The Importance of Early Decision Applications
4 minute read
Note: This is an opinion piece contributed by one of our long-time partners and does not necessarily represent the views of the Polygence team.
Many students, parents, and counselors are aware of the benefits in admission odds that students face when applying early decision (ED) to highly selective US universities. However, few are aware of just how beneficial early decision is, and that its importance has increased dramatically at most schools in recent years. Strategically, in almost all cases applying early is of enormous benefit to student admissions odds. Deciding how to apply to university has become in many cases as important as where to apply.
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Distressingly, most universities are not transparent with their admissions statistics. This year Princeton, Cornell and Stanford have chosen not to release their admissions data. Their purported reason for this is to lower student anxiety, a belief that we disagree with. The lack of transparency is even more problematic when one considers the more granular data. Information on the difference between admit rates for early versus regular application rounds is difficult to find, if available at all. Yet, it is critical to know this information in assessing student admission likelihood, in what has become an increasingly competitive process.
Let’s consider two schools. Colorado College, a highly selective but not super prestigious university refreshingly, but unusually, is transparent with its data. Its Class of 2026 profile, easily found on its website, shows that its regular decision (RD) admit rate is 3%, while its admit rate for both its Early Decision I and Early Decision II admission plans is 26%! Universities are rightfully correct to point out that the Regular Decision and Early Decision cohorts are of different qualities, so we are not comparing apples to apples. The propensity of legacy candidates, athletes, and other institutional priorities to apply Early Decision, does skew the data meaningfully. However, after adjusting for this, the data still shows an enormous advantage to ED admissions likelihood.
The University of Chicago is an extremely academic and prestigious university for undergraduate study. They are less transparent with their data than Colorado College, but will often give helpful admission statistics when asked. They note verbally that their regular decision admit rate is 1%, versus an ED admit rate in the double digits. This makes RD admission extraordinarily difficult for almost all applicants who do not meet a very specific institutional need. Their lack of transparency means that many students spend time and effort applying, with little to no chance of being admitted.
The examples cited in these two examples are outliers, as they are among the universities which are among the most aggressive in the importance they put in ED admission. However, most highly selective schools have ED admissions statistics that while not quite as egregious, still show an enormous preference to ED applicants. The percentage of students applying ED is increasing, and dramatically so at many institutions. This is problematic for many reasons, but most importantly because it disadvantages less affluent students who cannot commit to a single college, as they benefit from having multiple financial aid offers.
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Although Syzygy Global Education works predominantly with students and families for whom college tuition is not a major concern, we have thoughts and advice for all students who are navigating through this process.
For those families where tuition is less of a concern, the “cost” to them of a binding application is far lower. We offer them the following advice given their applications.
In most cases, plan to have an ED school to apply to. There is usually not a single “perfect school” for a student. Often, there are several schools that fit the student well and offer a quality education. We dislike the need to commit to a single school, but the extreme competitiveness of RD often makes this a wise policy.
Have an ED 2 school to apply to as well. Many schools do not have ED 2 plans, but if there is an ED 2 school which fits well where the student is willing to commit, it gives an additional “admissions booster”.
Apply to one or more schools where admissions decisions reach you before January 1. These are usually Early Action (EA) plans, or from schools with rolling admissions. It is important to make these applications at schools where the applicant has a strong likelihood of admission. This is getting more difficult as at many schools there have been large increases in the competitiveness of the EA round. There are three major advantages for this advice:
Often the result of the ED application is a deferral or rejection. Having a positive result, even from a school the student finds less desirable, decreases the pain of rejection, and often can lessen anxiety levels.
This decreases the need to apply in the regular decision round to “safety schools”. After a deferral or rejection in ED, students often lose confidence, making the regular decision application period unnecessarily stressful.
Having an acceptance in hand, can impact the ED 2 decision. If a student knows that she has already been admitted to a school, it gives them more confidence to apply appropriately for ED 2.
Apply to a range of schools Regular Decision.
For students with a need for financial assistance, the calculus becomes slightly more complicated, but knowledge of admissions probabilities is still extremely important.
An Early Decision application does not necessarily negate the possibility of declining an admissions offer for a better financial option. We recommend having a conversation with the relevant Early Decision college before deciding whether or not to apply ED. If the student explains that the college is their first choice, but financial flexibility is needed, sometimes the university will agree to eliminate or lessen the binding element.
We recommend applying to EA and rolling schools where decisions are given before year end. The rationale is the same as noted in point number three above.
Apply broadly and make certain there are some schools on your list with higher admit rates. However, know that the need for financial aid adds an additional level of admissions uncertainty, which makes a more conservative approach a wise policy.
Consider applying to less expensive universities, and to schools which give high levels of merit based financial aid. Many schools give out this aid (really a discount) to almost all admitted students.
It is unfortunate that the admission system is so complex. A simpler and more transparent system would be better for students and society. However, given the system as it stands, having knowledge of the numbers is vital to maximizing admissions chances. Do your homework and use experts for help where necessary.
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