Does Applying Early Decision Work?

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If you want to attend an elite college or university, you can increase your chances if you apply early decision.

That’s one of the conclusions that you can draw from a new annual study released by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, The State of College Admission 2010.

Highly selective colleges are increasingly relying on early decision applications to fill their classes. This has always been a controversial practice because it favors wealthy applicants.


Students who apply early decision are expected to enroll if they gain admission to the college.  Most students can’t take a chance on applying early decision to a college because of the binding nature of the application. When students are accepted through early decision, they are expected to attend even if they receive a lousy financial aid package or merit award.

Most families are going to want to look at financial aid packages from different schools and see which one is best rather than rolling the dice on just one college. In most cases, only wealthy students should be taking this gamble.

Elite colleges, however, are accepting more students from their early decision pools than ever before. According to the NACAC survey, 65% of colleges with early decision policies increased the number of students they accepted through their early-bird admissions in 2009.

The odds of getting accepted through early decision are much better. During the 2009 admission cycle, according to the NACAC, 70% of students who applied early decision received acceptances versus 55% of all applicants.

Early decision policies help the wealthiest teenagers, but it also helps the colleges’ financial bottom line. And that’s just one reason why I’ve become so cynical covering the higher-ed world.

Here are some recent college blog posts that I’ve written about early decision:

A Case Study: Applying Early Decision

Finding the Success Rate of Applying Early Decision

Applying Early Decision to Brown University

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch and another for US News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter.

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6 Responses to “Does Applying Early Decision Work?”

  1. m says:

    This inequity is a huge frustration for those of us who can’t affort to have our children apply through Early Decision. Obviously, it increases the odds for the wealthy applicants, AND it significally slashes the number of spots for everyone else. In one info session we attended this summer, we learned that the school we were visiting enrolled 50% of its class ED last year. So I share your cynicism.

  2. Jeong says:

    How do these statistics take into consideration the self-selective nature of applying ED, especially recruited athletes?

  3. The binding nature of early decision can be a serious disadvatage. We have kids that KNOW that they want to attend that school if accepted, but what about the other students that aren’t sure? Definitely something to consider…

  4. Laura says:

    While on the surface it may seem unfair, you must remember it is because of those “wealthy” students whose families are willing to bear the entire cost of a student’s education that elite colleges are able to offer the lucrative financial aid packages they often give to highly sought after students who apply regular decision. Most colleges have finite resources, so whether those students with the ability to pay “full price” apply ED or RD a certain percentage of them will be admitted since the economic reality is someone has to foot the bill.

  5. R. says:

    Thank you Laura for that reality check. Stop whining Lynn. In recent past, most “highly selective” schools offerred the exact same enrollment percentage to both ED and Regular Admission students. It is only in recent years (2009, 2010??) that there has been this “bias,” as you suggest. Why? Because schools need money! Take a look at our own UC’s. They are incresing enrollments to foreign students at the sake of TAX PAYING students from California. Why? Foreigners pay higher tuition. As Laura said, someone has to pay full tuition so that others can go free!

  6. […] a greater chance of acceptance. Some schools are filling half of their classes with students who apply to college early. I discuss this phenomenon in this recent college blog […]

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