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Some colleges offer early admission plans known as Early Decision (ED) or Early Action (EA), and some offer both. Others accept applications in a relatively long window known as rolling admission. ED differs from EA in that it constitutes a binding commitment to enroll; that is, if offered admission under an ED program, and the financial aid offered by the school (if requested) is acceptable, the candidate must withdraw all other applications to other institutions and enroll at that institution. Early action is not binding, so a student admitted to a school early action could choose not to enroll in that school. Furthermore, ED programs require applicants to file only one ED application, while, depending on the institution, EA programs may be restrictive or non-restrictive and allow candidates to apply to more than one institution.
In the case of certain colleges with established competitor institutions, such as schools in the Ivy League, some college counselors speculate that ED can serve to mitigate the problem of students failing to matriculate to a particular school in favor of a 'superior' one. For example, one college might only admit a candidate deemed qualified for another, 'superior' college under ED, for in regular decision, should that student be admitted to the 'superior' competitor, that student would be unlikely to attend the college that originally offered the ED admission.
Schools which offer an ED admission plan look to benefit from a near certainty that the admitted applicant will attend. As a result, the admission yield is increased by admitting more students at the ED stage. The timing of the ED process also helps admissions offices spread the work of sifting through applications throughout more of the school year. A number of schools which had EA plans have recently added ED plans to EA (Chicago and Tulane from Class of 2021 on, Virginia from Class of 2024), or have switched to ED and jettisoned EA (Boston College from Class of 2024 on).
Many schools offering ED regularly fill over 50% of their class through ED admits. The implication is that there will be fewer places available to the Regular Decision applicant pool. Universities with half of their class filled by ED admits include Penn, Duke, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, WUSTL, Tufts and NYU. Many liberal arts colleges also fill around half their class during the ED process.
In recent years, there has been a marked trend in the number of ED applicants, and in the proportion of the class being admitted via the ED process. As of 2019-20, almost every highly selective college (where admission rates are below 25%) admits more students through ED than it did a decade ago, but among them, there has been a remarkable shift in the admission strategy of a few schools resulting in as much as 60% of the class being selected from the ED pool compared to 30-35% only a few years ago.
Early decision Admissions, Admit Rates and Trends 2012-2020
Admit rates for the ED pool are generally much higher than the overall admit rate for a college and even higher still than the admit rate for the Regular Decision (RD) pool. Most institutions include data on the number of ED applicants and ED admits in their annual Common Data Set (a few institutions do have release a Common Data Set at all), and trends for an individual institution can be readily complied. At the most competitive schools, the number of ED applicants has increased at a more rapid pace than Regular Decision applicants. Although the ED admit rate has declined at these schools in recent years, the absolute number of ED admits has managed to increase while the absolute number of Regular Decision admits has fallen rapidly and all the admit rates have also fallen (see accompanying tables).
Admission Statistics for Early Decision Schools with overall admit rate < 25%
16 Universities - Columbia, Brown, Penn, Dartmouth, Cornell, Duke, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Johns Hopkins, Rice, WUSTL, Tufts, Carnegie Mellon, Emory, NYU, Boston University (data from Common Data Set or school publications)
A few schools have seen ED applicants more than double in the 2012-2019 period, including Rice (2,628 ED apps in 2019-20 compared to 1,230 ED apps in 2012-13), Emory, NYU (14,000 ED I and ED II apps in 2019-20; 5,778 in 2012-13), and Boston University (4,700 ED I and ED II apps in 2019-20; 1,069 in 2012-13). The number of ED admits has also doubled at NYU and Boston University over this period, and although the increase of ED admits at other schools has been less dramatic, that increase has nonetheless reduced the number of RD admits meaningfully because half the class or more is now being filled by ED admits. At WUSTL and NYU, about 60% of the class is now taken up at the ED stage.
A similar trend exists across the most competitive liberal arts colleges in Early Decision application and admission numbers, with nearly 55% of the class being filled at these schools from ED admits compared to only about 47% in 2012-13. Notably, the absolute number of ED admits has increased, even though the number of RD admits, the RD admit rate, the ED admit rate and the overall admit rate have all gone down.
Admission Statistics for Early Decision at Liberal Arts Colleges with overall admit rate < 25%
23 Liberal Arts Colleges - Pomona, Claremont McKenna, Pitzer, Swarthmore, Bowdoin, Bates, Colby, Amherst, Williams, Barnard, Harvey Mudd, Colorado College, Middlebury, Wesleyan, Hamilton, Colgate, Vassar, Haverford, Carleton, Davidson, Wellesley, Washington & Lee, Grinnell (data from Common Data Set or school publications)
ED Apps (a)
ED Admits (b)
ED Admit Rate (b/a)
Total Enrollment (c)
Enrollment filled by ED Admits (b/c)
Total Apps (d)
Total Admits (e)
Overall Admit Rate (e/d)
RD Apps (d-a)
RD Admits (e-b)
RD Admit Rate (e-b)/(d-a)
Binding commitment. Early decision is a binding decision, meaning that students must withdraw applications to other schools if accepted. It is not legally binding, but there is a commitment involved with penalties for withdrawing for spurious reasons. Advisers suggest that this method is only for students who are absolutely certain about wanting to attend a specific school. If financial aid is a concern or if a family is "shopping for the best deal", then it is usually advised to apply early action or regular decision instead. The one stipulated situation under which a student may back out of the agreement is if the financial aid offer is insufficient. A student who backs out for other reasons may be "blacklisted" by the early decision college, which may contact the student's high school guidance office, and prevent it from sending transcripts to other colleges, and high schools generally comply with such requests. In addition, the jilted college may contact other colleges about the withdrawal, and the other colleges would likely revoke their offers of acceptance as well.
