Admissions is an ever-changing game. As a young, 23 year-old admissions consultant or "college match-maker" as I like to coyly refer to as my title, my four year stint thus far in the admissions game is one contextualized by rapidly changing information, and reevaluating the nuanced and perhaps overly complex nature of admissions. I like to joke with my students and parents about the complicated nature of the process by saying something along the lines of "Well, it sucks that admissions is so complicated...but then again, if it was easy then my job would not exist!" (insert chuckle here). Parents often express their frustration by comparing the process to how it was for them "back in the day". It was simple: universities had clear minimum thresholds, and once you applied and met the requirements, you got in. There were no overly complex essay rules, and no unintelligible terminology being flung around constantly: "hook" , "demonstrated interest", "legacy", and the most notorious of them all, the "earlies": Early Action (EA), Single Choice Early Action (SCEA), Restricted Early Action (REA), and the big, bad, bold Early Decision (ED).
Each week, I dedicate time to staying abreast admissions news and updates. I train myself to remain open to new ways of conceptualizing and understanding information about admissions. The strategy that I would have recommended for a student two years ago is not, and cannot, be the same as I would recommend today. One strategy that has particularly caught my attention this year is Early Decision (ED); likely the mostly analyzed and theorized of all the early admissions policies. Previously, I would not have recommended ED for a student who needed to compare financial aid offers. Now, I am.
If you're unsure what ED is, click HERE. In short, ED is an admissions policy that allows students to submit a binding application to ONE college of their choice. Because the application is binding, if the student is accepted, they must attend (given that financial aid is generous enough).
There are a few reasons a student may choose to submit an ED application, the primary one being that it boosts their probability of acceptance quite significantly at the vast majority of schools. Let's focus on three top universities that offer ED: Columbia, Dartmouth, and the University of Pennsylvania.
REGULAR ACCEPTANCE RATES FOR THE CLASS OF 2025
Columbia University - 3.7 %
Dartmouth College - 4.6%
UPenn - 4%
EARLY DECISION ACCEPTANCE RATES FOR THE CLASS OF 2025
Columbia University - 15%
Dartmouth College - 21%
UPenn - 15%
I have to point out that these numbers don't tell the full story. Many will argue that the higher acceptance rates are a) due to athletics (recruited athletes tend to apply early decision to confirm their spot on a university's team. For athletes, applying is a required part of the process. But the college will almost always admit a student that a coach wants) or b) due to the strength of the ED applicant pool (some will argue that the ED round is made up of stronger applicants who tend to have the level of preparedness required to apply early). This may be true, to an extent. But personally, I don't fully buy it. ED is an advantage (and quite a significant one) because of one word that is perhaps more important to colleges than you could ever imagine: YIELD.
When the US News started ranking colleges in 1983, it quickly gained traction and colleges started to apply strategy to increase their rankings. Universities quickly recognized that a higher ranking would increase their level of desirability, prestige, and even, perhaps inadvertently, their endowment. Elite institutions would attract more donors from wealthy parents seeking to give their child a one-up in the process, or from alumni who would now be prouder than ever before to attend their alma mater. Colleges started to manipulate the rankings (Northeastern is a prime example of this, and was one of the few universities where the then-President admitted to purposefully shifting strategy with the primary focus being to climb the rankings). In the past 10 or so years, Northeastern has climbed significantly in the rankings, resulting in increased desirability, more applications and thus, a lower acceptance rate.
