking about when we use selective labels. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, around 20% of colleges would fall into the overall selective category that admits fewer than 50% of applicants. When we look at the type of colleges that students attend, we can see that 21% of first-time freshmen enroll in selective colleges and 65% attend colleges that admit 50-85% of applicants. Simply put, most colleges in the US admit most students who apply.

The breathless articles about how hard it is to get into college are often really writing about admissions at a very small number of colleges that are enrolling a very small number of students. The colleges that admit fewer than 25% of applicants enroll around 3% of the students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in the US; colleges that admit fewer than 10% of applicants enroll under 1% of undergraduate students in the US [College-Admissions Hysteria Is Not the Norm, The Atlantic, April 10, 2019].

All, Book Reviews, College Admissions

Review: Who Gets In and Why (Part 2)

This is the second half of a book review of Who Gets In and Why, by Jeff Selingo (Scribner, 2020).

In Part 1 of my review of Who Gets In and Why, I discussed the labels that author Jeff Selingo uses in to categorize colleges (Sellers and Buyers) and students (Drivers and Passengers). These contrasting labels for colleges and students are just two of the insights Selingo brings to college admissions. The main part of the book describes the “Reading Season” in which each college admissions team reviews applications and builds an incoming class. Each chapter focuses on a factor that might contribute to admitting or turning down an applicant. Understanding these factors and how they apply to specific college/student combinations will help families understand the admissions prospects in their situation.

In the chapter “Playing the Odds” Selingo dives deep into the use of Early Decision applications to protect college enrollment percentages. Early Decision is an application option that looms large with students applying to the most selective colleges. Students submit their application months earlier than Regular Decision and also sign an agreement committing to attend the college if they are admitted (the high school counselor and a parent are also required to sign the Early Decision Agreement). A student may only apply to one college during an Early Decision round. If they are admitted by their Early Decision college, they are expected to withdraw any other pending applications (submitted under Early Action or Regular Decision) and deposit at the Early Decision college – without waiting to learn if they were admitted and without the ability to compare financial aid offers or final cost of attendance. The only release from the binding Early Decision commitment is if the financial aid offer from the Early Decision college does not make attendance possible, in which case the student may decline their offer of admission in order to pursue admission to other colleges.

Colleges like Early Decision because it not only spreads their admissions reading season out over several months, but also gives them an applicant pool that has assured them of their intention to attend if admitted. Yield rate (or enrollment rate) is the percentage of admitted students who enroll and is often seen as a measure of how well regarded a college is. Stanford has a yield rate of 82%, while Tulane has a yield rate of 28%. Colleges like Tulane are sensitive to being viewed as fallback options, so they tend to look more favorably on applications from students they know will attend (ED applicants) if admitted. As a result, they fill around 40% of their incoming class via Early Decision. Admissions rates can vary widely between Early Decision and Regular Decision (Jeff Levy and Jennie Kent of Big J Consulting compile annual statistics on ED vs RD admission rates that are eye-opening).

Students aren’t stupid; they can see the game theory at play with Early Decision. Some students spend a lot of time trying to figure out where to apply using Early Decision, hoping to get a leg up on admission to a highly selective college. The significant increase in ED applications in Fall 2020, when many highly selective colleges were forced to use test optional applications, was a result of this pragmatic gamesmanship.  ED can feel like a token that is wasted if it’s not spent. What often gets missed by students who feel pressured to apply to an ED school is how much advantage the college holds. Not only does the college get to pick which students to admit, but because the ED agreement is binding, they don’t have to entice them with generous financial aid offers. The student not only loses the opportunity to compare admissions choices and net costs, but also has to pick a first-choice college months earlier. Students who attend high schools where many students apply to selective colleges often feel pressure to apply ED, whether it fits the individual student’s needs or not. It is worth remembering that around 95% of students do NOT apply using Early Decision. I think parents and school counselors are wise to help a student understand the different application options, so they can consider what they trade away when they use Early Decision and if it makes sense in their situation.

Other chapters are equally compelling. “Finding and Edge” explores the boost that legacy and athletes may see in admissions (the Varsity Blues admissions scandal broke during Selingo’s research). Sports parents may be surprised to learn just how few athletic scholarships exist at top-ranked colleges or that their student may have to choose a less well-known college to be able to compete at the collegiate level. The chapter “Comparing Grades” discusses how much the high school environment affects college admissions results. It would be especially useful for parents of younger students, who may not understand how middle school course selection can result in closed doors years later. The location, size, and demographics of a high school also affect which college reps visit and how much understanding a high school senior brings to the admissions cycle.

