After a one-year lull, "early decision" college applications seem to have picked up again this fall around the country, worrying some experts who think the trend shows the admissions process is starting too early in students' high school years.
Using the early decision process allows students to lock in to their top choice as first-semester seniors in high school, making the rest of the year relatively stress-free. It may also boost applicant's chances by a showing a college it is that student's top choice.
But some worry that too many students apply early to try and beat the system, hoping the tactic will demonstrate enough enthusiasm to sneak them into a tough school. The risk, though, is getting stuck with a bad match or inadequate financial aid.
Last year, for the first time since surveys on early decision began in 1999, more colleges reported these applications were down than up from the year before. But this fall, 53 percent of colleges got more applications than last year, compared to 25 percent who said they got fewer, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
There were big jumps at several Ivy League schools, including the University of Pennsylvania (up 21 percent), Brown (16 percent) and Dartmouth (12 percent). Many of those applicants have been learning over the past week whether they got in.
There also are indications more students from the Midwest and Southeast are making early decision applications, joining the large numbers of seniors from the hypercompetitive Northeast and West Coast who have led the trend.
Applications were up at several prominent Southern universities, including Rice (15 percent), Vanderbilt (25 percent) and Emory (18 percent over two rounds).
At Vanderbilt, the early pool of applicants from the Southeast and Midwest grew by about one-third, but New England applications were up just 5 percent. At Penn, 75 percent of the early pool used to come from Northeast and mid-Atlantic states; that's rapidly declined to 65 percent.
At highly competitive Highland Park High School in Dallas, about a third of seniors applied early this year, up 20 percent from last year, estimated counselor Jeff Pilchiek.
And at Savannah Country Day School in Georgia, 22 percent of seniors made early decision applications, compared to 10 percent last year. Counselor Mary Beth Fry said early decision wasn't on parents' radar screens there even a year ago.
Since then, the process has grown noticeably more serious.
"Parents are paying attention not just to where their friends' children are getting in but where their friends' children from up North are getting in, too," she said.
The basic version of early decision is simple: students apply by Nov. 1 or 15, and usually get word — accept, reject or defer — by Christmas. Applying early decision commits students to attending the school if accepted.
But these days, many colleges have adopted complicated variants, including multiple early decision rounds and different forms of "early action" — in which students apply to a school by mid-autumn but aren't automatically committed to attending if they get in. Many state schools, meanwhile, accept rolling applications all year.
For students, an early verdict can make for a more relaxed senior spring.
"If I didn't get into Dartmouth, I was going to have to fill in something like 10 more applications," said Frances Dales, a senior at Savannah Country Day. That's a relief, considering she still has a full class schedule and "all these extracurricular activities that got me into college."
With the admissions process advancing earlier and earlier in high school, some say it's a good thing students can finish it sooner. Dales said she's known since freshman year Dartmouth was her top choice. Classmate Render Braswell said he visited and researched a range of schools before settling on Duke, where he was accepted Thursday.
"The colleges and universities now literally inundate these kids with informational promotional brochures starting as early as the ninth grade," said Emily Baer, director of college guidance at Memphis University School, where 15 students used early decision applications this year, about three times the number five years ago. Says Vanderbilt admissions dean William Shain: "A lot of people look at colleges a lot a longer, and they're exhausted."
But some worry that students feel pressured to apply in the fall. Counselors say they're seeing more students apply early hoping it will help them get into a better-known school, not because they've found the perfect fit.
Pilchiek, of the Dallas high school, said he saw more students applying early this year as a "reaching" mechanism. "It's something that we warn against," he said. "You still have to be a viable candidate, but they still believe that early will help them."
Early decision can eliminate stress, but students may find themselves disappointed in their financial aid package _ or simply change their minds.
"It's really stunning to see how much students can grow and learn about themselves between the end of junior year and the middle of senior year," said Helen Bodell, counseling director at the Lincoln School in Providence, R.I., where three-quarters of her senior class used early action or early decision this year. "Each one of those months is worth gold. Usually it works out, but usually there's a student you wish weren't in a binding situation."