To ED, or not to ED, that is the question.

It is a sin and a shame that the pharmacological industry has so thoroughly co-opted the acronym ED, because we here in the admissions industry need it. To us, of course, it means “early decision,” and I really can’t think of any creative terminology or reordering of wording that will eliminate the unfortunate implication. (Acronyms are tricky. About four years ago, we reorganized and renamed the then-Office of Career Services and Office of Public Service as the “Office of Career Planning.” The head of the office at the time swiftly rejected my initial suggestion of “Office of Career Development” on the grounds that lawyers already have enough issues with OCD.)
In any event, the question whether to apply to a school early decision is a thorny one that many are grappling with at the moment, given that most schools’ early-decision deadlines are in mid-November. I have mixed feelings about the wisdom of applying early decision as a general proposition; I think it can make a lot of sense for some applicants, but I worry, in my maternalistic way, that many applicants don’t ask in advance the questions they need to in order to ascertain whether it makes sense for them. So let me do my best to answer some of those unasked questions. (To be clear, I’m only talking here about binding early-decision plans, where you commit in advance to attend if admitted; some schools have non-binding early-action plans, and that’s a different beast entirely.)
Some possible advantages of applying ED are obvious and incontrovertible: If you are admitted, your plans are set in stone early, and you can relax. You can, perhaps, forego applying to a bunch of schools you are less interested in (unless you are sufficiently Type A as to want to get all the applications out of the way ASAP—see supra, the Type A personality is not unknown among lawyers and would-be lawyers), thus saving yourself time and hassle. (To defend the mindset of the Type As, I will note that when I applied to college, I applied early decision—and then somehow, about a week before I was due to find out the answer, tumbled to the appalling realization that if I didn’t get in, I was going to really have to hustle to come up with an alternative plan. Happily, it was unnecessary, but I think the intervening week of anxiety may have permanently shaped my personality into the diehard Type A mold I currently occupy.)
Some disadvantages of the ED process are likewise incontrovertible: You cannot compare schools from the more comfortable and discerning perch of the already-admitted, and you cannot compare financial aid offers at all. These are not nothing. Of course, there is much research that can take place prior to applying, but people ask different, more probing questions of schools after they’re admitted. And I am informing exactly no one of anything at all when I observe that the financial questions underlying the law school choice are of considerable concern to most applicants.
Which dominates in this equation, then, the good or the bad? Keep in mind that the equation as I’ve set it forth thus far doesn’t even speak to the singular aspect of early decision that likely outweighs all others for the typical applicant grappling with the should-I-or-shouldn’t-I question: Will applying early decision make it more likely that you will be admitted? The answer certainly changes the balance, and yet it is certainly the hardest to confidently know.

Still, let’s start by examining what we can know for sure.

First: How sure are you that this school really is Your Dream School? Have you done what we lawyers like to call your due diligence—are you sure that its allure is real and not mere blandishments? Have you thought broadly and critically about which factors are likely to make you happy in a school? Or have you simply run your finger down the USNWR rankings and picked the highest one where the LSAT and UGPA medians aren’t too terribly unlike your own? Have you investigated other schools thoroughly, and are you sure that they cannot offer the perceived advantages of your dream school? Perhaps most importantly, have you rigorously tested your own presuppositions—e.g., that you are definitively tied to a particular geographic area, or that you certainly want to pursue a particular area of legal study? If your honest answers are the right ones (very; yes; yes; no-of-course-not-what-do-you-take-me-for; yes; and yes), then okay, first hurdle, cleared. But if even one of your answers is a bit ambivalent, take your finger off the trigger and keep considering. (I recognize that is a mixing of metaphors. I want to be clear that it is my firm opinion that it is irresponsible to compete in a race while holding a gun.)
Second: How sure are you that whatever financial aid is offered, or not, will be acceptable? If you think you will be disappointed or even materially disadvantaged to receive a financial aid package that consists exclusively of loans, you better know in advance everything about the school’s financial aid policy for early-decision admitted students. At some schools, if you are admitted early decision, you are simply ineligible for any grants. That may in fact be the case at most schools—it seems to me that schools are pretty tight-lipped about their approach to this question, and that you have to wade pretty deep into the impenetrable web prose to unlock the answer, if it’s even available at all. At others, you are guaranteed some pre-set grant amount if you are admitted; that gives you certainty, albeit with a set ceiling and floor. And at others still, like Michigan Law, we simply pledge that whatever our financial aid awards are in the application year in question (policies that are not determined until early in December, after the prior year’s data have been thoroughly crunched), early-decision applicants will be treated on exactly the same terms as regular-decision applicants, whether with regard to need- or merit-based aid.