“Shaping a Class” is a revealing look at the conflicting priorities that influence final admissions decisions. (This essay in the Wall Street Journal is adapted from this chapter.) Institutional priorities like bringing in enough students interested in humanities or prepared for engineering compete with the need to fill the roster of the college sports teams, orchestra, and drama department. A desire to increase ethnic or economic diversity, to enroll more first-generation students, or to expand geographically beyond the local region may conflict with the need to balance the college operating budget, especially at colleges where revenue is dependent on annual tuition. An ideal class might not be the class the college can afford to admit. While a student’s application is intensely personal, there are many reasons why a student might not be admitted – often unrelated to the quality of their application or their potential as a student.

During my IEC group’s final meeting of 2020, Jeff Selingo himself joined our conversation. One observation he made was that college rankings have power because they confirm what readers already think is true. A ranking that puts Harvard, Stanford, and other well-known colleges at the top of the stack will be believed. If a ranking puts a little-known college towards the top, like Money magazine’s Best Colleges in America Ranked by Value which includes UC San Diego, UC Davis, Texas A&M, Washington and Lee, Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Virginia Tech, University of Delaware, and James Madison University alongside Yale, University of California – Berkeley, and MIT as schools that return high value for tuition costs, parents are prone to disbelief. Reading Who Gets in and Why in advance of the college admissions season offers an antidote to this brand-conscious approach.

Review: Who Gets In and Why (Part 1)

All, Book Reviews, College Admissions

Review: Who Gets In and Why (Part 1)

Part 1 in a two-part series reviewing Who Gets In and Why by Jeff Selingo (Scribner, 2020).

Twice a month I meet with a group of other educational consultants to discuss trends in admissions, how to better serve our clients, and other professional development topics. This fall we’ve been discussing the book Who Gets in and Why by Jeff Selingo (Scribner, 2020).

Selingo spent a year interviewing high school seniors and embedded in three college admissions offices (Emory, Davidson, and University of Washington) as they review applications and selected the incoming freshman class. He uses this access to “pull back the curtain” on the admissions process. One significant contribution the book makes to the college admissions discussion is driving home the fact that there is not a single set of priorities for colleges or a single path to admissions for students.

Buyers and Sellers

Selingo categorizes colleges as Sellers or Buyers. Sellers are colleges that are consistently in high demand. They have large endowments and recognizable names. They turn down far more students than they admit and have no problem filling each freshman class. They are “selling” an education and an experience that commands a high price. The colleges that reported significant increases in early application submissions in fall 2020 were primarily schools that Selingo would label as Sellers.

By contrast, Buyers are less well-known nationally, though they may still offer outstanding academic opportunities. They have smaller endowments and may depend on tuition revenue to fund annual expenses. These schools have to expend greater effort to attract applicants and may use tuition discounts in the form of tuition grants or merit scholarships to “buy” a full incoming class.

Most colleges in the US are Buyers. They tend to have lower selectivity and admit a large number of students in order to enroll each new class of freshmen. While a handful of the most selective colleges like Harvard, Stanford, Tulane, and UCLA get front page coverage for their selectivity, 80% of colleges accept more than half the students who apply. Buyers may include well-appointed public institutions and nurturing liberal arts colleges.

Students who shift their attention from Sellers to Buyers may find an array of colleges that are highly interested in attracting them and connecting them with on campus opportunities. Features like Honors programs, specialized Living Learning Communities, support for undergraduate research, and small class sizes are often benefits collected by students who are willing to think broadly when building their college list.

This category can also include colleges on the edge of viability – low yield (the percentage of admitted students who enroll) and widespread tuition discounts are common traits of colleges at risk of closing. It takes time and effort to distinguish between high value colleges that are less well-known and institutions that are on a downward spiral.

Drivers and Passengers

Selingo’s second pair of labels is for high school students themselves. He describes many as either Drivers or Passengers. Students who are Drivers are focused on college goals well before senior year. They might adopt an earlier timeline for completing standardized testing and may spend the summer before senior year engaged in resume enhancing activities or working on college application essays.

