Scott Meiklejohn: The Early Decision Decision

Bowdoin’s Dean of Admissions, Scott Meiklejohn, writes about the myths and realities of early decision.

As the calendar flips to September, many high school seniors are looking ahead to the application deadlines for college and university admission. A few exceptionally organized students have already submitted their applications; the online Common Application goes live on August 1 each year, and The New York Times ran a story last month on the first application submitted—at 12:01 a.m. on August 1. Yikes. Thankfully the over-anxious crowd doesn’t seem to be interested in Bowdoin in big numbers.

Some seniors have moved ahead with their college searches and have a first choice. Others have visited a few schools and have more visits planned this fall. I met a student the other day who has shortened her list to a reasonable number; last week I met with a young man who said that he hasn’t been able to eliminate any school from consideration yet because every college looks great. For some, the process is just beginning. Most students will apply in December, including an astounding number who apply at 11:59:59 p.m. on December 31. They will wait to see where they are admitted in March, then make the final choice in April. While the vast majority of college-bound seniors will settle their plans in the spring, many students are spending part of the fall wrestling with the question, “Should I apply early decision (ED)?”

Early decision is for the student who is absolutely sure that Bowdoin is his or her first choice. It is a binding application agreement; if admitted, the student enrolls. Other college applications are withdrawn or never submitted. Process over. We have both ED 1 and ED 2, with November 15 and January 1 deadlines, respectively. For all the hype about ED, most students do not apply to Bowdoin ED, partly because they aren’t that clear about one place being their first choice and because they want to consider multiple colleges and (hopefully) multiple offers of admission and/or financial aid when the good news comes in March. (An important word about ED and financial aid in just a minute).

When we evaluate ED applications at Bowdoin, we are asking ourselves: is this a person we would admit in March, if we reviewed the student in our regular admission program? For about 200 students each year, that answer is yes. The College wants many talents and characteristics in its entering class each year, and it helps to begin forming the new class with students who are ready to commit to the Bowdoin experience. For several hundred more ED applicants, we are certain that we will not make an offer of admission, now or later. We think it’s best to send those applicants an ED deny letter, allowing them to move ahead with other applications where they may be more successful. A third group of students will receive ED deferral letters, indicating that we have real interest in the student but want to take a second look at the application later, along with the many other candidates we’ll consider for regular admission. Some people think an ED deferral is the kiss of death, but it’s not—we admit a fair number of our ED defer candidates each year.

Families planning to apply for need-based financial aid are often cautious about applying ED. They worry that the offer of admission might come through, but without enough aid to make the College affordable. Then what? The admission offer is binding—will the student be forced to enroll? Isn’t it better to compare multiple aid offers from the colleges that send letters of admission in March? I understand the hesitation, but in fact, we almost never disappoint an ED admit with our financial aid offer (if we admit you, we are trying to do what’s right in order for you to attend). We evaluate applications on a need-blind basis, and we award need-based aid in ED the same way we do in regular admission. Virtually 100% of our aided ED admits receive an aid offer that makes it possible for them to attend Bowdoin.

Much has been written about access to colleges and the concern that students from wealthy, well-educated families are the ones most likely to know that ED is an option. These concerns are to some extent grounded in fact, but one of the big success stories at Bowdoin recently is the growing socio-economic, racial, ethnic, and other diversity in the ED applicant pool. Some of our travel, visiting programs, hosted counselor tours, and other outreach efforts are specifically designed to introduce ED to talented students from diverse backgrounds, and it’s working. For instance, this year we admitted 35 students of color in ED 1—our highest number ever.

Given how difficult it is to gain admission to Bowdoin in any round of application review, naturally there are those who ask if applying ED improves the chance of being admitted. Magazines and guidebooks publish lists of colleges where it supposedly helps to apply ED. Students should be able to find out whether it’s an advantage to apply ED at a particular school; at Bowdoin, applying ED doesn’t help. We admit some students, but it’s very difficult to give away too many places early when we know the strength of the applications we’ll read in January, February, and March.

Finally, it’s much more important to make a good decision than an early decision. The frenzy around ED in certain zip codes can obscure the main point of the college search, which is to apply to colleges where you’d get a great education and be very happy. Students are well advised to focus on that aspect of the search over all others. Share the joy of your friends’ decisions to apply ED, if that’s what they’re doing, and be happy for them if it works out. If you’re not applying ED, don’t worry about it—just stay focused on learning what you need to know to make the college decision that’s right for you. You’ll be with a talented majority if you’re making that decision in about eight months and not sometime in the next eight weeks.


  1. Hubert S. Shaw, Jr. says:

    A great article on the admissions process. I have sent this to my grandson as a road map for applying to college. Thank you!! Hubert S. Shaw, Jr. ’65

  2. Bowdoin ED was the best decision I ever made. Recommended by Steve Munger, an alum, himself, it simplified the entire tension-fraught admissions process. And Walter Moulton made the aid package work. If you have epiphany and know you want to be a polar bear, ED is totally the way to go. Great inside look at the process. Best, Adam Najberg ’90.

  3. How does one withdraw from ED without being tossed out of the application process completely? Please advise.

Leave a Comment