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Early Decision: What Is It

Understanding how early decision works to improve your chances of acceptance.

Every year as the autumn weather cools off and the college application process heats up, the question of “applying early” will inevitably pop up. Few application issues stir up passionate disagreement, anxious hand wringing, or even absolute befuddlement quite like this one. 

Inevitably, each September and October I will face a barrage of questions from inquisitive students and antsy parents: “What does it mean to apply early? Is there a benefit? What are the risks? How many universities can I apply to early? I’ve heard of Early Decision (ED), but what are all these other acronyms: EA, REA, ED II, etc?” 

Here, I hope to address a few of the basic concerns and misconceptions that students and parents alike have about applying early, while answering once and for all one of college admission’s greatest questions: is early decision the best way to get into college? 

What is Early Decision?

What it means to “Apply Early”

In reality, when we talk about “applying early”, we are actually referring to a whole pantheon of differing admissions schemes and programmes. Early Decision is just one of these. However, it is by far the most famous and frequently encountered of all, so it makes sense to examine it first. 

Regular Decision - The Comparison

Perhaps the easiest way to understand what Early Decision is and how it works is to first look at what it is early in relation to, namely Regular Decision, or RD. In the standard admissions process, students will submit a number of applications to universities, most of which will come due between late December and early January. Universities will take roughly the next three months to deliberate on those applications, then inform students of the outcome in late March or early April. Once students have received their offers of admission, including details of potential financial aid packages, they have until 1 May, the standard reply by date for US universities, to deliberate on which offer of admission they would like to take up, at which point they must commit to one choice and reject the rest. Universities can then turn to their wait lists to round out their classes, if necessary. 

Understanding Early Decision

Early Decision differs from Regular Decision in a few notable respects. Firstly, its application deadline. The standard deadline for early decision applications is 1 November – hence the “early” in “Early Decision”. Once a student submits an Early Decision application, the receiving university will deliberate for approximately one month before rendering a decision in mid-December. Here the principle difference between Early Decision and Regular Decision arises: if a student is admitted under the early decision scheme, then that student’s college application journey ends right then and there. This is because, unlike under the Regular Decision scheme, in which a student is free to accept or reject an offer of admission, under the early decision scheme a student must make a binding commitment at the time of application to attend the university if accepted. 

What’s the point of Early Decision?

If the only difference between Early Decision and Regular Decision was that a student made a binding commitment to a university and submitted their application early in return for an earlier admissions decision, the question would inevitably arise: why bother? 

What’s the point of applying Early Decision

The answer is: the benefit to the student of applying early decision is much greater than just the added certainty that comes from knowing your admissions outcome six months early. The main value of an early decision application is that it confers an increased chance of admission – and this increase can be quite significant. As the table below shows, admissions rates for Early Decision applicants at selective, highly ranked universities can be double or more the rate of admission during the Regular Decision round of admissions.

A 2012-2019 statistics table of number of applicants and early decision admission of 16 US universities

Why Universities Love Early Decision

Why is the case though? On the surface, most Deans of Admissions would deny that there is anything significant about these statistics, explaining them away by claiming that readiness to submit an application two months early correlates with a higher calibre of applicant, and therefore a higher rate of admission. Accepting this at face value, we would be forced to draw the conclusion that the higher early decision acceptance rate is nothing more than a fluke, and that a qualified applicant could safely assume equal treatment irrespective of whether they applied Early Decision or Regular Decision.

Dig deeper, however, and a more complex picture emerges. In reality, early decision benefits universities significantly, and many forces at play in the higher education market heavily incentivise admissions departments to offer early decision plans and admit as many students as possible through them, making the early decision advantage a very real factor for consideration in any student’s application strategy. Without delving too deeply into the details, the reasoning goes like this: 

  • A university’s ranking on popular platforms like US News and World Report or Times Higher Education can have very real ramifications for its financial solvency and long term success. Universities, even the highly prestigious and popular ones, are very much aware of this, and will fight tooth and nail to maintain their place in the rankings or move up.
  • Most factors affecting a university’s ranking are either outside of its control or can only be changed slowly or with great difficulty. For example, faculty reputation, research impact, etc. 
  • Admissions related factors are the exception, as universities run admissions cycles on a yearly basis. 
  • Two admissions factors in particular have a large impact on rankings:
    • Selectivity (% of students accepted)
    • Yield (% of accepted students who enrolled)
  • By offering an Early Decision scheme, universities can kill two birds with one stone. The binding nature of an offer of admission under early decision makes it so that a university can give out fewer acceptances while still maintaining the same or higher yield, thereby climbing the rankings with little to no effort.  

Crunching the Numbers

Try it yourself to see! 

Assume a university receives 30,000 applicants, has a regular decision yield rate of 33%, and needs to enroll 2000 students to fill its class (all typical figures for a relatively competitive university). 

What % of the applicant pool does it need to offer admission to? How does its acceptance rate change if it decides to fill half of its class through early decision, and receives 5,000 Early Decision applications and 25,000 Regular Decision applications? 

Crunching the numbers reveals that pure Regular Decision requires 6000 admissions to create a class of 2000, thereby requiring an acceptance rate of 20%. 

However, by admitting 1000 students Early Decision, where the yield is 100% by definition, the university only needs to admit another 3000 students Regular Decision to fill its class, for 4000 total acceptances and an overall acceptance rate of ~13%, hiding an Early Decision acceptance rate of 20% and an Regular Decision acceptance rate of 12%.

The Truth

From this, the truth becomes apparent: universities that offer Early Decision gain a significant competitive advantage over their peers who do not. Lowering the acceptance rate the traditional way takes a lot of effort and costs a lot of money. It requires sending admissions officers on lengthy recruitment trips, creating lots of marketing materials, and hosting a lot of events, all in the hope of attracting more applicants, ironically just to turn them away. 

By contrast, if a dean of admissions could achieve a decrease of seven percentage points in the acceptance rate in a single year without having gone to this trouble or expense, most college presidents would tell them they would be foolish not to do so. Such a change could easily advance a university several places in the rankings. 

Examples abound of universities that today we consider quite prestigious that only became so after pursuing aggressive recruitment strategies that placed Early Decision front and centre; in 1983 in the first edition of the US News and World Report Ranking, UPenn didn’t even appear in the top 50. After pioneering the use of Early Decision by Ivy League universities in the 1990s, however, it managed to hit the 6th place by 2001, and has barely budged since. In exchange for results like these, universities are more than happy to be more lenient with their Early Decision applicants.

As a result, it practically goes without saying that applying Early Decision to a university definitely confers an improved chance of admission, irrespective of what universities publicly claim.

Conclusion

Convinced now that applying Early Decision is the right move for you? Or are you still concerned about the binding commitment that applying Early Decision entails? Or maybe you’re still worried about what happened to all those other early application plans I mentioned before! 

If this sounds like you, not to worry!

This blog post is the first in a series all about applying early. In future posts, I’ll dive deeper into all the different variations on Early Decision that exist, walk you through the cost benefit analysis to determine if applying early is the right move for you, and help you understand how to optimise your school list to maximise the power of applying early to improve your chances of acceptance. 

So stay tuned to find out more! Or if you can’t wait that long, get in touch with me and my colleagues @IvyPrep to start chatting about your application strategy right away.