If you have made your peace with the financing, then ask this third question: Are you sure that you can submit a high-quality application by the deadline? I’m not talking about your LSAT and UGPA here; they are what they are. (If you don’t love your LSAT, you can submit your application and simultaneously sign up for the December test; maybe you won’t need that score, because maybe the school will love your existing LSAT more than you do—otherwise, the school will get your new score once it comes out, and then it’s a whole new ballgame. If you’re still in college, of course, the same is true for UGPA and this semester’s grades.) I’m talking about all the bits of the application that are directly under your control: your essays, your choice of recommenders, your resume. On the one hand, if you are not admitted early decision, most (all?) schools will put your application in for consideration with the regular pool, which will give you a little time to submit an additional essay or letter of rec, or an updated, spit-polished resume. On the other hand, if you’ve submitted a slapdash personal statement, you can’t take that back. You could submit a revised copy, which would likely be included with your existing materials, but that won’t undo the initial impression created by the first version, if it was sloppy. That whole “you only have one chance to make a first impression” bit of wisdom gets repeated a lot for a reason—namely, that it’s true.

Now let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: What difference to the outcome does applying early decision make? A lot, a little, none at all? Particularly with undergraduate schools, you will see data suggesting that the admit rate is much higher for the early decision pool, and yet those schools will stubbornly adhere to the party line that this offset does not reflect that it’s easier to get in early decision, but rather the superior talent of the early decision pool. I’m pretty sure that’s humbug, and I can think of two reasons that schools might perpetuate it. One is benign: They might want to deemphasize the outcome importance of early decision because they don’t want to inadvertently increase the application insanity/anxiety—they don’t want to make aimless 17-year-olds feel coerced into prematurely committing. The other potential explanation is more cynical: Elite schools are understandably very dedicated to protecting their “brand” of being extremely selective. I tend to think the actual explanation is a little bit of both; but whichever is at work, I note that the claims are never accompanied by comprehensive data about the metrics of the two pools, and that the term “talented” is subject to many varied, subjective, and idiosyncratic interpretations.

The real reason I think the claim is humbug, though, is because it doesn’t make a lot of sense. First, why would a majority of the most talented students consistently want to apply early decision? Second, that story elides over the fact that early decision presents a benefit to a school, just as it does an applicant. The principal benefit is obtaining advance certainty that the applicant will enroll, allowing schools to more accurately predict and manage enrollment, and to admit fewer people to fill the class (which is an element, for both law schools and undergraduate schools, of the rankings). Because a school gets a benefit, it makes sense that there would be some trade-off. I don’t mean in the slightest to suggest that schools admit people under early-decision plans who are wholly different from those whom they admit under regular decision, and that it’s just open season—auto-admit galore! But every admissions decision is a weighing of the various components of an application, and at a selective school, small factors can make a difference: you’re looking for variety in your class, and you’ve already admitted a number of candidates who are like this candidate, so this candidate is less appealing; you’re looking for strong academic performances, and this candidate’s undergraduate transcript reflects a lack of depth, or breadth; this candidate has a strong record, but the letters of recommendation are a little bland and lacking in detail. At the early decision stage, the additional peppercorn weight of early decision is a material advantage, and it means that small weaknesses in an otherwise strong application are less likely to lead to a negative outcome.
So, yeah, the honest answer, at least from my personal experience over the course of 12 early-decision admissions seasons, is that applying early decision helps an applicant gain a positive decision. It is my distinct impression that most early-decision applicants are well aware of this, the protestations of some admissions officers notwithstanding. Still, the majority of early-decision applicants would likely get in if they applied regular decision, and I have never admitted someone early decision who I wasn’t excited to admit. We’re talking about only a peppercorn here.
And of course, knowing that there’s a small but real potential outcome advantage doesn’t answer the ultimate question. If you end up thinking that committing early was a bad bargain, because the school wasn’t what you thought or because you feel like you can’t afford to go, that apparent advantage will turn out to have been illusory.
Bottom-line: Only apply early decision if you’re really sure (1) the school in question is for you, (2) you’ll be okay with the financial award, and (3) you can submit an application you’ll be proud of. Otherwise, take your time.