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Trends in College Admissions: Understanding early decision

Early Decision can be confusing
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

A former admissions director friend of mine once admitted to me that all he wanted was for an admissions cycle to be “just like the last one,” a reflection of how rapidly conditions change for colleges and universities as they manage their enrollment. As best I can tell, my friend never got his wish. 

Over the past couple of decades there have been multiple events that have completely changed the college admissions landscapes, perhaps none more than the COVID-19 pandemic and this year’s FAFSA debacle. Beyond these two  (hopefully) singular events, the two trends that have impacted and shifted college admissions practices and the experience of college applicants most significantly include test-optional policies and the prevalence of early admissions programs, including early decision programs. Since we have discussed test-optional policies on this blog before, we wanted to provide some additional information about early application practices and some guidance on how to navigate those options. 

First, let’s review some terminology. College admission review processes fall into two main categories: rolling admissions and pooled admissions. For rolling admissions, there is usually one deadline at the end of an admissions cycle and applicants can submit their materials and receive a response from the college on an on-going (rolling) basis. In this review process, the earlier you apply, the better. In a pooled application process, there are often a smaller number of deadlines and the college will consider and notify the entire pool of applicants immediately of  their admissions decision. 

Among pooled admissions processes, there are early admissions and regular decision programs. Early admissions deadlines tend to fall between October and December, while regular decision deadlines are often January to February of the senior year. Currently, there are approximately 450 colleges in the U.S. that feature some kind of early admission program. Within early admissions programs, there are two types you will typically see:

Early Decision (ED): these programs allow you to receive an earlier response from the college but there are two catches: 1) you can only apply to one college ED, and that is because, 2) ED is binding, meaning that you are promising in advance to enroll at that college should you be offered admission. 

Early Action: these programs function similarly to ED in that you receive an earlier response from the college, EXCEPT they are non-binding. While there are programs with restrictions (creatively called restrictive early action), you can usually apply to as many early action programs as you want.

So what is the appeal of ED? Why would someone intentionally apply to a program that offered them less college options? Two reasons, 1) they really love the college to which they are applying ED, and 2) it almost always provides the applicant better odds of being admitted when you apply ED. For most institutions, applicant pools at regular decision tend to feature higher grade point averages (GPA) and test scores than the ED pools. 

Over the past decade, while the number of students applying to ED programs has remained relatively flat according to data published by the Common App, many selective colleges have been increasing the percent of their incoming class that are admitted through their ED programs. In the 2023 admissions cycle, 36 out of the approximately 161 colleges that offer an ED program, enrolled more than half of their incoming class through ED. While data is still being finalized for the latest 2024 admissions cycle, there is some indication that this trend of selective universities admitting greater shares of their classes through ED is continuing. Furthermore, the word on this trend seems to be getting out, as many of the most highly selective schools are seeing record number of ED applicants the past two admissions cycles. 

So what does this mean for you? Applying ED must be a carefully made decision that involves the whole family. Applying ED will mean that a family is single-preferencing a college, and that college’s financial aid program, meaning that if the student is admitted at ED, they will be unable to consider multiple college scholarship offers. This means that before considering applying ED, a family should conduct a thorough investigation of the college’s financial aid options through the schools net price calculators. Be sure to ask any college to which you are considering applying whether students admitted through ED have equal access to merit-based scholarships, as a very small number of colleges will actually reserve some of their scholarships for regular decision students. 

While applying ED to a college can be a great way to “shoot your shot” with your top choice college, it does come with some drawbacks. Feel free to reach out to any of our GEC advisors for help and advice if you are considering applying ED. 

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