16 Nov

The Truth About Applying Early

How much does Early Decision or Early Action help?

This post covers the four types of early application options a college might offer you:

1. Early Decision
2. Early Action
3. Restrictive Early Action (also known as Single-Choice Early Action)
4: Rolling Admission

To Apply Early or Not Apply Early?

How much does applying early help you? It depends, when deciding whether or not to apply Early Decision (ED), Early Action (EA), or Restrictive Early Action (REA), the key question to ask is, “How many early acceptances are left over for students like you after your college gives early acceptances to its actively recruited student athletes?” Or, stated differently, “Does the admissions rate actually increase for students who are not actively being recruited by the college and by how much?”

In most cases, due to myth busting reasons explained below, applying early will actually not give your application a boost. And college counselors and newspaper journalists claiming it will are not correctly understanding the official statistics publicly released by the colleges. However, this post will make you wiser. We’ll start with discussing ED.

1. How Big Is the Real Early Decision (ED) Boost?

Ivy League and NCAA Division III Colleges:

Early Decision is a binding agreement: you agree to apply to only one college early and if accepted you must enroll. Ivy League and NCAAA Division III (sports division) colleges are prohibited from offering scholarships to athletes, so they recruit all of their student athletes through the Early Decision process. Since actively recruited athletes make up a significant amount of the early applicants who get accepted, the discrepancy you see between the Early vs. Regular Decision admit rates doesn’t accurately reflect your chances of being admitted Early Decision if you aren’t one of these athletes. So, how much does the inclusion of recruited athletes create the false perception of an easier Early Decision acceptance rate? Let’s find out:

Class of 2020 Case Study:

Note: The concept of this example is applicable to many selective colleges.

At Brown, an Ivy League university, a whopping 39.5% of the incoming class was admitted in Early Decision for the class of 2020. The 20% acceptance rate for the Early Decision applicants seemed very favorable compared to the 9.3% acceptance rate of the regular admissions pool. When most people see this difference between the Early Decision and Regular Decision admit rates, they feel it’s a no brainer that applying early will boost their chances of acceptance from 9.3% to 20%. However, Brown admissions officers officially state that applying early won’t affect your chances. Why? Let’s go behind the numbers:

Brown’s athletic website states that a significant number of spots in each year’s class are reserved for “recruited varsity athletes.” In 2014, only 5% of applications in the Early Decision pool belonged to students who were actively recruited by Brown for athletics; 95% of the early decision applications were from students like you. However, the recruited athletes accounted for 26% of Brown’s Early Decision acceptance offers. Note: if you’re an athlete but haven’t been regularly in contact with a coach from a college, then that college is not recruiting you. This brings us to myth #1:

Myth: “If you have a lower GPA or test score, your chances are better by applying Early Decision.”

Truth: Because athletes account for a about a third of the early acceptances, their lower academic profiles make the average GPA and test scores for early admits seem low. Brown’s Office of Admissions even states that the regular students who are accepted early have GPAs or test scores greater than or equal to the students they accept in the Regular Decision pool. One Brown admissions officer was even quoted saying, “We admit Early Decision applicants only when we are confident that we would offer them admission as a Regular Decision applicant.”

Lesson: If a college isn’t actively recruiting you and you have lower grades, your chances of being admitted are better if you apply Regular Decision so that you can have time to raise your GPA and/or standardized test score.

The Real Early Decision Acceptance Rate

When the Early Decision acceptance rate is adjusted to exclude recruited athletes, it drops from 20% to 14.8%! It’s significantly less favorable to you. But, there’s something else I haven’t shared yet. Athletes are not the only types of students that colleges recruit and reserve spots for in the early admission class. About 3% of the early decision offers may be reserved for low-income students recruited through special scholarship programs like QuestBridge. Another 1% of the early class may be reserved for musical recruits (i.e. orchestra and band) and 1.8% of early applicants may have withdrawn or failed to complete their early applications. This drops the effectual early acceptance rate for non-recruited students even lower to about 9.5%. By comparison, the acceptance rate for Brown’s Regular Decision pool was 9.3%. This is congruent with Brown’s official stance that early applicants don’t get a boost. Who got the Early Decision boost? Virtually no one, unless you were actively recruited by the college.

You’ve Likely Misinterpreted the Statistic: “Percentage of the Class Filled in Early Admission”

So, how can Brown report that it filled 39.5% of its incoming class in Early Decision if the effective acceptance rate for non-recruited students was essentially the same as the Regular Decision acceptance rate? Well, Brown’s incoming class, by definition, only consists of students who got accepted and enrolled—not students who got accepted and chose to enroll elsewhere.

If 100% of the 3,015 students who were admitted to Brown’s Class of 2020 chose to matriculate to Brown, the amount of the class that was filled in early decision would’ve been cut down to 22%. But, that still includes recruited athletes. Removing the recruited athletes drops the rate even lower to only 16% of the incoming class who got accepted early. So, if you’re concerned about your chances of getting an acceptance letter, you should ignore the “39.5% of the incoming class was filled early” statistic as it’s not an accurate measure of how hard it is to get accepted.

Guess Who Got Deferred?

The vast majority (76.5% to be exact) of Brown’s Early Decision applicant pool were deferred to Regular Decision. In 2014, Harvard, for example, also deferred 72.5% (or about 3/4) of their Early Action pool to Regular Decision. The Harvard Crimson reported, “…the regular admission rate was 2.8% this year…” However, Harvard’s Early Action acceptance rate, by comparison, was only 1.8%. Yet, that 1.8% statistic includes athletes. Since, Harvard’s cap for recruited athletes is 200 (or 20.4% of the early class), removing them from the early pool lowers Harvard’s early acceptance rate to 1.3% for non-athletes. Meaning, the 2.8% acceptance rate of the Regular Decision pool was actually more favorable to applicants.

