Early Admissions Program
One pattern we’ve observed in recent years is the increasing number of students participating in early admissions programs. According to the College Board (purveyor of the SAT, AP, and SAT Subject Tests), the number of colleges offering an early admissions program has risen from about 100 in the 1990s to around 450 today (see this article critical of this trend).
Early admissions programs, particularly Early Decision programs, are attractive to colleges because they can be more selective in the Regular Decision round of admissions if they’ve already filled many of their incoming freshmen seats with students guaranteed to attend. For example, during this last admissions season, Johns Hopkins University admitted 591 students applying via the Early Decision program. This represents around 45% of the seats in their freshmen class. And as more and more colleges use these early admissions programs, the pressure to do so ratchets up for those still holding out.
Early admissions programs are also attractive to applicants because some programs confer a significant advantage in admissions. In the Johns Hopkins example cited above, those 591 admitted above experienced a 30.5% admissions rate—their peers applying Regular Decision a couple months later? Around 10.3%. This ratio of a 3:1 Early Decision to Regular Decision acceptance rate is consistent with numbers from other very selective schools such as the Ivy League universities. So students who apply early may have a better chance at their first choice school. Adding to the attraction, students admitted in mid-December can stop working on college supplements early.
However, an early application is not just a free ticket to your top-choice school—academic standards for early applicants tend to be higher than for Regular Decision admits, and students who fall below the 50th percentile for GPA or test scores of a school’s admitted students (and who are not recruited athletes or legacy applicants) should think twice before submitting an early application. In order to assess your chances at your ED/EA college, you should look at the admissions data from your high school. Many high schools use Naviance/Family Connection to gather specific admissions data from their school.
Different types of Early Admissions Programs
But first, let’s back up and discuss the different types of early admissions programs. In general, there are two types of programs, with some sub-categories included in each. Applicants to both types of early admissions programs generally receive their admissions results by mid-December. The three possible results are admit, deny, or defer (to Regular Decision).
Early Action—These programs notify students early of their admissions results (generally in mid-December) but are not binding. Students don’t need to attend the school if they’ve been admitted and have until May 1 to hear back from the rest of their potential colleges and to choose the school they will ultimately attend. Examples of schools offering Early Action applications include the University of Virginia, University of Chicago, and Case Western Reserve University.
Variations on the Early Action program include Single-Choice Early Action (or Restrictive Early Action) programs, which ask applicants not to apply simultaneously to other Early Action or Early Decision programs. If a student is accepted to a Single-Choice Early Action program, he or she is not contractually obligated to attend. Most notably, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton have Single-Choice Early Action programs.
Some schools with Early Action programs, like Boston College or Georgetown University, prevent applicants from concurrently applying to Early Decision (EDI) programs (but not other Early Action or EDII programs)
Early Decision (EDI and EDII)—Acceptances to Early Decision programs are contractually binding, and, as mentioned above, more and more schools are offering not only an Early Decision I program (with applications often due November 1st or 15th) but also an Early Decision II program (with applications often due in January). Many liberal arts colleges, including top schools like Swarthmore and Middlebury, have an Early Decision II option in which students hear back by mid-February. Some universities, such as New York University and University of Chicago, also have EDI and EDII programs.
Should you apply early?
In general, students should only apply to Early Decision programs if they are 100% certain they would be willing to attend. Because Early Decision is a binding application, we generally advise that students thoroughly research the school and, if possible, visit the campus before submitting an ED application. The other caveat we offer is that if students are looking for significant amounts of financial aid, they should probably not submit an ED application (which would only give them access to an offer from one school versus being able to compare different offers and to make a financially sound choice).
That being said, those students who have a clear top choice and do not have major financial aid limitations are encouraged to submit early applications. Students should also consider applying early to some “safety” schools if they offer an Early Action application in order to (hopefully) receive some good news before winter break or to adjust their application strategy with some early feedback from an actual admissions decision.