College Admissions: When Early Decision Is the Wrong Decision

Warning: committing early may cause FOMO

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Illustration by Charlotte Alter / TIME

A terrifying day is looming on the horizon, and it’s not Halloween. It’s November 1st, the deadline for early applications for college admission for the class of 2018.   This is the week that thousands of teens will choose to apply to one school early and commit to going there if they are accepted.

When 18-year olds are trying to decide on the best basket for all their eggs, it’s a perfect recipe for FOMO (fear-of-missing-out, for the uninitiated.) What if you choose the wrong school? What if there’s another school that’s better for you that you haven’t had a chance to visit?  Or, if you wait to apply by the January regular decision deadline,  what if you missed your chance at getting into a better school? It can be a lose-lose situation.

Yet despite the FOMO, or perhaps because of it, early applications rates have been rising at a breakneck pace.  Last year, the New York Times reported that early applications to binding programs had risen sharply between 2011 and 2012, including double-digit increases at Boston University (41% rise,) Bates College (30%) and Cornell (16.5%.) But the numbers have been rising across the board; in Fall 2011, 55% of colleges reported increased applications for their binding early decision programs, according to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.

MORE: Early Decision: Better For Colleges Than For Students

Most of the reason for the increase is the widespread notion that applying early can increase a student’s chance of admission. A report from the NACAC says that applying early decision to a highly selective college can boost a student’s chances as much as a 100 point increase on the SATs.

But is it worth it?

Over 17% students under 24 who enroll in a 4-year nonprofit university complete their degree at another institution, according to a 2012 study from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. And while there’s no way to know whether there’s a direct correlation between early decision acceptances and transfer rates, some students who committed early think they made the wrong move.

Corinne White submitted a last minute early decision application to Dartmouth in the fall of 2008. “I had a solid transcript, but it wasn’t at all a shoo-in,” she said. “So I felt like I needed that extra boost from the early decision situation.”

When she travelled to visit the Dartmouth campus from her home in Chicago, she wasn’t immediately sold, but decided to apply early decision anyway to take advantage of the higher acceptance rate. “The early deadline decision was approaching, so I really kind of convinced myself to fall in love with it,” she said. “I felt that early decision pressure that there should be a school that I was absolutely in love with.”

But White realized she had made a huge mistake once she arrived as a freshman. She hadn’t investigated the social scene at Dartmouth, and she quickly found that it wasn’t a good fit for her. “If you applied ED your expectations of college are naturally just higher, and therefore you feel worse when those expectations aren’t being met,” she said. “You kind of think, oh I applied early here, this was supposed to be my dream college, what is wrong with me?”

She ended up transferring to Northwestern after her freshman year, and graduated in 2012.  White says it’s a choice she says she wouldn’t have had to make if she had waited a little longer to apply to school. “I wouldn’t recommend applying early anywhere,” she said. “You can quote me on that.”

White isn’t the only early decider who had a sense that they missed out on a school that was a better fit by pressuring themselves to commit so early.

Anna Birnbaum felt the same thing. The New Jersey native applied early decision to Trinity College because she thought another classmate had a better chance of getting in early to Colgate, her first choice.  “It was very much driven by getting in and being done and not having to worry about it,” she said. “You don’t want to really take the risk of competing with other kids in your grade in the full process.”

But after a semester at Trinity, Birnbaum knew she had made the wrong choice. She transferred to Colgate for her sophomore year and graduated in 2012.

Birnbaum says she doesn’t regret her trajectory because it helped her learn more about what she wanted from college. But now that she works as a high school admissions officer at a private school in New York, she makes sure her students know to take their time with their decisions. “I don’t tell any kids here to apply early if they’re not 100% positive that’s where they want to go,” she said. “Especially for kids who maybe their grades are struggling a little bit  but maybe they’re on the incline. I don’t want them to feel pressured to do something just to get it over with.”

But early decision is especially appealing for kids whose grades are borderline-level for the school they want, since the higher admission rates mean they have a better shot. And admissions consultant Abby Siegel says that the more students apply early, the more colleges fill their classes with early decision applicants, which leaves less room for students who apply by the regular application deadline. Especially with larger schools, Siegel said, “it’s sort of understood that if you don’t apply by the priority deadline the chances are pretty unlikely, even if you’re a really qualified student, that you would get in by the regular admission deadline because they tend to fill their classes as they go.”

In other words, the early decision process is slowly eating away at the prospects for students who want to apply by the regular application deadline. The easier it is to get in early, the more students apply, and the more the class fills up. If the class is already half full (Northwestern took 43% of the class of 2017 through early decision, Duke took 44%) then there are fewer spots available in the “regular decision” pool.

Siegel worked as a college counselor at Stuyvesant High School in New York City and New Canaan High School in Connecticut, and she says she’s observed the particular breed of FOMO that White and Birnbaum felt. “I do think that when students feel rushed, or feel pressured that they have to pick a school, or they have in their heads the ideal college, and what they think is the ideal college, it doesn’t always turn out that way,” she said.

Eliza Loring was recruited during her junior year to play soccer at Georgetown, so she experienced the FOMO of early decision-making from the athletic perspective. “I felt as if I was taking the bird in hand, since Georgetown’s a great school with a great soccer program,” she said. “Definitely not my first, second or third choice, but I really wanted to get it out of the way.”

Loring, who grew up in the suburbs of Boston, began to have second thoughts when she got injured during her senior year. “I was excited about the prospect of going to college, but was I excited about the prospect of going to Georgetown? Not really.”

She says that many of her friends who were also recruited early thought they had made the wrong decision. “They’re sitting there like ‘what am I doing? I could have waited and gone to a better academic school or a school where I could have played more.”

Loring transferred to Yale after freshman year, and is currently a sophomore there.

Dr. Dan Ariely, who teaches behavioral psychology at Duke, said that FOMO is defined by the “fear that you will learn you have made the wrong decision,” and that the psychology of early decision application is much more similar to the fear of closing doors, a similar psychological phenomenon. “The information now about alternative universes is much more readily available, and therefore it’s increasing the potential for regret,” he said. “So the fear of missing out is largely driven by regret.”

Corinne White said that ever since she submitted her application to Dartmouth, she had been wondering where else she could have gone. “”The feeling of “what if,” “what if I had gone to a different school” is exacerbated when you apply ED because you don’t even know what schools you could have gone to,” she said. “So this pull, this desire to know where else you could have gotten in, and if that could have been a better fit for you is really strong.”