Q: My granddaughter, a National Merit finalist, has the high SAT scores and strong all-around record to get into a good school. We are hoping for scholarships. She has her heart set on Brown University, but her counselor advises her not to apply for early decision there, but instead to apply "early action" at her "match schools" (whatever they are). Is this good advice?
A: Most schools allow you to apply early in one of two ways: early decision or early action, says Rob Franek, Princeton Review college admissions guru. Early action deadlines usually fall at the same time as early decision, and students are notified in December.
"Early decision is binding. This means if your granddaughter is accepted through early decision, she is 'bound' to attend that school," says Franek, author of "The Best 377 Colleges" (Princeton Review, 2012). "She may not apply to more than one college under early decision. Early action applications are non-binding. She may apply to several colleges early action."
Her counselor's advice is sound, says Franek. "Brown does not offer applicants the option of early action, only early decision. If your granddaughter were not accepted, she would either be rejected or deferred," he explains. Deferred applicants still have a shot at being admitted during the regular admission period, while rejected applicants may not reapply until the following year.
"Brown is highly selective," says Franek. "It admitted only 9 percent of the applicants for the class of 2015. While your granddaughter is a superstar, she's competing with thousands of other superstars from around the world for a spot at Brown. Her counselor is helping her hedge her bets."
Since you are hoping for financial aid, applying early action to schools on her list that offer that option gives her opportunities to compare financial aid packages from several institutions. The sooner families can do the math, the better, says Franek.
You asked about "match" schools. Franek weighs in: "Many counselors advise students to make a list of 'reach' and 'match' schools. Brown is on her reach list, because of its selectivity. Even stellar students should consider the top U.S. colleges and universities to be reach schools. The admissions standards for these schools are so high that nearly perfect SAT or ACT scores and a straight 'A' transcript are no guarantee of acceptance."
Her match schools should be those she is likely to get into because her academic credentials fall well within (or even exceed) the school's range for the average freshman, explains Franek. "There are no guarantees, but it's not unreasonable to expect that with her track record, she will be accepted to several of her match schools."
When making a list of either reach or match schools, do some homework beyond the schools' websites and virtual tours. Visit, if possible; talk with alumni; listen to advice from current students; and check out anecdotal data included in guides such as Frankek's.
"The applications process requires time, thought, focus and expense," he says. "Don't waste any of those applying to colleges that don't feel like a fit." For more guidance, go to princetonreview.com.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)