Early Decision Explained

Let’s start with the basics. Early decision is a binding application plan in which a student commits to attend a specific college if she is accepted ahead of their regular admissions calendar. She is at an advantage when applying early decision, because she is being considered ahead of regular decision applicants; in exchange for this advantage, she must withdraw all other applications if she is accepted to that school. Her college decision is made for her, unless the  financial aid package being offered by the school is insufficient to allow her to attend.

While early decision can seem like a straightforward option (after all, who wouldn’t want to have their admissions process over with as early as December?), committing to attend a college very early in the application process can be overwhelming and add pressure to an already stressful situation.

Read on to learn why colleges offer early decision, and what advantages it offers students.

Advantages of Early Decision for Colleges

Deans of admission face tremendous pressure to enroll an incoming class that satisfies a host of institutional needs and goals. They employ sophisticated enrollment management models to help them shape their classes, the most powerful of which is probably early decision admissions.

The percentage of admitted students that actually decide to attend a college is called a college’s yield. In order to appear academically desirable, most colleges aim for a high yield: Harvard, for example, currently boasts an 84% yield, meaning that 84 out of 100 students accept offers of admission. A school’s acceptance rate, on the other hand, aims to be lower so that a school can appear competitive: Harvard’s acceptance rate is a mere 5.2%.

When a college admits 10 students via the regular decision round of admissions, knowing that most applicants will receive offers from at least one other school as well, there is no guarantee that any of those students will choose to attend that college. This can lower a school’s yield, and thereby necessarily raise a school’s acceptance rate: if 7 out of the 10 students decide to go elsewhere, the university has a 30% yield and will need to accept more students in order to ensure that the class is filled. Let’s say that the school receives 7,500 applications and aims to enroll a class of 1,000; they would need to accept 3,333 of their 7,500 applicants, giving them a 44% acceptance rate.

The brilliance of early decision from a college’s perspective is that the yield is 100%: every student admitted through early decision has already agreed to attend. So if a college has a 30% yield, 7500 applicants, and a target class of 1,000, and that college accepts 500 applicants early decision who are guaranteed to attend, the school must only admit 1,667 more students regular decision (remember the 30% yield) in order to fill the remaining 500 slots. By using early decision strategically, the college has lowered its overall acceptance rate from 44% (3,333 out of 7,500 applicants) to a much more attractive 29% (2,167 out of 7,500).

So the more students admitted via the early decision round of admissions, the more selective the college will appear to prospective parents, students, and even future employers. Additionally, locking in early decision students who fill specific underrepresented spots at the school — whether it’s a student-athlete or a female computer science major — relieves pressure on the dean as the regular decision round of admissions revs up.

Advantages of Early Decision for Students

In exchange for the guarantee of a 100% yield, colleges are often more generous of spirit when reviewing early decision applications..

Applying early decision does not mean that an applicant far below the admitted student profile of a college will, miraculously, be admitted. But if a student is right on the cusp of admission during the regular decision process, early decision might giver her the slight boost she needs to make the cut. At certain colleges, where yield is a serious issue, early decision can be a tremendous advantage in the application process.

The major takeaway is simple: colleges use early decision as a strategic tool, and you can too. Just know what you’re signing up for before applying, and enjoy picking out dorm furniture ahead of your regular decision classmates.

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