The college application process can be a dizzying one, filled with decisions that are determined based on both time management and strategy. How many schools should you apply to? What should be your “safety school”? And what exactly is a good topic to write about for your personal statement? These are just a few questions that plague many soon-to-be high school graduates.
Another intriguing aspect of the process is the question of whether to apply early decision to a particular school. This is a complicated choice to make, especially considering the rising selectivity of colleges nationwide.
When applying early decision, students must submit applications in the fall, typically by the beginning of November. Applying early decision to a school has two primary consequences:
- Generally speaking, colleges’ acceptance rates for early decision applicants are significantly higher than their general acceptance rates.
- If a student’s early decision application is accepted, that student has a binding commitment to the university and must withdraw all applications to other schools.
Some schools also offer applicants the option of applying early action, which means that they can apply early but do not have to enroll if they are accepted. For now, we’ll focus on the early decision process. This option presents a unique opportunity for applicants to “game the system,” so to speak, and increase their chances of being accepted into their dream schools. For students with a clear No. 1 choice in mind that’s a bit of a “reach school,” applying early decision makes sense.
Not all schools offer the option of applying early decision, but in looking at the most recent data provided by the Wintergreen Orchard House and the National Center for Education Statistics, it’s clear that some of the most elite universities have great disparities between early decision acceptance rates and general acceptance rates.
*Note: Schools are ranked in order of their Smart Rating, which is a comprehensive measure of a college’s overall effectiveness. It is determined based on financial affordability, career readiness, admissions selectivity, expert opinion and academic excellence. To learn more about our Smart Rating system, click here.
The advantage of applying early decision to these schools is clear — 10 of the 15 colleges listed have early decision acceptance rates that are at least twice as high as their general acceptance rates. The other five schools — Cornell, Johns Hopkins, George Washington, Syracuse and TCU — each saw an increase of at least 12 percent between their early decision acceptance rates and general acceptance rates.
There are some exceptions to the rule, of course. For some other top-tier colleges, applying early decision has only a marginal advantage percentage-wise, and in some cases even has an adverse effect on your chances of being accepted.
There are some disclaimers for this perceived early-decision advantage. First, the applicant pool for early decision is generally a smaller, more competitive group, which is a big reason for the higher acceptance rates. Second, in exchange for a boost in early decision acceptance rates, applicants sacrifice what is often much-needed time to deliberate and weigh their options before committing to a school.
For 18-year-olds, choosing where to go to college is the biggest of their lives so far. While many might think they know for sure which school they want to go to, it’s often beneficial to have a sort of “cooling off” period between getting accepted and choosing to enroll in order to fully explore which school is the best fit.
The 30 colleges listed above are simply examples of how different schools’ early decision acceptance rates can vary. When deciding whether to apply early decision to a particular school, it’s best to analyze just how much of a statistical advantage that school offers. It’s also wise to only apply early decision to a college that is your clear-cut, no-doubt-about-it top priority. Because once that acceptance letter shows up, there’s no turning back.