Students who are Passengers often start senior year with a less definitive understanding of the college admissions process, the cost of attendance at typical colleges, or what type of college might fit their needs and goals. They may expect to go to college after high school, but aren’t sure of the steps needed to reach their goal. In mid-November of senior year, Passengers may still be considering where to apply, while many Buyers have completed early applications – which often come with higher rates of admission and stronger financial aid offers.

This is not to say that being a Driver is good and being a Passenger dooms a student to a low-quality education. Drivers can spend a lot of energy prioritizing what they hope will impress admissions officers. They can miss the opportunity to pursue their actual interests, especially those that don’t fit a narrow mold of providing an admissions benefit. Meanwhile, students who were Passengers may take control in college, where they have more room to personalize their education through their choice of majors, minors, and individual courses than was possible in the narrow confines of their high school.

The biggest advantage that Drivers have over Passengers is time. Because they start thinking about college months or years earlier, Drivers have the ability to contemplate what really matters to them and investigate what colleges are most likely to offer what they are looking for. Passengers may miss critical deadlines like priority dates for scholarship consideration or honors college applications. One example of a Passenger in Who Gets In and Why is Chris, a high school football player at a rural high school. Because his school is well off the beaten path for college admissions reps, the spectrum of colleges he considers is fairly small and he probably misses colleges that could have been good options. The lesson for parents and adults who work with high schoolers isn’t that they need to force all students into a Driver mold, but that earlier explorations of college can be beneficial. Students and families who start the college search process earlier have more time to identify high value colleges where there is a strong chance of admission. They also have the ability to choose courses and pursue activities that will prepared them for success as college students.

Read Part 2 of Review: Who Gets In and Why to learn more about the way colleges consider applications.

All, College Admissions, Updates

Update for December 2020


As December draws to a close, admissions results for Early Decision and Early Action applications are trickling in. Many colleges experienced significant increases in applications – particularly some of the most selective colleges and in-demand state flagship universities. This is a small sampling.

University of Virginia Early Decision applications up 36%. Compare with 2019 here.          

Johns Hopkins Early Decision applications up 11%.

Virginia Tech Early Action applications up 35%.  Or to put it a different way, more students applied by the 2020 Early Decision and Early Action deadlines that applied during the entire cycle of 2018-19.

Early Action applications to Harvard increased 57%.

Georgia Tech Early Action applications increased 20% for Georgia residents. (Out of state numbers haven’t been released yet.)

In mid-November, a large number of colleges were reporting a decline in early applications compared to 2019. It’s hard to tell if this was a situation where students were later than usual in hitting submit, or if test optional policies have encouraged more students to apply to colleges that would have felt out of reach in previous years. Colleges that experience a decline in applications are less likely to write press releases, so it may be late in spring before we see the full picture (see article below about increases AND declines in California). As always, we suggest that students apply to a range of colleges – including some that have medium or high chances of admission. This year, this recommendation is even more important; since a higher number of applications means that colleges can be even more selective during admissions.

This graphic by Judi Robinovitz, a CEP who runs Score At The Top Learning Centers & Schools shows some of the steep increases that have been reported this year.

Highly Selective Colleges Had Significant Increases in Early Decision & Early Action Applications in 2020

Long article of the month

Applications to University of California campuses were up 15% while total applications to California State University campuses declined 5%. CSU applications varied widely by campus. Highly sought Cal Poly San Luis Obispo was up 4%, while Cal Sate Dominguez Hills had a 17% DROP in applications. This article does a good job of explaining the trends and some of the reasons behind them. UC numbers soar, Cal State tumbles as pandemic upends college application season.

Meanwhile, back at the office

Twice a month I meet with a group of other educational consultants to discuss trends in admissions, how to better serve our clients, and other professional development topics. This fall we’ve been discussing the book Who Gets in and Why by Jeff Selingo (Scribner, 2020). The author spent a year interviewing high school seniors and also embedded in three college admissions offices as they went through the process of reviewing applications and making admissions decisions. He was able to use this access to “pull back the curtain” on the admissions process.

Our group has discussed the different ways that colleges review applications, the assumptions and attitudes that students bring to the process, and the influence of finances and college operating expenses on admissions decisions. In mid-December, Jeff Selingo joined us to discuss topics around college admissions and how we can help students think more broadly about colleges and gain more control over the search and application process. It was an interesting discussion, and I’m grateful that he was willing to spend time with our group.

