D.C. area colleges see surge in early decision applications

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 5, 2009

Selective colleges in the D.C. region are reporting double-digit increases in early decision applications, signaling that the schools and their prospective freshmen are eager to commit now and forgo the uncertainties of the spring admission cycle.

Early decision is a tool used by competitive colleges to fill part of their freshman class months ahead of schedule. Colleges get firm commitments. Students get peace of mind and, usually, a more favorable acceptance rate, if they are willing to drop their applications to other schools after accepting an early offer of admission. Acceptance rates are generally higher for early decision applicants because they are more appealing to colleges, among other factors, officials said.

Schools that offer early decision have seen applications rise steadily for most of the decade. But at several local institutions, this year's numbers are off the charts.

American University received 591 applications by its Nov. 15 deadline for early decision, a 46 percent increase from last year.

George Washington University collected more than 1,600 early decision applications by Nov. 10, the first of two early decision deadlines, an increase of 24 percent in one year and 70 percent over two years.

Early decision applications are up 15 percent, to 1,094, at the College of William and Mary in Virginia and by 10 percent, to 1,155, at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Applications for the regular admissions cycle are typically due in January.

The burgeoning interest in early decision is not limited to students. College admissions officers also are taking a greater interest, according to school officials and higher education analysts.

Some colleges are promoting early decision in recruitment literature and events. In a shaky economy, they are eager to broaden a pool of applicants devoted to the schools and certain to attend.

"You have a core of students who are very, very enthusiastic about the college, and who are more engaged in the college, for whom that institution is the first choice," said Sharon Alston, executive director for enrollment management at AU.

AU increased its regional recruitment events this year and emphasized the advantages of applying early. The school sweetened the deal by making the SAT and ACT admissions tests optional for this year's early decision applicants, an experiment designed to diversify the pool.

A large number of early decision applicants "takes some of the uncertainty off the table" for a college, said Eric J. Furda, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, another prestigious school that expects an increase in early applications. Penn officials have been "very focused on increasing that pool," he said.

Nellie Beckett, a senior in the Communication Arts Program at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, decided to apply early to Smith College after a campus visit this fall. She followed a chorus of advice -- from classmates, her guidance counselors and people she met at Smith -- to apply now if she were sure she wanted to go. She'll have an answer Dec. 15.

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