Odi Kanter admits that applying Early Decision to Duke University was a strategic choice. Duke "was sort of a reach for me," says Kanter, who graduated in June 2004 from the private Buckingham Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge, Mass. After consulting with her college adviser and with students who'd recently gone through the admissions process, she learned that "there is a slight advantage to applying early--the school knows it's your first choice, that it's where you want to go." Her thinking eventually paid off: Kanter found out just before winter break that she'd be heading south to Duke in the fall. She was thrilled to have sewn up her top-choice school, and relieved that she wouldn't have to write any more applications. "It takes a lot out of you," she says.

Although applying early worked for Kanter, it's certainly not the right choice for every student. And that's why many educators around the country have declared war on Early Decision policies. Under Early Decision, students apply in the fall and hear by Christmas. They agree to attend if they're admitted. A less restrictive variation is Early Action; students hear early but have until May to make up their minds and can apply to other schools in the meantime. Many educators and parents say that Early Decision puts too much pressure on students to commit to a school before they're ready. Critics also say the policies favor privileged students who have good college guidance and don't need to compare financial-aid offers. In response to the criticism, Yale and Stanford, two of the most selective schools in the country, switched in 2003 from Early Decision to what they call "single-choice Early Action" (students can apply early to only one school). Harvard followed, switching from unrestricted Early Action to a single-choice plan like Yale and Stanford's. So far, no other elite schools have joined in--although many are rethinking their own policies.

The debate over Early Decision is a reflection of how intense competition has become for spots at the top schools. When the policies were created, in the years after World War II, the goal was to lock in top students. "The universities wanted to give the most prepared students some assurance of admission, so kids wouldn't spend much of their time worrying about it," says Christopher Avery, a professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and coauthor of "The Early Admissions Game." But during the boom years of the 1990s, students began jockeying aggressively to get into the most selective colleges. They looked for a way to get an edge on the competition, and they found it with Early Decision--which many schools acknowledge helps students whose chances are iffy. Schools much lower on the food chain than Yale and Stanford began adopting Early Decision policies as well, especially for students with weaker records who are legacy cases or athletic recruits. "If they're going to admit that student, they need to know that that kid is going to come," says Veda Robinson, former director of college counseling at Buckingham Browne & Nichols, where more than 80 percent of seniors now apply early.

The numbers show just why students find it hard to resist applying early. In 2003-04 the University of Pennsylvania admitted 33 percent of its early applicants, compared with just 17 percent of regular applicants. At schools like Princeton and Columbia, the rates were similar. And yet there can be good reasons to wait. Katrina Honigs, who graduated in 2004 from Pennsylvania's Mercersburg Academy as valedictorian with an SAT score of 1590, thought of --applying Early Decision to Princeton but ultimately decided against it. "With finances being a concern in my family, we just couldn't lock ourselves into that," she says. Instead, she applied Early Action to the University of Chicago. She got in, but Chicago didn't offer the financial-aid package her family had hoped for. So she scrambled to meet regular deadlines for a handful of other schools, including Princeton, Brown and Grinnell. "To my surprise, I did not get into Princeton and was wait-listed at Brown," says Honigs. She finally settled happily on Grinnell, which offered her a generous financial-aid package and a merit scholarship.

Yale and Stanford administrators say they were thinking of students like Honigs when they switched to single-choice Early Action in 2003. Although students apply early to just one school, they are allowed to submit more applications under regular decision and can wait until spring to make up their minds. The switch made both schools much more popular among top students. Both said their early applications soared and that the pool grew more racially and economically diverse. "We do believe the optimal system would be no early programs, but we don't think that's ever going to happen, so as an alternative we will keep this," says Yale Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Richard Shaw. "We're extremely happy with it." Both Yale and Stanford expected their overall yield--the percentage of all admitted students who end up attending--to drop significantly. Instead Yale's yield rose, from 67.9 to 68.5 percent, while Stanford's fell by three percentage points. "We thought it would drop even more," says Stanford's Dean of Undergraduate Admission Robin Mamlet. Yale also became considerably more selective, accepting only 16.5 percent of early applicants, compared with 21.3 percent the year before. Its overall admission rate fell to a low of 9.9 percent.

But it's too soon to announce the end of Early Decision. Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, says he's still a big backer because he likes to have lots of students who picked Penn as their first choice. "That's changed the tone of the campus," he says. "It means more of the students want to be here and that they're more motivated when they arrive." He adds that early applicants, who account for roughly 45 percent of every incoming class, are more likely to graduate on time and to take leadership roles on campus. But he's not ruling out a future shift. "As the landscape changes, I think we're all going to be reassessing the programs and looking for the best alternative," he says. "And one of the items will be Early Action single choice."

But single choice has its own critics who believe that Early Action shouldn't have any restrictions. The influential National Association for College Admission Counseling, which represents counselors and ad-missions officers, expects to issue a recommendation on single choice this fall. It's one decision students will just have to wait for.

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