I have heard that applying Early Decision at Georgetown and Harvard doesn’t offer an advantage. How can that be? Doesn’t ED send a strong message of interest to your schools of choice?
I think the first issue here is that you are confusing early programs. Both Georgetown and Harvard offer Early Action (EA) rather than Early Decision (ED). ED is binding, which means that students applying via this program are agreeing to attend those institutions if they are admitted. EA is non-binding, which means students using these plans are not required to attend if admitted and instead have until the common reply date of May 1 to notify schools of their decisions.
While applying ED does indeed send a serious message to a school because a student is committing to attend, EA is simply a way to get an early answer. Applying EA does indicate that the student is ready to apply earlier and can often indicate greater interest, it generally does not confer an advantage. There is no incentive for a college to admit a student in EA who doesn’t really interest the institution, because there are no guarantees that the student will attend.
Keep in mind that there are many slots left over after the early round at all colleges and universities, and that there is more competition in the Regular Decision (RD) round simply because there are more applications to be read. However, that doesn’t mean the RD pool is more competitive than in early. In fact, EA can often represent the most qualified candidates who will apply. At Georgetown, for example, EA is reserved for the top academic prospects, and that’s it. No recruited athletes, no legacy consideration—just the best students. Similarly, Harvard, which allows students to only apply to Harvard in their Single Choice Early Action round, generally admits only the best of their best in the self-selecting pool. They know there are many more qualified applicants coming in RD, and they want to have lots of room left for those students.
If choosing between EA at Georgetown and Harvard, I would advise a student for whom either or both schools is a reach to apply early to Georgetown, if only because that opens up the opportunity to submit EA applications to other schools. The student can potentially get a few early answers rather than just the one from Harvard. Of course, if the student really want to be in the early round at Harvard, there’s no harm in going that route either. At the very least, he will have his answer sooner than he would under RD.