The first of the Early Decision college admissions deadlines are approaching and students are nervously revising their college application essays. However, before they submit their applications, they need to remember that there are reasons why people criticize Early Decision as primarily benefiting rich kids. As students make one final review of their application, they should make sure they know the following three things about Early Decision.
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ONE: When you apply Early Decision you will improve your chances of admissions.
Let’s start by looking at Early Decision in general. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s State of College Admission Report:
As expected, colleges with Early Decision policies reported a higher acceptance rate for their ED applicants as compared to all applicants (60 percent versus 48 percent). Given the binding nature of Early Decision policies, the average yield rate for Early Decision admits was 87 percent, substantially higher than the average yield rate for all students admitted to ED colleges (25 percent)
This means that on average, students who apply Early Decision are 20% more likely to be admitted.
Of course, we’re talking averages here. So there will be some schools where applying Early Decision will make a bigger difference than others. And at the most competitive schools, the differences can be significant.
According to data compiled by Jennie Kent and Jeff Levy, Amherst College had a 10% acceptance rate for Regular Decision and 35.9% for Early Decision. Northwestern had a 7.1% Regular Decision rate but admitted 24.9% of students under Early Decision. The numbers for Dartmouth were 6.1% Regular Decision and 23.2% Early Decision.
The numbers do suggest that Early Decision can make a big difference at the most competitive schools.
But what about the schools that say otherwise? You must mean places like…
Harvard (Restrictive Early Action) that say, “Harvard does not offer an advantage to students who apply early. Higher Early Action acceptance rates reflect the remarkable strength of Early Action pools.”
Or Princeton that advises, “In the past, those who applied early gained no strategic advantage. All applicants to Princeton, whether they apply early action or regular decision, receive the same comprehensive, holistic review.”
Then there’s Columbia that states “A candidate to whom we otherwise would not offer admission is not going to be accepted simply because he or she applied under the Early Decision program.”
Until they’re willing to show the numbers that prove “the remarkable strength of Early Action pools,” there really isn’t any reason to believe them.
No Really, They’re All Athletes or Legacies
I think Yale (Single-Choice Early Action) comes a little bit closer to the truth with its statement that “Historically, the rate of admission among early applicants has been higher than the overall admission rate because many of our strongest candidates, from a wide range of backgrounds and interests, apply early.” The key terms being “backgrounds” and “interests” which could also be defined as “legacy” and “athletics.” If you want your unique background to help you out in admissions, you should apply early decision.
The University of Pennsylvania makes this pretty clear: “We appreciate that attending Penn is a tradition for many families, so an applicant’s affiliation with Penn, either by being a child or grandchild of alumni, is given the most consideration through Early Decision.” If these legacies share the “remarkable strength” of Early Decision candidates, why wouldn’t they enjoy the same success in Regular Decision as well?
Dartmouth is pretty keen on attributing any benefit to athletes muddying the Early Decision statistical pool:
The published higher percentage of applicants accepted early is somewhat misleading because it includes recruited Division 1 athletes, whose credentials have been reviewed in advance. With recruited athletes removed from the Early Decision numbers, the statistical advantage isn’t quite as large.
How much of an advantage are we talking about? Dartmouth doesn’t seem eager to share the actual numbers–just know that the advantage is there.
Some Admit it Does Make a Difference
Other schools are more willing to acknowledge the advantages of Early Decision although many still do try to downplay its significance.
Tuft’s has a blog post that’s an interesting read. Early Decision applicants are “academically qualified and personally compelling and we love them and they love us and that’s just so exciting for everyone involved.” Next paragraph on Regular Decision, applicants are “academically qualified and personally compelling and we love them and maybe they love us, too.” Yeah, emphasis mine. No wonder the post sums up with “if you love a place your odds will likely be best in ED” because true love goes ED, right?
While Washington University in St. Louis doesn’t mention any specific advantage, it does state that” Early Decision applicants demonstrate the same level of academic preparation as their Regular Decision counterparts.” Now that’s a change. In case you’re interested, the ED acceptance rate was 34% while regular was 14%.
Duke doesn’t seem interested in justifying the higher acceptance rates of Early Decision applicants. The website admits that “There is an advantage in the admissions process to applying Early Decision. In 2018-2019, we admitted 21% of students who applied Early Decision and 6% of students who applied Regular Decision.”
Washington & Lee is probably the most honest:
By applying Early Decision you demonstrate your strong interest and intent to enroll at Washington and Lee. While we always look at academic and extracurricular qualifications, in some cases, strong interest can be the tie break between students with similar applications. Typically, about forty percent of each entering class is composed of Early Decision applicants.
Perhaps you’re wondering why I’ve stressed the importance of improving your chances of admissions by going the Early Decision route. Because the advantage has a real cost which you should be equally aware of.
TWO: You know what your estimated average net price after gift aid is because you have used the college’s net price calculator (NPC).
Most colleges that offer some version of Early Decision also use the CSS/PROFILE for financial aid. That means they are using their own institutional methodology for defining financial need and there’s a good chance it won’t be what you would expect.
If you’re going Early Decision, be prepared to pay whatever number the NPC comes up with. You’ll have a hard time justifying breaking the Early Decision contract based on your ability to pay if the financial aid award is the same as the estimate.
THREE: You will not be able to compare your financial aid award with those from other schools.
If finances are an issue and you really need to comparison shop, Early Decision is not for you. Washington & Lee, Carnegie Mellon, Middlebury, and Duke all warn students that they should not apply Early Decision if they want to compare financial aid packages.
You might think that this would be limited to schools with the possibilities of merit scholarships. However, given that each school can use their own definition of financial need, this should be a concern for students depending on need based aid as well.
I used the NPCs of three schools that claimed to meet 100% of need using a low-income profile and found that the estimated average net price varied by as much as 250%. If paying 250% less would make a significant difference to your family, then you shouldn’t apply Early Decision.
As for schools that do offer merit aid, students who apply Early Decision may still be considered for merit scholarships. But the reality is that the incentive for the schools just isn’t there. Remember, colleges offer merit aid to convince students to attend. If students have already committed, the college can use the money to attract students who haven’t decided early.
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