The Numbers Have Spoken: They Say Early Decision

Why Early Decision is the way to goIt’s as predictable as the budding trees. Each spring the percentage of students accepted to top colleges drops lower. And each year a new crop of students and parents is shocked by the admissions outcomes. This season, Brown University, which has been “highly selective” forever, announced that it had accepted just 5.5% of the applicants who applied during its regular decision round.

Not to be outdone, Harvard and Princeton announced they’d only accepted 5%, while Stanford claimed an even lower 4%. To put that number in perspective, out of the 47,450 hopeful students who applied to Stanford, only 2,040 were offered spots in the class of 2022.

With odds that low, why even bother trying? It’s a valid question and many students are raising it. Yet, despite the odds, I have students each year who do get admitted to these highly selective schools.

Plan a multi-year admissions strategy

What’s the secret? For one thing, while most applicants to the top colleges are well-qualified, some are better qualified than others. Many of the successful applicants have a hook—something that makes them different—and they have figured out effective ways to highlight it. Just as crucially, they have well-planned admissions strategies that they’ve been developing, often over the course of several years.

With admissions statistics as low as they are today, even the best applicant can become the proverbial needle in the haystack. You need to maximize your chances of standing out by careful, long-term planning.

That brings us to Early Decision, one aspect of admissions strategy. Years ago, Early Decision was an uncommon option. Some colleges offered it to students who were absolutely sure where they wanted to go. More often than not, these students were “legacies,” kids who’d grown up knowing they wanted to attend their parents’ alma maters.

Colleges offered these students a special deal: if you apply by our November deadline, and promise to enroll if accepted, we’ll let you know whether you’re in by mid-December. It was a win-win, enabling applicants to complete the college admissions process before the Thanksgiving holiday, and letting colleges nail down a chunk of their enrollment earlier in the admissions season.

Recognize that Early Decision is the new normal

Today that “uncommon option” has become the norm at many schools. Although they don’t like to publicize the fact, quite a few colleges admit close to half their freshman class via Early Decision or other forms of early admission such as Early Action.

In 2013 The New York Times revealed that Brown had filled 41% of its freshman class by December that year, while Stanford had filled 41% and Princeton and Harvard each filled close to 54%. More recently, The Washington Post reported that Columbia selected 45% of the class of 2019 through Early Decision. That means that close to half the seats were already taken at these schools before the Regular Admissions round.

Over the last five years, we’ve reached the tipping point. Early Decision is the now new normal. It’s also the simplest the way to increase your odds. Conversely, if you’re hoping to get into one of the more selective schools and don’t apply early, you’re choosing a risky path.

That’s because acceptance rates for Early Decision and other forms of early admission are much higher than in the Regular round. Harvard, Princeton and Yale, which have single digit acceptance rates in the regular round, accepted 15% of their Early applicants, while the University of Pennsylvania took 19% and Johns Hopkins accepted 30%. Brown, which offered admission to only 5.5% of applicants in the Regular Decision round, offered admission to 21% of its Early applicants.

These Early stats certainly don’t turn any of the very top schools into easy reaches, but they do make them slightly more possible. That said, a word of warning is in order.

Apply early to your best-fit college

Don’t waste your Early Decision opportunity applying to a college that’s clearly beyond your reach. Instead, put it to use where it can really help you. Apply early to the college you believe is your best fit—because, these days, many “best fit” schools are proving much harder to get into.

Schools not known for being so highly selective a generation ago have seen their admissions rates drop over the last decade. The University of Michigan went from admitting 50% in 2007 to admitting 24% in 2017. During those same years, Vanderbilt dropped from 32% to 10.3%, while the University of Chicago went down from 34% to 8.7%. The admit rates at smaller schools have decreased too. Wesleyan’s acceptance rate went from 27% to 15.4% in a decade.

As admissions trends have evolved over time, I’ve changed the advice I offer. Now I encourage students to complete their college lists during junior year and to plan to apply to their “best fit” college the following November. The numbers have spoken, and they say Early Decision.

For more information, contact: The College Strategist.

About the Author: Mona Molarsky

Mona Molarsky is a private college counselor who offers advice and assistance to students and their families at every stage of the college preparation and application process. She also offers tutoring in English, social studies and language arts.