Applying to American universities

Applying to American Universities – When Should You Start?

Denise Nickerson – Education Guide to Switzerland
What is Early Decision and Early Action in the University Admissions Process?
If you are applying to American universities, you may or may not know that the application process can be long and complicated. There are literally thousands of colleges and universities to choose from, and there is a very wide range of acceptance rates, subject offerings, and even tuition fees. As a general rule, public universities cost a bit less for state residents (not country residents) and international students (or American students applying from outside the country) will pay out-of-state (higher) rates.
Before a student is accepted to a university, there are fees to pay for required standardised tests and even for the administrative process of having your application considered (application fees). Outside of the USA, families are not always aware that American universities often base their admissions decisions on academic performance in the three years preceding the final year of high school. In countries like Switzerland, the high school exit exams reign supreme in university admissions, so students and parents feel there is nothing to be done until the last exam paper has been handed in.
What is the regular timeline in the USA?
Regular deadlines for admissions to American universities in the USA (as there are several American universities located outside of the 50 states – their deadlines are later) usually fall in December and January of students’ final year of secondary school.  This calendar can create a stressful autumn for graduating students. The flip side is that in the spring, before graduation, students often get the news that they have been accepted at one or more universities and they can start to make plans to attend. Many American universities pair up accepted students with returning students and have extensive orientation programs in place before the freshman (first) year of university begins.
Just in case this time table sounds illogical to you, I should point out that offers of admission can be annulled if a student does not successfully complete his final year of high school, including passing exit exams like the Maturité or the IB. Often, students will apply to 5-10 colleges and universities, and in the spring they communicate their intentions to any schools that may have accepted them. This allows the colleges and universities to plan for their fall enrolment as well.
If you are accepted to a university that you will not attend, the polite thing to do is to decline the offer as soon as possible. This courtesy may open up a place for another student who has been put on a waiting list for admission.  I certainly hope you will have the luxury of choice!
What is Early Action and what is Early Decision?
When speaking with teenagers, guidance counsellor Barbara Chen, based in Beijing, uses the analogy that “Early Action is like dating, and Early Decision is like getting engaged.”  So, basically, it’s about making a commitment – before you know if the school you are courting is interested in you!
If you are exploring American university websites, and reading through admissions policies, you may encounter the following abbreviations: EA, ED and SCEA. They stand for Early Admission, Early Decision, and Single Choice Early Action programs. If you think you might be interested in one of these programs, read through the policies and procedures carefully. Not every university uses these terms in exactly the same way.
The connecting thread in all of these programs is the word early – they all involve applying earlier and having the possibility of an acceptance or waiting list offer earlier than the late spring. This can be a huge advantage for some students, freeing them up in the spring to concentrate completely on their exams – and enjoying the end of high school!
Is there an admissions advantage?
There is also a belief among parents and students that using one of these early programs for applying to college will increase the chances of a positive response – even from an extremely competitive college with a low admission to application ratio. The truth is that the early action programs tend to attract extremely qualified students who have pinned their hopes to a particular school. If admission rates are higher (and they usually are), it is probably because students using early decision are better matches for the institution than those in the full applicant pool. These programs can provide an excellent platform to express your enthusiasm for one particular college; however, they in no way allow less qualified students to join competitive schools.  As a counsellor, I would suggest to a family that there is a slight advantage for the student who is very good but not sure to “get in.” Using the early application programs can be strategic in these instances.
Early Action programs are usually non-binding, which means they give students the service of applying early and getting a decision early, without obliging the student to attend the institution. If a student is accepted to a university through an Early Action program, he can take time to wait for other letters of acceptance and scholarship offers before deciding and committing to one college. SCEA, or the single choice programs, instruct students to choose only one college or university for an early admission program – while allowing applicants to apply to other colleges and universities using the regular deadlines. Do not, under any circumstances, break this policy if it exists where you would like to apply – the schools share information and they will find out – and you won’t get in.
Early Decision programs are binding, which involve more of a commitment from applicants. Basically, if you use the Early Decision option to apply for a university and they accept you, you must attend – even if you are accepted at several different universities.
This kind of application is like a promise from the student and the family.  You can make one Early Decision application to one school only. If you are accepted to a college through an Early Decision program, you are expected to both stop applying to other colleges and universities and withdraw all applications you may have made to other places. Again, the colleges communicate with each other and they will find out if you try to get our of your Early Decision commitment. It is unlikely you will be accepted elsewhere if you do not honour the original offer.
Are early application programs right for international students?
The answer is complicated because it depends on the student, the family, and the academic and extracurricular records you have for the preceding three years. Here are some questions to ask yourself to see if these programs are right for you:
–        Do I have excellent grades?
–        Have I taken the required standardised tests and performed well?
–        Do I have a variety of interests and accomplishments reflected in my extracurricular activities from age 14?
And, most importantly:
Do I know exactly where I would like to go to college – is it truly my dream school?
If you are dreaming of a particular college, the one your grandmother attended for example, and it is a strong first choice, go for it! An early application program could be just the right strategic move to make your dreams come true.  Good luck!

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