‘Application season’ is in full swing (FSU’s first Admissions deadline is Wednesday), and financial aid season is officially open (for Early Decision applicants!), and yes, I’m buried!   BUT, I wanted to take a moment to clarify one of the questions I get asked most this time of year:  Will APPLYING EARLY help my chances?

My answer?

Yes… and then again, no. Annoying; but It really does depend on your situation.  Let me explain.

The first, and the most restrictive way to ‘apply early’, is Early Decision.  It’s binding.  If you are accepted under an Early Decision plan, then you are contractually obligated to enroll.  The student, the parents, and the school guidance counselor all sign the Early Decision Agreement.  So, the only time I recommend Early Decision is if you are absolutely sure that this is THE school for you (which means you’ve visited it while in session), AND if you are sure you can meet your Expected Family Contribution, for four years, without going into significant debt!

If you meet these two conditions, then Early Decision does potentially offer you an admissions advantage at some schools (particularly if you are a legacy applicant or an athlete) .  And if you get accepted, you are done by the middle of December, so there’s an early sense of relief.  Which is nice.  But my general position for most families is, “Avoid Early Decision”.  I’d much rather that you have multiple admissions AND financial aid offers.  Early Decision is a great recruiting tool for the universities because you have to commit to them before THEY have to offer you money.   Not only does it ensure that they fill their class with the most motivated students, it also ensures that they do so at the highest price point possible.  Not exactly a buyer’s market.

Now unlike Early Decision, Early Action plans are non-binding.  Under Early Action, you will still have to submit your application and sometimes your financial aid forms early (usually by November 1st), and in some rare cases you may only be allowed to apply Early Action to one school (as in single-choice or Restricted Early Action).  Like Early Decision, you will be notified about acceptance by mid-December, but you can still apply Regular Decision to other schools and wait until May 1 to make your final decision.

I actually like Early Action; it literally forces you to get your stuff done, early!  Which is nice.  In fact, one thing I drill into all my students’ heads is to be early on ALL their applications… whether the college has a formal program or not.   Many school’s have rolling and priority deadlines:UCF, Indiana, UNF are rolling (and many early applicants have already heard). I already mentioned that FSU’s first deadline is Oct 16th (they have a later deadline of January 15).  UF’s one and only deadline is Nov 1.    I prefer that most of my students prepare to complete all applications by Thanksgiving at the latest – not only do you avoid last minute snafus with technology, vacations and illness; you’ll also get the admissions officers while they’re still relatively fresh, or before they get burned out by the December 31 onslaught.

So, to clarify. it’s always advantageous to get your stuff in/done early —  and as a parent, planning early (as in during the first half of your child’s 11th grade year, at the latest) is undoubtedly the best way to stack the financial odds in your family’s favor.  Financial aid and other financial inducements are widely available to middle class families, but the rules are complicated and most families leave thousands on the table because they don’t understand the nuances of those rules.  By breaking down the process and learning the rules of the game before your child falls in love with a school, middle class families can save themselves thousands off a 4 (or 6) year education.  But this does not happen automatically.  For most families, regardless of income, there are a number of strategies to reduce the amount of money you will be expected to pay for college. But as with most things, the earlier you start, the more strategies you will have at your disposal.

If you are the parent of 12th grader who is in the throes of the application process, your college funding planning window is closinlg.  You have just 2-1/2 months before your ‘look-back’ year is over (colleges will use your income from 2013 to determine what you can afford to pay for your child’s education).  The FAFSA (which is a financial aid application required by every school) opens on Jan 1.  Many awards are given on a first-come, first-served basis, and some schools like Drexel will award you just for filing early.  At the latest, you want to submit your financial aid applications on or by each school’s priority deadline (usually Feb 1).  AND, If you want to get a fair offer, or the maximum you deserve, you must have all of your ‘financial ducks in a row’ BEFORE you submit your application.

And finally, a note to all parents with college-bound students:  You are literally ‘on the clock’.  Most of the scholarship and grant offers your child will receive will be based on your income from January of your child’s 11th grade year to December of 12th grade.  It’s worth noting that schools are increasingly looking back even further and inquiring about your finances from the year prior as well.  It is imperative that you start (and ideally, complete) your college funding strategy BEFORE the end of the year that your child is in 11th grade.  A simple mistake in how you handle your finances in your ‘look-back’ years can easily cost you thousands in lost financial aid down the road.    Soon enough, if it hasn’t already started, you’re going to be inundated with college literature.  Before either your child or you fall in love with a school, you need to take control of the process and understand how colleges set and discount prices, how financial aid works and how to compile a realistic list of schools that will meet your child’s academic and social needs, and your family’s budget.

If you want to learn how to determine whether you are properly positioned to qualify for the maximum amount of grant (not loan) aid and what the application process entails, you should consider attending one of my free workshops. I’m holding just two more public events this year (both in November — my October event this week is full).  This is your chance to learn how to avoid the mistakes that plague 90% of financial aid applicants before you need to file your own application.

These two classes are free an open to the public, but registration is required so that we can confirm your seat and ensure that you receive your materials.   If your child is in high school,  working hard to earn a spot at a great college, I hope I’ll see you at one of my November classes.

Recommended Posts