Applying Early Decision to Elite Colleges Growing Trend Among Students


by Aaron Reiss
Eagle Editorial Board

Senior Aaron Hall was sitting in front of his television when he came to a decision.

After toying with the idea, Hall chose to apply early decision to Washington University in St. Louis.

“I was a little nervous at first,” Hall said. “But I know that’s where I want to be.”

Hall is just one student in a growing trend.

Over the past few years, more high school seniors are choosing to apply to their first choice college early decision – a process where students must withdraw all other applications if admitted – in an effort to  maximize their chances for admission

Playing the numbers

One benefit of early decision is better odds of gaining admission. Numbers show that acceptance rates at universities are higher with early decision applicants than it is with students who apply later via regular decision.

“It could provide an advantage for a student,” said Deborah Basket, associate dean of admission at the College of William & Mary. “There is in some cases a statistical advantage to students that apply early decision.”

Last year, the acceptance rate at Columbia University for early decision was 31.7%. For regular decision it dropped down to 9.6%.

This large gap is not uncommon, especially at elite colleges and universities.

The University of Pennsylvania accepted 25.4% of early decision applicants last year. Only 10.1% of students who applied regular decision to the school gained admission.

These increased odds incentivize students to apply early decision, which is why the number of early decision applicants is up from past years.

In 2003, Penn received 2,882 early decision applications. There were 4,526 students who applied early decision to the university in 2012.

“More and more students are applying to a school through an early program,” Basket said of the trend which she has observed during her time at University of Chicago, Tulane and now William & Mary. “It is something that is occurring nationally.

“You hear it from students as well as guidance counselors and parents, students are thinking that they have to apply early decision to maximize their chances [of being admitted].”

According to Director of Counseling Mark Giesmann, the feeling that applying via early decision is necessary is greater now than it was a decade ago.

“There is more talk about [early decision],” Giesmann said. “Over the last ten years there is so much more hype regarding it.”

In the past three years, 21 students from St. Thomas applied early decision to schools.

Twelve schools were applied to early decision by St. Thomas students, four of them being ranked in the U.S. News and World Report’s top 20 national universities.

The idea that applying early decision is a necessity is rooted in the percentage of classes that are filled with early decision applicants.

Dartmouth filled 42.1% of their class of 2016 with early decision applicants. Early decision applicants make up 47.4% of Penn’s class of 2016.

“When you look at schools filling half of their classes [with early decision applicants], they are putting pressure on kids to [apply early decision],” Giesmann said.

Who is accepted

According to Basket, there are a number of factors that lead to early decision’s heightened acceptance rates.

Applying early decision shows tremendous interest in a school, something that is taken into account during the admissions process.

“We like people who like us,” Basket said.

The applicant pool, too, tends to be stronger during early decision – another reason for the increased percentage of accepted students. High school seniors who have their minds made up with a plan in place are often high-achieving and ambitious.

“They know where they want to be,” Basket said. “[Early decision applicants] put a lot of time and effort in their application. The application quality tends to be higher at the early decision state.”

Sara Norval, the Texas admissions representative for the University of Chicago – a school that only offers early action, not early decision – said applying early speaks volumes about the applicant.

“I think applying early certainly demonstrates interest on the part of students,” Norval said in an email. “It also shows that they are the kind of organized and directed student that can complete the application by Nov. 1.”

Not for everyone

Applying early decision is not for every student.

Not all 17 and 18 year-olds will be able to make up their mind so early about where to attend college.

“Sometimes students are just not in a position to obligate themselves,” Basket said. “If an individual is shopping around, early decision is not the direction they should take.”

Counselors make sure that their students know what the process entails.

Before submitting an early decision application, a guidance counselor must have their student sign an early decision agreement, acknowledging that they understand what they are agreeing to if they gain admission.

“I always have a conversation with people about it,” Giesmann said. “We have to acknowledge that we know kids are doing it.”

Parents, too, must sign an electronic waiver agreeing to the early decision process.

Finances also play a role in whether a student applies early decision. Students who are admitted to schools through early decision do not find out what their financial aid package is until March, when regular decision admissions are made.

The only way a student may be released from their early decision admission is if they discover they can not afford to attend the university.

“We take that binding agreement very seriously,” Basket said. “We tell [applicants] up front, talk to your parents about this so that you know, financially, can you afford it.”

The most common reason for an applicant to back out of their early decision agreement is that they believe they need a better financial aid package than they receive.

Students’ financial package is determined by a university’s financial aid office and the federal government’s Free Application for Student Aid, or FAFSA.

“What the government says is your estimated family contribution and what you think you can afford are two different things,” Giesmann said. “That’s where we run into problems.”

If a student decides he can not afford to attend the college that he applied early decision to, he will have already withdrawn his applications from other schools, leaving him with no other college to attend.

Hall said that the finances did not factor into his decision.

What’s next

Those who work in college admissions see no signs of trend slowing down. The number of early decision applicants will grow.

As applying to college becomes more competitive – the class of 2013 is expected to be the largest number of high school graduates in the United States’ history according the U.S. Department of Education – high school students will do whatever they can to gain a statistical advantage.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Basket said. “I think [the trend] is going to continue.”