Early Decision for College Enrollment

There is an extra bit of tension in the air as this year's junior class approaches college application time. Call it Early Decision Anxiety.

From coast to coast, college-bound students are asking themselves the same question: Should I apply early? Will it help my chances? The trend has been building for years, and last year came the clincher. For the first time ever, Harvard enrolled more than half of its class via the early program. Like Paris in the fashion world, Harvard is the trend-setter of higher education. Everybody else is scrambling to catch up.

All this talk about early decision can be intimidating, especially if you've got no clue what it is. ED is a program offered by most private colleges and many public ones that allows applicants to apply to a first choice college and get an early decision -- often by December 15. The hitch? You must enroll if admitted.

To complicate matters, a handful of elite schools (including Harvard) offer a variation on the program called early action -- same timetable but no commitment to attend if they accept you. If one of your top choices offers early action, there is no reason not to hop on the bandwagon. If accepted, you'll shave four months off the waiting game but still keep your options open.

The vast majority of early programs are early decision, and therein lies the rub. Too many students look around as the deadlines approach and say, "I want to apply early somewhere." An ED acceptance can be a great stress reliever, but not if it means a four-year ticket to the wrong school. (And by the way, don't even think about breaking an ED commitment for any reasons other than financial ones. These days, more and more colleges will go after you.)

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