I highly recommend Who Gets In and Why to parents of high school students. It doesn’t promise a secret pathway or side door to admissions. What it may do is help families see that the colleges have their own institutional goals that might not overlap with the goals of the student. Recognizing that a turn down letter reflects these institutional priorities may take some of the sting out. Selingo also recommends considering more than just a handful of colleges. His dubious view of the effect that the US News and World Report college rankings is especially worth noting, given that his journalism career started as a college intern working on the rankings in 1994.

All, College Admissions, Updates

Update for November 2020

One of my educational consultant colleagues challenged me to do more regular updates as a round up of what I’m seeing happen in the world of colleges and college admissions. I’d love to hear what you think.


Fewer college applications were submitted by November 2 than were submitted by the same date last year. Applications Are Decreasing, Inside Higher Education

The US Naval Academy announced the spring slate of senior brigade leaders, including Sydney Barber, the first Black, female midshipman to serve as Brigade Commander. USNA Press Release,  CBS This Morning

Some colleges had planned to end in-person instruction before Thanksgiving, to reduce the trips between campus and home and the risk of spreading infection. Faced with growing outbreaks around the country, many colleges are choosing to go to online only even earlier, suspending in-person classes until the spring semester. Cutting the In-Person Semester Short, Inside Higher Education

Best article of the week

Akil Bello is the Senior Director for Advocacy and Advancement at Fair Test, which maintains a list of colleges with test optional policies. He challenges the idea that the value of a potential student is adequately measured through a standardized test. I don’t always agree with him, but I do read him whenever I get the chance. He also loves data. It’s no surprise to see him digging into the effect of continuing to require standardized test scores on college application numbers. Why Applications Are Plummeting at Florida’s State Universities.

Meanwhile, back at the office

This week is the IECA Fall 2020 Conference. Over 700 IECs from across the US and around the world are gathered together virtually to share expertise, best practices, and ways to help clients navigate college admissions (Akil Bello, who wrote the article on testing and Florida applications mentioned above, was a keynote speaker at the last IECA Conference in July). Topics over the week include affordability, considerations for law school and medical school admissions, and elements of fit in college admissions. Later in the week, I am presenting and moderating a panel on homeschooling. 

It’s great to get to see other IECs I’ve made friends with over the past few years via virtual round tables, professional reading groups, and my IEC Certificate program. Even though we mostly interact online, these are people I consider friends. We have even scheduled a few join ups before and after the official events, just to hang out and chat. I hope that high school students who are immersed in virtual education are also finding ways to keep connecting as people with their classmates and friends, even if you have to resort to online trivia nights.

We are nearing the end of the early round of college admissions. December 1 is the last early deadline for any of my clients. Then there are a few more to finish for regular decision. Some of the students who submitted to colleges using Rolling Admissions already have acceptances in hand (which takes a lot of pressure off of holiday conversations). Congratulations to those who have their first acceptances. Courage to those who are still working on applications or who have transitioned to the long wait.

All, College Admissions, College Applications

Rolling Admissions Plans

What Is Rolling Admission?

Rolling Admission means that the college considers applications as they are received and sends out admissions decisions throughout the application cycle. The college doesn’t wait until the application deadline to evaluate applications, and students don’t have to wait until the entire batch of applications has been considered to know what their status is. Under Rolling Admission, students do not make a binding commitment to attend if accepted.

Apply Now or Apply Later?

Many colleges that use Rolling Admission have high admission rates, accepting more than half the students who apply. Applying early in senior year could mean being admitted long before some of your peers even finish their applications. This can dial back the stress of senior year considerably.

Some students took a few semesters to develop strong high school study skills. For them Rolling Admission offers the choice of waiting to apply until fall grades are available, but still having an admission decision within a few weeks.

Rolling Admissions can also be helpful to students who realize during the application cycle that they need to broaden their college list to include more schools with a high chance of admission or colleges that are a better financial fit.

Specific programs within a college might be exceptions. For example, a college might have a specific fall deadline for nursing or professional flight programs, where access to hands on instruction limits the number of students accepted each year.

As with all applications, it is important to double check for deadlines related to priority financial aid consideration or honors programs.