Application timing. Candidates applying early decision typically submit their applications mid-October to early November of their senior year of high school (UNC is mid-October, Harvard is Nov 1 for 2020) and receive a decision around mid-December. In contrast, students applying "regular decision" typically must submit their applications by January 1 and receive their admissions decision by April 1.
Greater chance of acceptance. Applying early decision brings a greater statistical chance of being accepted, possibly doubling or tripling the chances of an acceptance letter. In 2009, the average early acceptance rate according to one estimate was 15 percentage points greater than regular decision applicants. There is less agreement, however, whether it will help a borderline student win acceptance to a competitive college. Early Decision candidates tend to have stronger educational credentials than regular decision candidates, and as a result, these candidates would have been admitted whether they applied by early or regular methods, and therefore the greater statistical likelihood of acceptance may have been explained by membership in the stronger applicant pool. But the commitment of an early decision application demonstrated by a borderline student can still be beneficial; "colleges really want qualified students who want them" and are more likely to offer acceptances to students ready to make a full commitment.
Other benefits. Students can know sooner where they will attend, removing uncertainty and the need for multiple applications and the associated costs.
Early Decision II. Many colleges now offer two different early decision plans: an early plan known as "Early Decision I" with the application due in October and decision in December, and a later ED plan known as "Early Decision II" with the application due in early January (rarely, in mid-December) and decision in mid-February. The Early Decision II timeline is designed to allow students to apply to a new "first choice" school under ED after they find out in mid- to late December they have been unsuccessful in their Early Decision / Early Action application to another school. Although the application deadline of early January for Early Decision II may be the same as for Regular Decision, the Early Decision II application is a binding commitment to attend if admitted, with the benefits and drawbacks to the applicant and the college being similar to Early Decision I in most respects. It is a way for the applicant to show commitment, and for the school to protect its admission yield.
How early decision affects financial aid. When admitted as an early decision applicant, with no other acceptances in hand, a student's bargaining position is weaker because the student cannot compare offers from different colleges. Since the applicant is declaring an intention to attend if accepted, the school can "pinpoint the smallest amount of financial aid it will take for the student to attend." The applicant who is sensitive to financial aid may suffer from the likelihood of the aid amount being less than the expected amount. Several reports confirm that early decision applicants tend to come from wealthier families. A contrasting view is that by applying earlier in the year, the accepted ED students have "first crack at the money," particularly at competitive schools without large endowments. In any case, if a highly desirable ED admittee may withdraw because of financial concerns, the college "may pull out all the stops" to prevent this, and that the possibility of backing out for financial reasons gives an applicant some form of negotiating leverage. Universities with very large endowments may be unique in their ability to provide aid equally generously to students regardless of their application plan.
Possible outcomes of early decision
Typically, a candidate who has applied early decision can receive one of three outcomes in December. He or she may be admitted, in which case they are bound to attend the school which admitted them; rejected, in which case they will not be able to attend the school; or deferred, in which case they will be reconsidered for admission with the second round of early decision applications or with the regular decision pool and notified later with their final decision. Generally when an applicant is deferred he or she is released from their binding early decision agreement.
Advantages of early decision
Admission rates for "early" applicants tend to be higher than the overall admission rates for the institution; this is particularly true of the most selective colleges. This is usually attributed to three factors: first, candidates who apply "early" can only present colleges with their transcripts until the end of junior year of high school and therefore must be particularly strong applicants with very persuasive transcripts; second, candidates who apply "early" have dedicated themselves to an institution and are more likely to match the institution's admission standards; third, student athletes sometimes apply "early" to their top choice school to demonstrate their commitment to a college varsity coach who, in turn, can push their applications in the admissions process. Some advisors suggest that early decision is the best choice for students who have clearly settled on one particular college.
Disadvantages of early decision
Controversy surrounds early decision. Critics of the program think that binding an applicant, typically seventeen or eighteen years old, to a single institution is unnecessarily restrictive. Furthermore, candidates for financial aid are, if admitted under early decision, unable to compare financial aid offers from different colleges. It was in answer to these criticisms that, starting in 2004, Yale and Stanford switched from early decision to single-choice early action. Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Virginia announced in the Fall of 2006 that they would no longer offer Early Action or Early Decision programs, which they claim favor the affluent, and moved to a single deadline instead. The University of Florida followed suit the following year. However, the University of Virginia, followed by both Harvard and Princeton reinstated their single-choice, early action program to promote diversity and provide opportunities for students looking for such an option in 2011.
^ abincludes both ED I and ED II where a school offers more than one ED plan.
^Schools which changed admission strategies in the 2012-2020 period have not been included: Northeastern, Tulane, Chicago, all of which currently use a combination of EA and ED but did not use ED in the earlier part of this period. Other selective schools with admit rates below 25% have versions of EA plans but currently no ED option: MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Georgetown, Notre Dame. USC has neither ED nor EA admission plans.
^Columbia has not released ED admits from 2017-18 but it has released the number of ED applicants each year. An estimate of 700 ED admits is assumed for each year from 2017-18.
^ abSince ED applicants may be deferred, the pool from which RD admits are selected is larger than the RD applicant pool when these deferred applicants are included. Consequently, the RD Admit Rate is slightly below the figures presented in this table.
^Frank Bruni, December 21, 2016, The New York Times, The Plague of 'Early Decision', Retrieved December 21, 2016, "...It significantly disadvantages students from low-income and middle-income families, who are ..."