Inevitably, when I visit colleges and sit through their information sessions, a question comes from a concerned parent in the audience asking about the school’s acceptance rate (the number admitted divided by the number who applied) for Early Decision versus Regular Decision.
Almost always, the college will quote a higher number for Early Decision. This higher acceptance rate certainly makes Early Decision seem like a more favorable path for a student to take, but more and more, the admissions officers leading the session will try to explain why it’s actually NOT easier to get in Early Decision. How can this be?
Well, it depends upon your interpretation of what “easier” means, and of course, every school has a slightly different way of explaining it. The explanation I’ve heard most frequently is that schools do not lower their admissions standards for Early Decision candidates. So, if you wouldn’t be “qualified” for admission as part of the Regular Decision pool, then applying early won’t give you a leg up on getting admitting. To put it bluntly, an unqualified Early Decision candidate is the same as an unqualified Regular Decision candidate — neither will gain admission. (Schools also insist the Early Decision acceptance rate is somewhat inflated due to the fact that recruited athletes tend to appear in the Early Decision applicant pool.)
But, what if you’re a “qualified” candidate for admission? Does applying Early Decision help you? Applying Early Decision tells a college that it is your top choice school. This certainly won’t hurt your candidacy! The college knows that it can count on you being part of their student body, and this helps them to manage their overall admissions numbers. The more students they know are coming based on the Early Decision option, the easier for them to handle the Regular Decision pool where they know that they will only get a portion of the admitted students to agree to come to the school.
So, to take away some of the unpredictability, schools are more and more inclined to admit a larger percentage of their incoming class from the Early Decision pool — as long as they are “qualified”! The greater the number of students who are admitted Early Decision, the fewer slots that are left for Regular Decision applicants. Given the astronomical application numbers at some of the more popular colleges and universities, I’d guess that there are a number of excellent candidates who come across admissions officers’ desks. If you’re applying Regular Decision, and the number of spots is limited because so much of a class has already been admitted Early Decision, then it stands to reason that your odds of acceptance may not be as great as if you had applied Early Decision.
So, is it “easier” to get in if you apply Early Decision? Kind of. Sort of. Maybe. Maybe not. If your credentials aren’t quite up to snuff for the school, then whether you apply Early or Regular Decision will make no difference. On the other hand, if you’re an excellent candidate for the school, then applying Early Decision may increase somewhat your odds of being accepted, though how much is impossible to predict. In some cases, you may be going up against a more highly qualified applicant pool Early Decision versus Regular Decision, so this could actually make your chances worse!
Where do you stand? How many applicants are you up against? Are you more or less qualified? It’s difficult to know. Every school has different things that they are looking for in their student body from one year to the next and different numbers of applicants for both Early and Regular Decision.
The bottom line is that you should not apply Early Decision to a school simply because you believe it will improve your chances of acceptance. Go early only if the school is by far your top choice. Ask yourself, “if I got in everywhere else that’s on my list, would I still choose to go to this school?” If you can answer “yes” to this, then Early Decision is for you.