Athletes Lower the Average GPA and Standardized Test Scores of the Early Class

Many students see the lower academic qualifications of the early pool and mistakenly believe that the early pool is easier for students with lower academic qualifications. However, applicants with lower grades are the most likely to be deferred. Even if the student is a great fit, universities will defer the student until after the fall semester and December SAT/ACT test date opportunities have passed. Getting deferred at this point is perilous to your chances because once deferred, you may not be able to make additional changes to your application. Consequently, as your application sits in the deferred pile, tens of thousands of Regular Decision applicants will get an two additional months to boost their GPA, standardized test scores, co-curricular achievements, and/or develop more compelling personal statements that further stack the Regular Decision outcomes against you.

There Are Only a Few Colleges Where Applying ED Will Boost Your Chances

There are a number of moderately selective colleges where applying early can give you a legitimate boost. However, most of these moderately selective colleges admit over 50% of applicants in the Regular Decision round. They aren’t the Ivy League by a long shot and they don’t tend to be the colleges that most students need a boost for. However, there are a few highly selective colleges who are the exception.

Duke, Tulane University, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, and Northeastern University are rare because they are both very selective (i.e. they have Regular Decision acceptance rates under 30%) and their early applicants do get a helpful boost by applying early. However, a recent article by The Atlantic has made the argument that Tulane has artificially lowered its acceptance rate (i.e. increased its applications) by sending out free, pre-filled out, college applications to students in Louisiana (its home state) and across the country. This would effectively mean that the early boost, in actuality, may not be as make-or-break as it would seem to most applicants.

To calculate how much your chances of acceptance would be increased by applying Early Decision or Early Action to any college, follow these steps:

Method A – Quick Method:

Refer to this table by the U.S. News and World Report that lists Early Decision and Early Action acceptance rates for colleges. If the size of the Early Decision applicant pool for your desired college is fewer than 6,000 and the difference between the early acceptance rate and the regular acceptance rate is under 15%, then your chances of admittance are not significantly boosted by applying early.  To boost your chances the most, focus on elevating your grades and activities this fall semester and roll that momentum into applying as a Regular Decision applicant.

Method B – Measured Calculation:

Duke, Tulane, Chapel Hill, University of Miami, University of Connecticut, University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and Northeastern are the most popular and selective universities that can offer you a significant boost if you apply early. Here’s how you can estimate how big your particular early boost would be at these colleges in any given year:

Step 1 – Estimate How Many of the Early Admits are Not Recruited Students:
Equation: [Number of Early Admits from the previous year] x 0.75

Example: in 2014, Duke accepted 816 students early. Thus, to predict your early admission chances for Duke as an applicant applying in 2015, take 816 and multiply it by 0.75, which equals 612 non-recruited students who were accepted in Duke’s early pool.

Step 2 – Estimate How Many of the Early Admits are Recruited Students:
Equation:[Number of Early Admits from the previous year minus your answer from step 1]

816 minus 612 equals 204 recruited students who were accepted in Duke’s early pool.

Step 3 – Estimate the Early Acceptance Rate for Non-recruited Students:
Equation: [Answer From Step 1] / [Total Number of Early Applicants Minus the Answer From Step 2]

Duke Example: 612 / (3,106 – 204) = 21% acceptance rate. Note: this will be a lower number than the acceptance rate for all early applicants because you’re removing recruited students.

Step 4 – Determine the Disparity Between the ED and RD Admit Rates:
Equation: [Answer From Step 3] – [The Regular Decision Admit Rate]

Duke Example: 21% ED acceptance rate – 10% Regular Decision acceptance rate equals a 11% ED boost. In other words, 11% more applicants were admitted in Early Decision than Regular Decision.

If the Percentage is Negative, Apply Regular Decision

Northwestern University

Northwestern University is a very popular university that we get many questions about. Using the method above, we calculated that Northwestern’s 2016 Early Decision acceptance rate for non-recruited students was approximately 10.1%. Meanwhile, it’s acceptance rate for Regular Decision students was only 10%. While Northwestern says 50% of its enrolled class was filled in Early Decision, we were able to calculate that Early Decision acceptance offers accounted for only 9.5% of the total acceptances they handed out to non-recruited students. In other words, 90.5% of the acceptance letters for non-recruited students were given to Regular Decision applicants.

2. Early Action (EA):

Unlike Early Decision, Early Action offers are not binding. But, the same formula provided above can be applied for predicting your chances.

3. Restrictive Early Action (Single-Choice EA)

Some colleges — such as Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and Yale — practice Restrictive Early Action (also known as Single-Choice Early Action). In Restrictive Early Action, applicants are allowed to apply to only one private college under Early Action. However, any subsequent acceptance offer is not binding and the same formula provided above for predicting your chances can be applied.

4. Rolling Admissions

If your college has a rolling admissions process, then applying early will always boost your chances. In rolling admissions, a college will open itself to receiving applications over a large time frame and prompt notify applicants of their decisions within weeks of the application’s submission. Because your chances of securing a spot in rolling admissions are higher when the spots are plentiful, the sooner you apply the better. The University of Michigan—Ann Arbor is one popular college that has rolling admissions.

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