Worth the Rush? The Race to Early Acceptance at Elite Schools (Part 2: Acceptance Rates)

Read Part One: Benefits for an introduction to Amy Morgenstern's guide to Early Action/Early Decision.

The most persuasive argument for applying early is the acceptance rates, which are consistently, and in some cases considerably, higher at the most selective schools.

enter image description Schools with unpublished early acceptance rates for the freshman class entering in 2014 are excluded Columbia University, California Institute of Technology, Washington University in St. Louis, and University of Chicago).

All is not as exactly as it seems, however. These data points — “imperfect but serviceable,” as Priceonomics writer Alex Mayyasi concedes — mask a more complicated scenario, one that might require a larger data set accounting for certain subpopulations, such as recruited athletes. Working in tandem with coaches looking to build next year’s teams, admissions officers at Ivy League and NESCAC schools designate part of the admitted pool to athletic recruitment, a practice that reduces the space available to competitive, non-athletic candidates. Yale, for example, recruits about 180 athletes a year, the vast majority through early acceptance (and there is discussion of increasing recruitment to 200, matching Harvard and Princeton’s caps). If one considers the 735 students accepted early to Yale in 2013, the athletic pool constitutes approximately 24 percent of early acceptances, reducing the early acceptance rate for non-recruits from 15 to 12 percent.

Dartmouth, which reserves 19 percent of its student body for recruited athletes, offers a corrective in its admissions FAQ, noting only a “slight statistical advantage to applying Early Decision” and then elaborating parenthetically:

(The published higher percentage of applicants accepted early is somewhat misleading because it includes recruited Division 1 athletes, whose credentials have been reviewed in advance. With recruited athletes removed from the Early Decision numbers, the advantage is much smaller.)

Harvard, too, cautions on its admissions page that it “does not offer an advantage to students who apply early. Higher Early Action acceptance rates reflect the remarkable strength of Early Action pools. For any individual student, the final decision will be the same whether the student applies Early Action or Regular Decision.”

To better understand the inflationary nature of the early admission acceptance rate, it is important to note that among its many purposes, the early admission process serves the strategic aims of universities. Besides a desire to snag the most interesting, and interested, candidates of the year, they also target certain populations such as applicants with strong alumni ties, or exceptional musical talent, or perhaps a student from an underrepresented state (schools love to boast about the incoming class representing all 50 states). As seen with athletics, every institution — operating in its own particular social and economic context — has particular needs, some of which are negotiated through early admissions processes, further shrinking the space for the general population.

Deciding to apply early involves more than a laser focus on acceptance rates, however. The decision is different depending on which program your chosen school employs. Early admissions programs vary in kind. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford use a Single-Choice Early Action program (EA), restricting your early application to only one school without binding you to a decision upon acceptance. If accepted EA, you can wait for the rest of your results in April to make your final decision. EA gives you more freedom of choice, unlike Early Decision (ED) (practiced by schools such as Brown, Columbia, Cornell, and Dartmouth, which requires a commitment to attend upon acceptance. If admitted ED, otherwise known as a binding decision, you will be expected to withdraw all other applications. Most free of all is the unrestricted EA program, as practiced by MIT, Caltech, University of Michigan, University of Chicago, and University of Virginia.

The decision to apply early requires a deliberate choice about the flow and character of the admissions process for you. Are you ready to relinquish all other opportunities, including financial aid opportunities, should you be accepted ED? Are you prepared for rejection in the middle of December, just as you’ll need to launch an energetic second sailing to finish the rest of your applications, if you’ve not already done so? Can you handle a little drama during an already stressful time of your life, or would you prefer a more even-keeled, paced approach? Do you want to cast a wide net for EA, rush to the early finish line, and see what comes of it, ready to renew the effort, should the results not turn out your way?

This article continues with Part Three: Yield Rates.