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Explaining the rules to students and families

How do you counsel students and families on application ethics? The complexities and pressures of the college application process can result in students and parents skirting the edges of ethical behavior in order to gain an edge in admission. Some may not understand the formal or informal agreements they've entered into; others may be well aware that they are trying to "game the system.”

Basic application ethics

Be sure your students know that they can't:

  • Fabricate or exaggerate activities and accomplishments.
  • Have someone else write or substantially rewrite their essays.
  • Fail to disclose disciplinary infractions if asked directly about them on an application form. (Colleges generally give applicants a chance to explain infractions.)
  • Tell more than one college that it's their first choice.
  • Mislead a college about their intended major just because they think it might help them get in.
  • Fail to notify the other colleges that have accepted them when they accept an admission offer.

Let students and parents know your school's policies regarding college applications (for example, that you will tell colleges about any disciplinary infractions or changes in a student's academic status that happen between the time you write a recommendation and graduation). Consider including these policies in handouts to students and parents as well as in annual publications.

Early decision programs

Make sure your students understand what early decision and early action programs are and what restrictions apply to any early application program they intend to pursue. See Early Decision & Early Action for more information.

Early decision programs (and some types of early action programs) are bindingIf a student applies to a college early decision, that student is agreeing to attend if accepted. 

Make sure your students know they can't:

  • Apply to early decision programs at more than one college. Many colleges now ask that counselors sign their students' early decision applications, and NACAC's guidelines bar members from signing more than one per student per application season.
  • Fail to withdraw their applications to other colleges after they've been accepted to a college under a binding early decision program. The only acceptable reason not to withdraw other applications immediately is that the student is waiting to hear about financial aid.
  • Try to get out of the early decision contract because the student's mind has changed. The only acceptable circumstance under which to break the contract, according to NACAC, is the following: "Should a student who applies for financial aid not be offered an award that makes attendance possible, the student may decline the offer of admission and be released from the Early Decision commitment" (from NACAC's Statement of Principles).

Note that many colleges have nonbinding early action plans, in which the student can apply (and get a decision) early but is not required to commit to attending the college.

Double deposits

Double depositing means putting down a deposit, and thus accepting admission, at more than one college. Since a student can’t attend multiple colleges, it is considered unethical. Why might students and families do this, considering that it would mean forfeiting one deposit? The main reasons are:

  • To buy time to decide on a college when the student has been accepted by more than one. The usual decision deadline is May 1; by double depositing, a student can delay deciding until fall.
  • To continue negotiating financial aid offers with more than one college past the May 1 decision deadline.
  • Because the student is on a waiting list at one college and wants to ensure enrollment somewhere in case of being turned down. This scenario is the only one in which NACAC considers double depositing acceptable.

Why is double depositing unethical?

It's deceitful. Students know they can only attend one college, so they are essentially lying when they notify more than one that they intend to enroll. 

It's unfair to the college. If the practice continues, colleges may  find they can't predict the size of the incoming class with any accuracy. They may take actions such as enlarging the waiting list or increasing deposit amounts (both of which will impact future applicants).

It's unfair to other applicants. The double depositor is taking up a spot that could go to another student, who will instead be put on a waiting list or turned down.

What should you do?

  • Tell students not to submit deposits to more than one college, unless they are wait-listed at their first choice and accepted at another.
  • Consider instituting a policy of sending each student's final transcript to only one college.
  • Warn students that some colleges reserve the right to rescind an offer of admission if they discover that a student has made a double deposit.