The early bird gets the worm.

Early-decision programs have proliferated at law schools in the last year or two, mimicking the world of undergrad admissions—where, even as some schools repudiated early decision entirely, others dreamed up new variations: binding early decision, nonbinding early-action, “priority” deadlines, “fast-track” applications. What’s it all about?

First, it’s about applicant stress and anxiety. To quote a recent article on the phenomenon at the undergrad level, “In a realm of admissions uncertainty, the appeal of an early answer is strong.” (Eric Hoover, “ASAP Admissions,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 3, 2010.) Surely the enduring uncertainty in our economy can’t have made this motivation any less of a factor. To a certain degree, schools are simply responding to this stress and trying to appeal to more applicants, figuring that an anxious applicant who might not have applied otherwise will do so because of the carrot of a potential early answer. And of course, applicants are motivated by a sense that applying early decision enhances one’s prospects for admission—and while I think that general sense is sometimes much exaggerated (it might help at the margins, but it does not work miracles), it is undeniably a real phenomenon: Schools value the enhanced ability to manage their enrollments—and schools value candidates who have evinced a strong desire to be at their schools.

But second, it’s about money. In many cases, schools allocate little or even no financial aid grants for students admitted via binding early decision programs. At Michigan Law, we most decidedly do not do that; we provide both merit- and need-based grants to early-decision admittees on the exact same terms as we do to those admitted under regular-decision programs. I am queasy at the idea of locking people in through a binding program and then not providing them with the aid made available to others.

Even when schools do allocate grant money, though, students who apply through a binding program necessarily forfeit their ability to compare financial aid packages. That’s a cost that an applicant needs to consider carefully.

We’ve avoided becoming early-decision-heavy in our admissions process, for two reasons—one paternalistic, and the other self-interested.

Paternalism first. While we’ve had a binding program for almost a decade, it’s limited in scope: Only people interested in our century-old summer start are eligible to apply, and we admit less than half of the summer start from the early-decision pool. We resist the occasional urging to expand this program because on the whole, I think binding programs are disadvantageous for applicants. Financial circumstances aside, I think they are a good idea only in the relatively few cases in which people truly have had the chance to compare different law schools and feel both confident and well-informed that a particular school is The One. For us, that overlaps well with the population of people who are interested in the summer start, and since that group derives a real benefit from learning an answer as early as possible (since the summer start begins a few months earlier than the fall start), I feel comfortable that the good outweighs the bad. But I am not interested in using applicant anxiety as a way to fill my class, because coercion can’t be the foundation of a happy student experience. I recently read something illuminating that the dean of admissions at Kenyon said on this subject: “ can interrupt your research and the mental-emotional processing of your admissions choice—and this whole journey is a process, not a product. Interestingly, of the small number of students who transfer from Kenyon, a larger percentage than expected are ED students. Perhaps, in applying ED, they short-circuited the college decision-making process.”

So, all that applies to binding programs—but what about non-binding early action, fast tracks, and priority deadlines? What’s the cost there? As far as I can tell, there is no measurable cost to an individual applicant—but there’s a cost to the decision-making process, and that’s where institutional self-interest comes in. All those questions we ask and all that information we gather and all that reading we do have a purpose. I can’t prove the value scientifically, but that conviction is at the foundation of our entire holistic admissions process. Schools that use any one of a variety of fast tracks, on the other hand, necessarily forego the more careful, comprehensive consideration in which I put faith. A decision has to be made. Tick tock, tick tock. Surely, that’s a recipe for making a few more mistakes than one otherwise might—either because you admit someone about whom you have an inchoate concern, or because you deny someone simply because you didn’t have time to become fully convinced. And frankly, I’m not at all sure that it does much for the schools doing the rushing around, judging from the number of people in our entering classes who tell me they were admitted on a fast-track program at another school.

I’m not thumbs-down on early-decision programs across the board, but I do think the trend is worrisome, with the potential for costs to both schools and applicants. Do your homework. What you don’t want is to get stuck with the worm-equivalent of a law school.

-Dean Z. Assistant Dean for Admissions and Special Counsel for Professional Strategies