Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

Early Decision and College Admission: Waiting is Hard

HS Seniors: What to do while waiting to hear about early decision admission?

How to teach psychology is normally the topic for this blog, but given the season—no, not Halloween (although it is my favorite holiday)—I am referring to early decision college application time—I thought I might write about this choice some students make, as well as its consequences. This year’s early decision process may be more fraught with student anxiety than usual because the online Common Application, which many colleges and universities rely on, has had more than its fair share of computer glitches (a fact that may put the Affordable Health Care application process snafus in perspective—but that’s a topic for another time).

In any case, many seniors in high school who know with a very high degree of certainty where they wish to spend the next four years elect to apply to the school of their choice by exercising the “early decision” option. Early decision models can vary slightly from institution to institution, but most entail an explicit understanding: If the student applies early—that is now or really soon—and is admitted by the college or university—he or she agrees to forswear all other academic suitors and attend said institution (assuming it is financially feasible, etc.). Many students choose this route because they have fallen in love with a certain school and want to be there come September, and college application lore suggests that one can have a slightly enhanced chance of admission (all else being equal) by following this route. Knowing where you are going come fall also reduces uncertainty and even anxiety, making the remainder of high school a bit less frenetic. Many colleges, too, like early decision because they can build momentum by beginning to fill their incoming freshman class.

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But as the immortal Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers sang, “The waiting is the hardest part!” What should early decision applicants do to bide their time until they hear back from their chosen school in, say, mid-December? How should they approach the sturm and drang of the early admission process? Here are some suggestions:

1. Stay focused. The future is always uncertain. You may get into your choice via early decision—but you may not. Your grades—indeed, the bulk of your senior year—should remain your priority. Continue to study and work hard in class, on the playing field, and in whatever extracurricular activities you engage. Remember, nothing is decided or even final when the early decision decision arrives; life is still largely unknown. Stay the course.

2. Grades (still) matter. Indeed, many early decision schools will want transcripts from your high school indicating that you are continuing to do as well or better than you have in the past. Don’t get complacent and let the grades slip. Don’t count the proverbial early decision chickens before they hatch. Whatever you do, don’t tell the teacher you most dislike how you really, really feel.

3. Think about Plan B. What if things don’t happen as you hope? If you are not admitted via early decision, then perhaps you will be admitted during the normal (spring) decision process? Still, you may not, so you should develop a list of other schools and be ready to apply by the regular decision dates for them. And you should take these schools just as seriously in the application process because one of them may become your future alma mater. (One thing: May I suggest that you apply only to schools where you would actually consider going—if you can’t see yourself living in a particular state or part of the country, then don’t apply—leave the slot for someone who wants to be there.)

4. Enjoy your senior year. Have fun with your friends (but see point 2 above). After all, you won’t all be together again after graduation (not everyone comes back to their high school reunions).

5. Remain committed to your responsibilities at work and school and home. Don’t slack off once the early decision application is submitted to your (hopefully future) school. If you have a job after school or on the weekends, keep doing good work there, especially because you may want them to hire you over summers or holidays over the next four years. If you are part of any high school clubs or organizations, then for heaven’s sake keep doing what needs to be done—too often high school students drop their responsibilities once the application is in, which makes more work for others. Remain responsible and upbeat. And don’t forget to keep the home fires burning—your family wants you to succeed but they also want you to carry your fair share where duties in the household are concerned.

6. Don’t obsess. Ok, it’s hard not to obsess about what will be (“Will I get in? What if I don’t get in? Where will I be next year? Ahhhhh!”), but I suggest if you and your pals are all applying early decision to various places, don’t make each other crazy (and don’t stress your peers who have decided to wait to take part in the regular college decision cycle—there is nothing wrong with following the route that most students take). In fact, this experience—this process—is your opportunity to be gracious to your parents, friends, family, teachers, and the school where you are applying (i.e., if you don’t get in, don’t be bitter), not to mention your high school. Be sure to thank all concerned for their support and help they have provided (and will provide in the future).

7. Use your time well. It’s almost November and you won’t hear until December, so why not read a good book when you are not studying, volunteering, working, etc.? Read for pleasure, yes, but also read something that will challenge you—if you need a suggestion, go to your English teacher and ask what book changed his or her life, outlook, or perspective. Then read it.

8. Try not to worry too much. Whatever happens, you will get into a college and have a good or even great experience. Will it be your early decision choice? Let’s hope so but if not, the US has hundreds of fine educational institutions where you would, could, and should be happy.

9. Be thankful. Really thankful. For many, college is now a rite of passage—but what should not be forgotten is that college is still a rare privilege. Having the opportunity to go to college—to any college—is a wonderful thing—a life changing and affirming thing—a thing to be celebrated but also cherished. Understand that being able to apply for early admission to college is a great privilege, an option that relatively few students have. Don’t squander your good fortune or annoy others (see the importance of being gracious above).

Good luck! And be true to your school—and yourself.

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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