Prep Talk Blog > September 2010

Premature Matriculation: Early Decision and Early Action AdmissionsShocking news: I have some flaws. I am too impatient and too often I'm guilty of procrastination. So while I glare at the microwave for making my popcorn FAR too slowly, I also tend to submit any and all required paperwork at the very last possible minute – OK, last second.

My procrastination issues are also to blame for my delay in writing about early decision and early action admissions, as I deeply dislike these admission plans.

The Problem with Early Decision in the College Admissions Process

I will start by trying to explain, to some small extent, why I find the discussion of early admission programs so aggravating. I sympathize with those of you who just want to make your decision, finish the whole process, and be free to watch the season premier of “Vampire Diaries” and get busy enjoying your senior year. At the same time, with all the other work in your senior year, getting your applications in early seems like a potentially painful burden. 

College admissions officers know how stressed students and families are, and they use that as an excuse to offer early admissions programs. In fact, to be as helpful as possible, universities created the process called EARLY DECISION. Early decision, in case you missed the bulletin, allows you to apply early, as long you commit to attend that institution, pledging your undying love, devotion, and possibly first born. It's kind of like joining a cult, but more expensive.

Even if we didn't use a system that forced you into an untimely commitment, the reality is that the earlier we can get you to apply, the more likely you are to pick our school. This is why many colleges and universities (like Mason) offer early action. If we can get a lot of students to apply early, we can increase the chance that they will enroll, and we don't have to get all dirty in the early decision business.

And Now Early Action Plans

Still, a few colleges have figured out that they can look nice by not having a formal early decision process, but still (sort of) force you to commit. These are the (at times completely inexplicable) “restricted” or “single-choice” or “bizarre and apparently designed to confuse Einstein” early action plans. These institutions offer you early action as long as you are not applying through any other restricted early process. Did that make sense? No? I sympathize; I really do.

As a result of all this confusion, a question I get asked all the time is, "Will applying early (insert action, decision, or single choice early Ming Dynasty) improve my chances of admission?" Sadly, the answer is, probably. Most institutions with early programs do give an advantage to the early applicants, at least to some extent.

So, Should You Apply Early? 

Let me pose this question another way: Would you be willing to, absolutely and without hesitation, commit by November 1 to a prom date if it meant that you could go with that girl/guy/llama you kinda sorta think you might maybe like? How about to a four-year relationship? Need a little while to think about it? I'm waiting -- just remember, I can be a wee bit impatient.

Be seeing you. 

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All’s Fair in College AdmissionsFrom an early age, we teach children about the importance of sharing and treating their friends in ways they would want to be treated in return. As they grow older, we continue to tell them over and over that all people have the same rights and the same chances to reach their dreams.

As a result, fairness becomes a huge issue for kids. My 8-year-old says, “But that’s not fair,” approximately 2,374 times each day. And to the contrary, at least 2,373 times a day I reply, “Well, life is unfair.”

And so it begins.

Years later, this emphasis on fairness results in one of the most central misconceptions about the college admissions process. The widespread assumption is that the process is fair, unbiased and equitable -- yeah, right.

For those of you not paying attention or who are too preoccupied with the latest Lindsay Lohan scandal, universities are under heavy scrutiny on the fairness issue. It all began last year when a flagship Midwestern university had emails printed in the press revealing blatant influence by politicians in efforts to get unqualified students admitted.

Pardon me while I fail to be shocked by this. While the particular incident last year was really blatant -- politicians (who often control our budgets) advocating for constituents seeking admission to institutions is nothing new -- it’s just one small example of the overall unfairness of the admissions process, which, let’s be honest, pretty much reflects the condition of our society. 

Nonetheless, unfairness in college admissions is usually less about politics than it is about money. Fair or not, many students get access to better schools and/or grow up in environments where getting a college degree is assumed from birth. Test preparation programs, some argue, tilt the balance to those who can afford them. Tutoring and help with college essays are also within reach of the affluent, along with hundreds of other boosts students can get if they can afford them. Let’s face it: It’s just plain better to be rich than poor.

Furthermore, apart from better preparation and guidance opportunities, there are many other seemingly “unfair” considerations that may work for or against students in the process. College admissions officers balance the interests of the institution and its constituents against fairness to applicants. This gets particularly difficult at schools like Mason that are choosing from among very highly qualified applicants. A colleague from a similar school once told me, “we could have enrolled the next group of applicants instead, and the profile of the class would have been just as likely to academically succeed.” At that level of competition, influence has greater potential to sneak into the process.

That being said, I believe that college admissions officers, in most cases, do their best in good faith to instill as much fairness into the process as possible. College admissions, however, is focused as much on meeting the goals of a college or university as it is about serving its applicants. The faculty, alumni, and current students all have to be considered. Isn’t it logical for children of alumni and faculty (who are in turn more likely to be long-term supporters of the school) to be given advantages in the process? Using the same line of thought, how should college admissions consider children, friends, or employees of its major donors? 

So no matter what you learned as a toddler, I’m here to tell you that life is often unfair (and, in other news, 2 plus 2 still equals 4). There are, however, right and wrong ways that this fairness gets applied. Good news: You really don’t need to worry about this -- there are PLENTY of great schools that are very likely to admit you even without special influence or connections. 

Be seeing you. 

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Where Should College Rankings Rank in Choosing a College?Everybody in Hollywood understands that reviews are a matter of opinion and that efforts to get people to watch your movie or show will often include activities that have nothing to do with making the show better. As a result, armies of publicists seek to get stars on the covers of magazines and included in various hot lists.

Higher education’s equivalent of that is COLLEGE RANKINGS. College and university officials whine and cry about the rankings each year, moaning that they have little or nothing to contribute to students’ understanding of their educational options. Meanwhile, meetings take place across the country where those same officials plot and scheme to raise their placements on these same lists.

This schizophrenic behavior isn’t really all that hard to understand. The rankings are, for the most part, hooey. That’s a technical term meaning, “lots of statistical data that doesn’t actually mean a thing if you’re trying to determine a school’s quality.”

With all due respect to Bob Morse, my longtime acquaintance who runs the U.S. News rankings, his very well-known list is a great example. It starts with a massive survey of college presidents and deans of admission. This is like starting a ranking of the best new cars with a survey of auto company CEOs. For example, I genuinely feel that Mason is the best university ever, so I have no ethical risk in how I respond, which should give you some idea of how these things work.

A Closer Look at What Makes Up College Rankings

The U.S. News surveys are then balanced by statistical data that is completely accurate, impossible to manipulate and corresponds exactly to the quality of each institution – no wait, I mean the opposite of that.

For instance, one of the biggest factors in the survey is how much money each school spends and earns. “What the heck does how much money a school earns and spends have to do with whether it’s the right school for me?” Good question. With money being a huge factor, it guarantees that the rankings won’t change all that much from year to year, which is great if you’re selling magazines to people who expect to see the same colleges and universities at the top of the list each year.

However, I doubt anyone really cares whether or not the rankings are accurate. Does anyone really believe People magazine 100 percent knows who the hottest people are in the world? 

New Tools for Measuring Colleges and Universities

Very slowly, some better tools are being developed. The National Survey of Student Engagement does some great work trying to look at outcomes -- what actually happens to students while enrolled at colleges and universities -- and U.S. News has been publishing some of those results as well.

The bottom line is that the rankings can be an interesting shortcut to developing your interest list, but don’t get sucked into thinking there’s a lot of substance behind them. My suggestion: Build your own ranking based on the things you think are most important. Put your suggestions for what should go on that list in the comments below, and I’ll post them in a future column. Who knows? Maybe we can control the college rankings of the future!

Be seeing you.

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