As an example of how details matter, look at Texas A&M University. Students may apply July 1 – December 1, while the Apply Texas application is open. Applications are considered either under the Top 10% Admit program (for state residents with class rank in the top 10%) or using holistic review (for Texas students outside the top 10% or for out of state students). Admissions decisions are communicated to applicants on a rolling basis. But there is also an Early Action deadline that is ONLY applicable to Engineering Majors. Because TAMU is a popular school, students interested in engineering should consider meeting the Early Action deadline, especially if they are applying under holistic review.

All, College Admissions, College Applications

College Application Details

As application deadlines loom, it’s easy to get so focused on essays and application questions that you forget other parts of applying, like test scores, letters of recommendation, and official transcripts.

Here is a check list of items you should also have in process

Send Official Test Scores as Required

If you are applying with SAT or ACT scores, check if the school requires an official score report or accepts self-reported scores. It may take a couple weeks for College Board or ACT to process a score report request, so don’t wait until days before the application deadline or you may have to pay additional fees to rush the reports.  

Note: If you are applying under a Test Optional admissions policy, be sure you know the full details of the policy for each college. Some require additional information such as a resume, additional essays, or an interview.

Letters of Recommendation

Just as you need time to write quality essays and supplemental short answers, your recommenders need time to draft and submit a letter of recommendation on your behalf. Don’t procrastinate reaching out to potential recommenders. Confirm they are willing to submit a letter for you. Collect the required contact information. Once the request has been initiated through the application, remember to follow up to either give them a reminder of your timeline or to send them a thank you.


Like test scores, official transcripts may take time to submit. Make sure you know the timeline your high school uses for transcript requests. You may also need to submit official transcripts from any college you attended for dual credit courses or summer programs that earned college credit.

In the same way that some college applications allow self-reported test scores, some colleges use a self-reported course and grade report, sometimes via SSAR (Self-reported Student Academic Record). Make sure you know what each college you are applying to requires and how they want to get that information.

All, College Admissions, College Planning, Covid-19, Testing

Testing in the Time of Corona

Many seniors have not been able to complete the college admissions tests they hoped to do. Test dates in the spring had wholesale cancellations. Fall seats are scarce, because many sites are closed and others have lower capacity due to distancing requirements. Some families reported that test sites within 75 miles were full in the first few hours after fall registration opened.

Colleges are reconsidering whether test scores should be an admissions requirement in this environment. This is an ongoing process.  Some colleges may have hoped that testing would be available this fall, despite the spring cancellations. 

On September 1, a California judge ruled that allowing test optional admissions discriminated against students with disabilities, who were unable to take tests with approved accommodations because of the impact of coronavirus on testing sites.  The judge ruled that SAT and ACT scores could NOT be considered as part of University of California admissions, even if used as part of a test optional review.  It’s not clear if the UC system will contest this ruling.  It had previously been announced that UC would take the next several years to phase out the SAT and ACT while working to develop their own admissions exam.

Colleges that are part of a wider state system may have to wait for decisions to be made by the state governing body.  For example, the University System of Georgia just announced that applications for Fall 2021 would be test optional, but that this is a temporary waiver of the requirement.  This affects University of Georgia and Georgia Tech, as well as other public Georgia colleges and universities.

Test optional for admissions might not change the requirements for scholarships, which might be controlled by state legislatures or the organization that funds the scholarship.  For example, at the moment, the Zell Miller Scholarship – highest level of the Hope Scholarship in Georgia, still requires test scores for qualification. The commission that manages the scholarship can change the deadline for test scores, but cannot waive the requirement entirely, because that is under the authority of the Georgia legislature.

Some students still need to double check testing requirements.  Some colleges that are test optional for general admissions purposes are still asking for test scores for programs like engineering and nursing.  They may also still list test scores as a requirement for homeschool students.  For example, last week University of Hawaii Mānoa was still listing a requirement for homeschool students to submit one of the following: SAT Subject Test scores or ACT scores or a GED. 

Students applying for Fall 2021 need to keep an eye on the policies at the schools they are interested in.  They should determine of the college is test optional or test blind and also consider program and scholarship requirements.  If they do have test scores, they should consider if those scores would be a positive factor in the context of the rest of their application. If you’d like help with this process, contact me at

All, College Admissions, College Applications

When to Apply to College?

Most high school students apply to college fall or winter of senior year. But the specific details vary from college to college and can affect admissions choices significantly. You want to dig into application options at each school and create a strategy for when to apply to college to have your best chances for success.

