Early Action, Early Decision…and Shakespeare

Among highly selective colleges, statistically speaking, the benefit of applying early is huge. For example: last year Columbia University accepted a class of 2,291 students from a total applicant pool of 32,967 students, for an overall acceptance rate of 7%. However, Columbia really had two acceptance rates. Of the 3,296 students who applied in the Early Decision round (November 1 deadline), 19.5% were admitted. Of the 29,671 students who applied in the regular round (January 1 deadline), 5.6% were admitted.

I spend a lot of time early in the application process explaining this to parents and students. We look at matrices, read College Board's "Applying" pages, and assess the virtues of various schools. Everyone always grasps the benefit quickly, but few want to take advantage of it.

The most common reason parents refuse Early Decision applications is money. They cannot compare financial aid offers because they will receive only one offer. But even within families with no financial constraints and with a strong mastery of the college admission process, there is hesitation.

The most common reason students refuse Early Decision is they just aren't ready to commit. What difference, I sometimes wonder, do two months make?

Years ago I was a high school substitute English teacher. My job was to lead the class through an understanding of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. The class admired Viola who washed ashore from a shipwreck, donned men's clothing, and set off to build a new life.  My students saw Viola as a peer, almost their age. Like them, Viola was tethered to her family, until the storm hit. One fast moment from ship to ocean to beach, and life as Viola knew it was over. Some students wrote papers about their fears of being shipwrecked in life.

Perhaps shipwrecked is how some high school seniors feel about leaving for college, which begins with an application. The application is a declaration that you want to leave home. In their hearts, many teenagers don't really want to leave home. Two fast months  from an awesome summer to a four to six year commitment, and life as they know it is over.

Sometimes I imagine Viola from Twelfth Night as a high school senior. She truly wants to go to college:  Make me a willow cabin at your gate // And call upon my soul within the house. 

But there is more to this story. In the last four years our imaginary Viola has been in a series of small storms--curfews, grades, friends, clothes--and understands anxiety. More anxiety is piling on because after college tours she can visualize sleeping in crowded rooms with strangers, and eating yucky food, and getting lost on campus, and feeling lost. Our Viola struggles to tell people who she really is, which is especially burdensome because now everyone is asking. Even the clothes she wears can send conflicting signals. And since Viola has disgused herself, it can be hard to share her ideas without giving herself away. Well-meaning people try to help, except perhaps Malvolio, who preaches campus sobriety.

Having just made her way through a series of small storms, and sensing another shipwreck just ahead, is Viola capable of completing an Early Decision application? Or do November and December give her two more months of reflection when she most wants reflection?

My work includes helping families identify and capture advantages during the admission process. Explaining the advantage of timing--those 14 percentage points at Columbia and elsewhere--is an important part of my work. But November and December, the months between the early and regular deadlines, are also advantageous for many students. It's nine more weeks to steel themselves for the shipwreck, and to imagine how they can stand up in the sand, find the right clothes, and begin a new adventure.

Photo:  "DSC-0918," September 7, 2014, courtesy fh.muml, FlickrCC