The Changing Role of Early Decision in Admissions

As the inimitable sage Beyonce once so fittingly warned, “if you like it then you better put a ring on it.” And in the smoky private poker lounge of the college admissions casino, where the stakes are so high that even James Bond himself chooses to fold ‘em instead of hold ‘em, the power of an Early Decision application is the elusive straight flush that might win the pot (not a royal flush, mind you, since nothing is ever 100% guaranteed in college admissions). Early Decision, the choice to commit enrollment to one college if accepted, is the 10-carat princess-cut ethically-sourced Tiffany solitaire that symbolizes the applicant’s undying affection for and commitment to a U.S. college or university, offered to a college on bended knee along with the seductive whisper of an Admissions Dean’s favorite word: yield.

When I began my career in college counseling, working for many years at independent schools before joining the team here at McMillan, times were simpler. Idealistic counselors like me could afford to counsel students to follow their hearts. Only apply Early Decision if you are positive that it is your favorite option. Don’t rush your applications. If you need to, take the time to perfect and polish your writing and just aim for the January deadline instead. If your grades are a little shaky, take the Fall to work on them and bring them up.

But that was back in the dark ages of the early 2000’s. We knew that applying Early Decision could increase an applicant’s chances for acceptance, particularly at a target or low-reach college, but it wasn’t perceived or employed as an absolute necessity. Now, with colleges like Bowdoin, Northwestern, and University of Pennsylvania accepting around 50% of their incoming freshman class from the ED pool, leaving the much larger RD pool to fight for the remaining spots in the class, the reality is that students are having to get comfortable with the idea of applying ED even if they aren’t at first in order to land at colleges that are indeed great all-around fits or them.

But why does applying Early Decision and committing to attending a college increase a student’s chances of acceptance? The answer goes back to that beguiling word – yield. Colleges strive for high yield, meaning they want to maximize the number of acceptances who choose to enroll at their institution. It makes them look popular, appealing, and helps them compete against other colleges. They rise in the rankings that we all know mean nothing but we keep acknowledging and kow-towing to them, like curtsying before a figure-head monarch pretending to reign over a constitutional democracy.

The irony is that my strongest students — because they are hoping for acceptance to some of the most selective colleges and universities — actually have the least amount of flexibility or choice in their options because they know that they must apply Early Decision to give themselves the strongest chance possible in a very competitive pool of applicants. In many cases, if strong students choose to apply ED to a far reach and RD to a seemingly target college, they will probably find themselves denied from the ED reach college and suffering the limbo purgatory of waitlist at the RD college where they might have been accepted had they applied ED. This problem boils down to yield. An RD application to a popular target or reach college may cause the college to want more information about a student’s genuine level of interest and desire to attend before it issues an acceptance. Colleges don’t want to damage their yield numbers by taking the risk of accepting a student who might not want them. It’s like a sick dating game: I’m not going to ask the person to the prom whom I really want to ask; instead I’m going to ask the person who I think is most likely to say yes, although they aren’t as fun. These days, many students enter the research and visit phase knowing that they need to try to find a favorite, and hopefully that favorite offers Early Decision.

Of course this problem reeks of privilege, and I understand. Only families who can afford to pay full tuition fairly comfortably have the luxury of allowing their children to choose one college to commit to attending, no matter what the cost and no matter what the financial aid package looks like, even if they apply for financial aid. This problem has drawn criticism from school and independent counselors in the past as it paves yet another smooth macadam path for highly resourced students to access and populate the colleges with the most direct paths to further opportunities, connections, and success. However, colleges continue to use or even add Early Decision (University of Virginia is one of the most recent additions to the ED bandwagon) because it helps them with their own enrollment management. Independent college counselors will continue to observe the trends carefully to see how the option of applying Early Decision affects both students and colleges. Although it remains a very significant decision and commitment for a student to make at a mere 17 years of age, we will continue to counsel students accordingly if the ED strategy seems like a good, healthy choice for their goals and for maximizing their chances of acceptance at their favorite colleges.

About The Author

Amy Christie, M.A.