Most college applications open around August 1, for first-time students entering the following fall. So, students who would be college freshmen in Fall 2023 could submit applications beginning in August 2022. 

Students should not procrastinate working on their applications and might choose to work on portions like essays and activities lists months before senior year. This helps spread the work out so you don’t get overwhelmed. Trust me, it’s no fun to have an early application deadline and homecoming the same weekend. At the same time, there isn’t a prize for being first. Instead, concentrate on having a high quality and complete application that tells your story to the admissions office. 

While you don’t have to hit submit on the day applications open, you don’t want to miss deadlines. Selective schools are not likely to extend deadlines to students who are late (though they may accept supporting documents like transcripts and recommendations a few days after the deadline). You should create a clear list of deadlines so you know when to apply to each college.

A single college may have several application options with different deadlines. It’s important to understand the difference between each type in order to decide which is the right choice for you to use at each college.

When to Apply to Colleges Using Early Decision (ED)

Students applying Early Decision will know the admissions result earlier, often before winter break. However, the student also makes a binding commitment to attend the college if accepted and to withdraw other applications. This is a serious commitment that includes a ED agreement signed by the student, parents, and the counselor. Early Decision might make sense if the college is the students clear first choice, if they are willing to commit to attending, and if the potential cost of attendance from the Net Price Calculator is within the family’s budget.

Because ED applicants commit to attending, many colleges like Early Decision and use it to fill a large proportion of the class. Some schools have a significantly higher admissions rate for Early Decision applications. This is partly because students who are motivated and ready to meet early deadlines are often high-quality applicants. Some colleges require athletes to apply ED if they want the coach’s support considered as part of the application. I’ve also heard of colleges that expect legacy applicants to apply ED if they want legacy status to be considered. Also, it’s simply in the college’s advantage to know that a student will enroll if accepted.  Jeff Levy and Jennie Kent at Big J Consulting produce an annual table comparing ED and Regular Decision admissions rates, which you can find in the Admissions Decrypted Resources section. You can use their data to see how big of an advantage an ED application is at individual colleges.

How Binding Is Early Decision, Exactly?

Because students who apply Early Decision agree to withdraw other applications without knowing if they would have been accepted, they don’t have the option to see all of their acceptances and to compare financial aid offers from other schools. Just how binding is Early Decision. This depends whom you ask. A college admissions rep will point out that your commitment to attend was part of the application review. At the same time, you can’t be forced to enroll if you can’t afford the college. Ron Lieber, author of The Price You Pay for College, wrote an article for the NY Times about how in his judgement a student cannot be forced to enroll. But since there is usually a short deadline for making an enrollment deposit at the ED college, a student will have to decide quickly if they accept the offer or not. This can cause a lot of stress, especially if the student didn’t have a clear first choice or if the financial aid offer is out of the family’s budget. Think carefully about applying Early Decision and be sure to use their Net Price Calculator before committing.

When to Apply to Colleges Using Early Action (EA)

Early Action also gives students an earlier response, but it does not have a binding commitment to attend.  The student is free to wait for other admissions results and financial aid packages before making a decision. EA deadlines tend to be November 1 or December 1. Some colleges select most of their incoming class through Early Action. For example, University of Maryland gives priority consideration for admissions, honors programs, and merit aid to Early Action applicants. At a recent counselor conference, they said they admit over 90% of the new class during Early Action.

In some cases, a college might even have an Early Action and Early Decision deadline on the same date. The difference there isn’t when the application is due, but if the student is committing to attend.

What are Restrictive Early Action and Single Choice Early Action?

Some colleges have a Restrictive Early Action (REA) or Single Choice Early Action (SCEA) application.  Students applying REA are not bound to attend if accepted, but do agree not to apply to other colleges under ED, EA, or REA.  There might be specific exceptions to these restrictions, so read the guidelines closely and ask the Admissions Office if you are not sure.  Stanford University, for example, has both a Regular Decision and Restrictive Early Action option with some exceptions. SCEA is also non-binding, but might prohibit students from applying to other colleges using ED or EA (including REA). If this feels like alphabet soup, it’s them, not you. The requirements are detailed, set by each college, and sometimes quite restrictive. For example, Yale University has SCEA that does not allow applications to other Private colleges through Early Action, even if that is required for priority scholarship consideration. So choose carefully, as you may be giving up a lot.