One factor used to calculate a college's ranking is their yield rate (i.e. the percentage of accepted students who choose to enroll). Some colleges, such as Emory University, struggled to increase their yield rate against peer institutions. Many ivy-league bound students applied to Emory as a match school, while hoping to gain admission to a more selective and prestigious institution: HYPS, MIT, Dartmouth etc. For a university like Emory, that is still considered highly selective but is just below the "top tier" of universities, they were faring below their peers in capturing admitted students (the vast majority of admitted students turned down their offer for another highly ranked school). Say, for arguments sake, that Emory's yield rate is 20% whereas Princeton's is 40%. This means that if both Emory and Princeton had 1000 seats in their freshman class, Emory would have to accept twice as many students as Princeton to fill all their seats. Emory would have to accept 5000 students, in the hopes that 20% would matriculate to fill 1000 seats. Princeton would accept only 2500 students to fill their seats. This means that if 20,000 students applied to each school, Emory would have an acceptance rate of 25%, and Princeton 12.5%. Thus, Princeton would have a higher degree of selectivity, and thus prestige, and likely a higher ranking (though acceptance rates only tell a part of the story).
The binding policy of Early Decision does one major thing for colleges: it increases their yield rate significantly. This matters. And it matters a lot, especially now. Going back to the Columbia, Dartmouth, UPenn example, all three schools filled almost 50% of their seats using Early Decision for the class of 2025. Yes, if Columbia has 3000 seats available for incoming freshmen, about half of them were filled using binding Early Decision applicants, despite the smallness of this application pool compared to the Regular Decision round. This means that the Regular Decision round is not only more competitive because of the sheer number of students who apply, but also because they're all fighting over half the seats.
In this past year, where yield became a lot more unpredictable than it was in previous years (of course, everything comes back to COVID), colleges turned more to their ED pools as well as their waitlists. Admissions, year after year, is shifting to favor ED students more and more.
This is why I want my students to consider ED more than ever before. It can be scary to "commit" to one school. I get it; you want to have lots of offers to compare, including financial aid. It not only increases your chances of getting in, but IF you get in to your top choice ED, you can breathe for the rest of your senior year. I would recommend applying ED to the college that stands out above the rest (your top choice), and one where their net price calculator (every college has one...look it up!) meets your estimated budget for college.
For students who are applying for financial aid, it is important to note that you can get out of your ED contract if the college does not give enough aid. It's easier said than done, but what you should do if they don't meet your financial aid expectations is negotiate (with proper documentation to back up your reason for needing more money), and if they won't budge then you can ask to be released from the ED agreement. READ ON THIS HERE.
In the book that I'm current reading (the most anticipated book on college admissions of the season...admissions nerds like me were waiting patiently for this one), Who Gets In And Why, author Jeffrey Selingo states: “There's a widespread perception that applying ED puts students at a disadvantage for financial aid. That may be the case at schools with limited resources, because they know accepted students are committed to coming, so the college could short them on financial aid. But like everything else in the admissions game, there is no hard and fast rule. At least one study on ed found just the opposite — that financial aid is more generous for Early Decision students because schools sometimes run out of money for regular decision admits”.
My advice would be to fill out the Net Price Calculator (NPC) and save the breakdown to your files. Use information that is as accurate as possible. The NPC is a good, albeit not perfect, predictor of your anticipated financial aid. Also, don't be afraid to contact the admissions office or financial aid department with any questions. If you are a College Quo student/parent, we'll help you to do this.
Some universities including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and MIT do no not offer ED. Instead, they offer either SCEA or REA. If your dream school is one that does not offer ED, then plan to apply under their other Early Action policies. These policies do increase your chances slightly of getting in, though not as much as ED does (because they're non-binding and thus, do not guarantee yield).
1) Colleges are turning more and more to Early Decision to fill their class
2) The policy is nothing to be feared, but one to be used strategically to increase your chances of gaining admission to your dream school
3) Financial aid is a concern, but universities will allow students to be released from the agreement if their financial needs are not met. We understand anxiety around this BUT a university will not force you to attend if you genuinely cannot afford it. However, the first step is aid is not sufficient is to negotiate (in this past admissions season, one of our College Quo families received an additional $15,000 per year because we negotiated!)
4) If your dream school offers ED, your first step is to fill out the NPC with ACCURATE financial information. Read more about ED policies, and consider it as an option. Talk to your counselor and your parents about it.
Early Decision can seem like a huge commitment, and it is. But it could also be a strategic decision, worth using, or, at the very least...worth considering.