More students apply early for college

MacKenzie Tobin thought the cameras were filming her lab partner so she made sure to give them space.

School administrators told students the crew was there from a state magazine to interview students and highlight the school for their academic achievements. Little did Tobin know, it was all a ruse: The crew was from the University of Georgia and they were there for her.

She was called down to the school’s office where her family and UGA admissions representatives were waiting with an acceptance letter.

“That has to have been one of the top three events in my life,” she said.

Tobin, 17, a senior from the tiny west Georgia town of Ellaville, was the first student to be offered admission into UGA for next fall. Like many students, she chose to apply early for college — submitting her application by Oct. 15, months before UGA's regular applicant deadline of Jan. 15. In exchange, Tobin avoids the stress of waiting months to find out her fate.

Last month, UGA announced it was offering early admission to 7,500 students. The state's flagship institution received a record 14,516 early applications, an increase of almost 10 percent over the previous year. Georgia Tech, another of the state's largest colleges, also had about 14,500 early applications. In previous years, about 60 percent of students who ended up in Georgia Tech's freshman class were from the school's early applicants.

For much of the past decade, colleges and universities offering early application options have reported more students applying early, said David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Hawkins is the creator and editor of the organization's annual State of College Admission report. The increase, he said, can be attributed to a few factors. With more students in the college pipeline and the rise of online applications, the number of applications overall has skyrocketed, so it makes sense that there are more early applicants, Hawkins said.

This fall, about 20.2 million students were expected to attend American colleges and universities, and college enrollment has increased by about 4.9 million students since fall 2000, according to federal data.

There has also been evidence that applying early could boost a student’s chances of admissions at some institutions. And underneath those trends, it’s also possible that students are looking for ways to alleviate the protracted stress of the college application process, Hawkins said.

That process seems to get earlier each year, with parents preparing students for college admission in middle school. Before even getting to the application, there can be pressure for students to take advanced high school classes, participate in lots of activities and score high on college entrance exams, all in efforts to improve their college chances.

“One big shift is, unfortunately, the pressure that these students feel,” said Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admissions at Georgia Tech. Clark has worked in higher education and admissions for about 15 years.

Between the messages from the media about the economy and education and the push to get into college, make good grades, graduate on time without taking too much debt and get the right job, students seem to be feeling a lot of that pressure now, Clark said. "It used to be, go to college and figure it out. It just feels like, wrong or right, in their minds there is way more on the line than it used to be," he said.

That pressure hit even closer to home for Clark this year when one of his neighbors, who he’s known since she was about seven years old, was scared to visit his home for trick-or-treating at Halloween. The student, now a high schooler, was applying at Georgia Tech and knew Clark’s position there. “Now she looks at me as if I’m judging her,” he said.

Currently, about 450 colleges have early-decision or early-action admissions policies, and some have both, according to The College Board.

Both offer students early response to their applications, but only the early-decision option is binding. Students with early-action offers, like Tobin at UGA, can consider the acceptance offer but don’t have to immediately commit, and can consider offers from other colleges.

Students and families choosing these early application options should be clear about their college choices, say experts like Neil Clark at The Walker School in Marietta. Those seeking the binding early decision should have thoroughly researched their first-choice college.

“Use your guidance counselors,” recommends Clark, dean of college counseling and guidance. “You have to come up with a good plan.”

Early-application options are for students who push themselves, Tobin said.

UGA was her first choice. She also applied and was accepted to Georgia Southern University, her second choice.

Tobin had dual-enrolled at Georgia Southwestern and through a nursing assistant class offered at her school through South Georgia Technical College. She also took a number of rigorous advanced-placement classes.

“I’m a Type A personality and I had to get it done,” she said. “This took a lot of the pressure off having to wait and find out later. The waiting is the hardest part.”