Early Decision Explained

Let's start with the basics. Early decision is a binding application plan in which a student agrees that, if accepted, she will attend the college to which she applied early decision.

You apply to college x early decision and if you're admitted, you withdraw all of your applications to other colleges and pack your bags; you're attending college x. The only caveat being that if the financial aid package offered by the school is insufficient to allow you to attend, you can be released from the agreement.

Advantages of Early Decision for Colleges

Admissions deans face tremendous pressure to enroll an incoming class that satisfies a host of institutional needs and goals. The repercussions of failing to satisfy these needs and goals are far too severe to leave the process up to chance, so they employ sophisticated enrollment management models to help them shape their class. Of the many enrollment management tools that these deans have at their disposal, early decision is possibly the most powerful.

To best understand early decision, lets first think about regular decision for a moment. When a college admits 10 students to their institution via the regular decision round of admission, there is no guarantee that any of those 10 students will actually choose to attend the college. A student might be admitted to college x, but choose to attend college y or z. The percentage of admitted students that actually decide to attend a college is called a college's yield. If college x has a 30 percent yield, that means 7 out of every 10 students college x admits decide to go elsewhere. If college x has 7,500 applicants and aims to enroll a target class of 1,000 students, they would need to accept 3,333 of their 7,500 applicants, giving them a 44 percent acceptance rate.

The brilliance of early decision from a colleges perspective is that the yield is 100 percent. If a college admits 10 students in early decision, all 10 students have to attend the college. If college x from above is able to accept 500 applicants early decision (with a 100 percent yield), they only need to admit 1,667 students regular decision (with a 30 percent yield) to fill the remaining 500 slots in the class. By using early decision strategically, college x has lowered its overall acceptance rate from 44 percent to 29 percent.

What this means is that the larger the percentage of the freshman class the college admits via the early decision round of admission, the more selective the college will appear because they will need to admit fewer students during regular decision to hit their target class size.

Additionally, locking in students who fill specific spots for the school — whether it's a student-athlete or female computer science majors — during early decision relieves pressure on the dean going into the regular decision round of admission, where there are no guarantees that admitted students will end up choosing the college.

Advantages of Early Decision for Students

Knowing how and why schools use early decision is all well and good, but how can you use that information to your advantage? In exchange for the guarantee of a 100 percent yield, allowing them to become more selective, secure many of their institutional priorities, and shape their class, colleges are often willing to sacrifice slightly on the strength of the students admitted.

Essentially, you can think of colleges sort of going on sale during early decision. But remember, when a $100 jacket goes on sale for $80, you still can't walk in with $50 and expect to be able to buy it. Applying early decision does not mean that an applicant far below the admitted student profile of a college will, miraculously, be admitted. What early decision often does mean is that a student right on the cusp of admission during regular decision might, during the early decision round of admission, get the slight boost they need 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.

To learn more about college manage enrollment and the ways in which it can impact your admission into the school, check out: Enrollment Management: The New Era of College Admissions.

About the authors:

Brook Wolcott is the Founder and Managing Director of Decoding Admissions, LLC, an independent college counseling firm based in Santa Monica, California. Brook graduated from Hamilton College.

Kyle Graham is the Co-Director of College Counseling at Marymount High School in Los Angeles. Previously, he worked as Associate Director of Admission at New York University and Assistant Dean of Admission at Hamilton College. He earned his undergraduate degree at Hamilton College and holds a masters in higher education administration from New York University.