Greg W. Roberts, the dean of admission at the University of Virginia, answers questions about applying early action and early decision.

The deadline to apply early admission at many colleges and universities is Nov. 1. Students typically are notified of results in mid-December.

Mr. Roberts responds to questions about whether colleges know when an applicant has decided to apply early elsewhere and how early admissions may affect financial aid.


Effect on Other Colleges

Q. Do colleges and universities know if a student applies early action elsewhere? If those colleges ever found out, would it negatively affect their decision to enroll him?
A.Most colleges and universities do not ask applicants where else they are applying; that practice is frowned upon in our profession.

Admission professionals have a code of conduct, formally articulated in the “Statement of Principles of Good Practice,” created by our national admission organization, the National Association of College Admission Counselors (NACAC). This code of ethics lists 19 best practices for colleges and universities, and states that schools should “refrain from asking students where else they applied.”

Keep in mind, this is a best practice and not a mandatory practice, meaning schools are discouraged but not prohibited from asking the question on the application.

A small number of schools, however, do ask for this information, saying that it will be used only for the purpose of data collection and not as part of the admission review. If a school asks for this information, the request would be on its application form. On the Common Application, for example, a student would find this question on a specific college’s supplemental page. (At Virginia, we do not ask students about where else they are applying.)

Also, it’s important to know that colleges and universities do not share information on applicants. We do not compare lists or ask each other who applied where and when.

So, in most cases, the only people who know where you are applying are those whom you’ve told. We trust that you will approach the college admission process with integrity and honor and that you will abide by the policies and early and regular decision guidelines of the schools to which you are applying.

Colleges and universities will hold up their end of the bargain as well. If a school does ask you where else you are applying, it should be honest and straightforward in explaining how and why it asks for this information and what effect it could have on your application.

Financial Options

Q. If a student is admitted early decision, only to find out that the university’s financial aid package is insufficient, what are his or her options? Please explain the financial risks, if any, of applying early decision or early action.
A. Early decision (E.D.) is a binding admission program; however, students and families are often confused by the term binding, so this is a great question.

To begin with, early decision is a good program for students who have settled on a clear, first-choice school by the fall of the senior year and have an academic record that will stand on its own after only three years of high school, since fall senior year grades are normally not available during the early review.

Additionally, early decision applicants do not need to compare financial aid offers from other colleges or universities because this is not possible when applying E.D. Students admitted early decision must withdraw their applications from all other schools upon making a commitment to enroll at the E.D. school.

Early action (E.A.) is nonbinding, allowing students to apply early, receive an admission decision early (most often in December or January as opposed to April 1) but have until May 1 to submit an enrollment deposit. This later deposit date allows the student to compare admission offers as well as need and merit-aid offers from the schools to which he or she was admitted.

Regarding finances and financial aid, schools will offer admitted early decision students tentative need-based financial aid packages shortly after the student is notified of his or her admission and before the enrollment deposit is due.

This tentative aid package is based on financial information submitted by the student and family. For example, many private schools use the College Scholarship Service Profile to determine need and tentative aid eligibility for early decision admitted students. The student’s commitment to enroll is dependent upon the tentative aid package, if the student submitted the required aid documents on time.

If a student is offered E.D. admission but the tentative aid package is lower than family expectations, the student does not have to make a deposit. The student can cancel his or her application but would forfeit the offer of admission.

Admitted early action students, on the other hand, would receive an aid award during the winter but would have time to consider all admission and aid offers before making a deposit by the May 1 deadline.

Chances of Receiving Merit Aid

Q. One reader has heard that a school is “more stingy with financial aid” for early admits, while another has been advised that “a larger chunk” of merit aid is provided to early admits. Please set the record straight: How does early admission affect a student’s chances of receiving merit aid, specifically, and financial aid, in general?
A. This is one of those “it depends” questions, unfortunately.

You’ll probably find that schools that meet 100 percent of demonstrated financial need try to treat students the same way regardless of whether or not they apply under an early or regular decision plan. We certainly do at Virginia. Like most of our peers, we use financial aid to attract the best and most compelling students possible, regardless of financial need. Applying early action or regular decision makes no difference.

With that said, in an era of shrinking endowments, reductions in financial aid budgets and limited state and federal support for higher education, many colleges and universities are seeking to leverage financial resources to enroll the best class possible. In other words, it is possible that a school might focus merit-aid dollars on noncommitted students they hope to win from their peers during regular decision or early action, as opposed to students who have already paid the enrollment deposit to their school under an early decision plan.

Schools might also manipulate need-based aid packages by offering more grants and less loan or work study to the most desirable students in an attempt to influence their decision on enrollment. (This is not our practice at Virginia.)

This is a tricky question because schools face different financial pressures and have different philosophies on the use of aid as they seek to shape an incoming class. I find that most colleges and universities present their policies with as much transparency as possible, so it is best to contact the school you are applying to if questions arise.


Watch for more posts on this topic this week….