At this point, you may be fielding tons of questions from anxious students wondering if they should apply to college early decision.

While each student’s application is unique, there are some general best practices for advising students in this situation. Here, fellow experienced high school counselors share their thoughts with six important questions to ask students who come to you for guidance.

1. Have You Already Started?

By fall of a student’s senior year, they should be well on their way to completing their application if they’re applying early decision. Elisia Howard, founder of College Insight, considers an early start so vital that she believes students opting for early decision should “start the college application process no later than mid-July to give themselves enough time to complete their essays and other materials.” Students who are just initiating their application process mid-fall, Howard adds, may want to think twice about applying early decision as they will likely be unable to present themselves in the best possible light on such a rushed timeline.

2. Are You Ready Now?

Joe Calendo MS, a high school counselor at Queen Creek High School in Arizona, says that starting the application isn’t the only factor to consider timewise. To apply early decision, students must feel that they are at the very top of their game right then. If a student is planning to “retake the ACT® or SAT® [exam] to get a higher score or raise their unweighted GPA in order to get put their best foot forward while applying,” Calendo says, early decision may not be the route they want to take.

3. Can You Afford the School?

Many students are unaware that financial flexibility is drastically reduced with early decision admission. Howard says, “Students don’t realize they won’t know if they can afford [a school] until they receive the [award] letter. By applying early decision, students are giving up their chance to compare different [award] letters.” This is a major factor for students to consider, and Christina June, a longtime high school counselor in the Washington, DC, metro area, says students should have a clear understanding before risking accruing more debt than necessary. It may be up to you to explain exactly how financial aid is awarded and why comparing offers is often too valuable an option to sacrifice.

4. Do You Understand Early Decision Is Binding?

Because early decision is a binding commitment, Howard emphasizes the importance of ensuring that all students who choose this route are aware that “they are obligated to attend that school once accepted.” While not technically a legal contract, there can be serious consequences to backing out of an early decision acceptance, including a decreased chance that the student will be admitted elsewhere and a strained relationship between the student’s high school counselor and the college. Any student prepared to apply early decision must also be prepared to accept an offer of admission.

5. Have You Done Your Homework?

Due to the binding nature of early decision, students need to research the school to make sure it is the right match for them. This includes visiting the campus, exploring the school’s website, talking to current and former students about the school’s social and academic culture and understanding their likelihood of acceptance. Howard sets rigid guidelines when advising her students on early decision. “Students should really only think about applying early decision if two conditions are met: They are 110 percent sure they want to go to a particular university and it is highly competitive [for them],” she says. Because these applicants are accepted at a higher rate than those applying through the regular application dates about 68 percent acceptance compared to 51 percent in the regular pool — applying early decision can be an advantage. However, because of the financial unknown of early decision admission, it’s only worth the risk if that advantage is needed for the student to be admitted. June says students need to do the research to figure out what’s in range for their target school and if their application needs the extra advantage.”

6. What’s Your Plan B?

No matter how extensively a student researches their early decision school and how well they prepare their application, there’s always the possibility they won’t be accepted. Before her students submit their applications, June says, I encourage all of [them] to have at least one safety they’d be proud to say they’re attending.” She says it’s up to the high school counselor to help them find the ideal safety school, assuming they don’t already have one, and to remind them that “their college dreams can be achieved in more than one way.”

Applying early decision can be a stressful process for both students and counselors. But these questions provide a roadmap for working through the issues so you can both arrive at a clear understanding of whether or not early decision is the right way to go.

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