When to Apply to Colleges with Regular Decision

Under Regular Decision (RD) students apply by a certain date and receive a decision under a specific timeline.  There is no binding commitment to attend if accepted.

Regular Decision deadlines are often in January or February, with results in March or April.  There are exceptions to the late winter timelines for regular decision.  For example, University of Florida has a November 1 Priority deadline for freshmen and only considers later applications on a limited space available basis.   Meanwhile the colleges in the University of California system accept applications for freshmen ONLY November 1-30 each year. 

When to Apply to Colleges with Rolling Admission

Colleges with Rolling Admission review applications as they are received and will give admissions decisions throughout the admissions cycle. Many colleges with Rolling Admission use their own application portal instead of (or in addition to) the Common App. In some cases, these apps are available before the Common App opens on August 1. What’s more, Rolling Admission colleges often don’t require essays or letters of recommendation. So you could potentially have an acceptance to a Rolling Admission college at the beginning of senior year of high school!

Other Deadlines

You should also be aware of other critical deadlines.

Priority Deadlines — Some colleges have an explicit priority deadline to be considered for competitive merit scholarships or admission to special programs such as an honors college, nursing program, or performing arts program.  These deadlines might be listed on the main Admissions pages, or they might be under Financial Aid, Honors College descriptions, or in descriptions for specific scholarships.    For example, Boston College only considers students who apply by the priority scholarship deadline of November 1 for its Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program. 

Selective programs within a college may have earlier deadlines related to auditions or portfolio submissions. For example, Syracuse University has some drama pre-screening audition deadlines as early as October 1. 

It’s also worth noting that many colleges accept more than half of the students who apply and may accept applications into the summer months.  Some colleges will accept students for Spring with a separate set of deadlines.  Each year NACAC publishes a list of colleges that are still accepting applications after May 1. And more students are taking a gap year between high school and college.

A big take away is that it may be wise to start work on college admissions well before senior year. This isn’t just about spending the summer working on essays. A critical part of the process is taking time to determine what qualities would make a college a good fit and then identifying colleges with those qualities.  This often requires time to think and research, so starting junior year can help spread out the work and reduce pressure. If you would like help in this process, let’s connect.

All, College Admissions, College Applications, Covid-19, Testing

What is Test Optional?

What is test optional for college admissions and when should a student take advantage of this?

Test Optional vs Test Blind

First, realize that test optional does not mean that admissions decisions are test blind.  A test blind policy means that SAT or ACT scores are not used at all for admissions. For example, the University of California will not use test scores to make admissions decisions or award scholarships. However, test blind admissions is rare. 

Test optional means that the college will consider an application complete with or without test scores. Students who do submit scores will still have those scores considered as part of their application.

In 2020, most colleges used some kind of test optional practice, because students simply didn’t have the chance to take tests because of Covid-19. Most colleges discovered that their incoming class was still highly qualified. Some schools had huge increases in numbers of applications because students didn’t feel held back by lower scores.

Colleges put greater weight on factors such as GPA and course rigor, class rank, essays, extracurricular activities, and recommendations.  They may also consider state of residence, legacy status, first generation college status, demonstrated interest, and if a student is likely to need financial aid. 

Who Should Consider Applying Test Optional

Students who do not have SAT or ACT test scores.  Obviously, you can’t submit scores from tests you couldn’t take. 

Students with test scores that are not a good reflection of their ability.  For these students a review of GPA and other factors may better represent their potential for college work. Students with special needs may also want to consider requesting accommodations during testing. Approval is now automatic for students with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 plan.

Who Should Submit Test Scores?

Students might want to submit test scores if they have strong scores that add to the strength of their application. This would include scores above the average score for the college. Students applying to competitive direct entry programs may find strong scores help their application.

Some programs still use scores for eligibility. This may include programs like nursing or education with a state requirement for testing. It can also include competitive scholarships like the Georgia Hope/Zell Miller scholarship or the Florida Bright Futures scholarship.

Some colleges prefer to get test scores for students with less traditional academic records. This can include homeschoolers, students from schools that use evaluations other than grades, and international students.

Keep in mind that a test optional or even test blind policy does not mean a college will increase the size of the next freshman class.  It shifts the emphasis of the application to other factors.  You can’t control the availability of seats at an exam, but you can control the time and effort that goes into creating a thoughtful college list, into writing essays and writing supplements, and into timely and complete application submissions.