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How early admission is changing the college application process

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When it comes to college application deadlines, November is fast becoming the new normal. Every year the number of high school students applying to college early via Early Action and Early Decision programs is increasing. Not only are more students applying early, more are being accepted in the first round. That means the whole timing of the college admissions process is changing.

Savvy students know they can increase their chances of admission at highly selective schools by applying early. Last year Harvard accepted 18% of its Early Action applicants, compared with just 5.9% of its total applicants that year. Princeton accepted a full 21% in the early round, compared with its much lower rate of 7.9% overall. Yale accepted 14.3%, in contrast to 6.7% overall.

Numbers for this year are still coming in for many schools, but Harvard's Early Action acceptance rate is up about three percentage points, Yale’s is up one, while Princeton’s is up slightly less than one percent.

Although some schools have tried to gloss over the obvious conclusion—arguing that many students who apply early are academically superior—it seems clear that students who apply early boost their chances of success.

Increasing acceptance probability equal to 100 SAT points

“Early application is associated with a 20- to-30 percentage point increase in acceptance probability, the same as 100 additional points on the SAT,” concluded the authors of “Early Admissions at Selective Colleges,” a study published in The American Economic Review in December 2010.

And it’s not just at the most highly selective schools where the odds are better for applicants who apply early. Less competitive schools are also filling a large number of their seats on the early round. Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, with an overall admission rate of 31%, admits half of its applicants via early admissions. Lafayette College has an overall admission rate of 33% but admits 53% of the applicants in the early round. Skidmore admits 41% overall, but admits 75% of its early applicants.

As the numbers suggest, students whose qualifications may be considered borderline often find it’s easier to get accepted if they apply early.

Why would some schools make offers to borderline applicants in the autumn when they could hold out for the possibility of more impressive candidates in December and January? Early admissions will help any college control its “yield” more precisely. The yield—the number of accepted students who actually enroll—has a big bearing on the institution’s bottom line.

Doing the math

While early admissions programs are increasing the probability of success for students who apply early, the math ensures that these programs reduce the number of spots available for students who apply according to the regular deadline in early January.

Close to half the freshman seats are already being filled at many schools before the end of December. This even holds true at some of the most prestigious colleges and universities. This year Duke University accepted 797 applicants via Early Decision, a group that will end up constituting about 47% of next fall’s freshman class. The University of Pennsylvania’s numbers are even bigger. Penn will welcome a record 1,299 Early Decision students to the class of 2018. These early birds are expected to make up 54%—more than half of the incoming class.

In recent years, more than two-thirds of the top colleges have offered some form of early admissions, and many lower-ranked schools have done the same. In addition, many of these schools are increasing the percentage of students they accept via early admissions.

With so many schools accepting large numbers of applicants early, one can’t help wondering if we’re getting close to the proverbial tipping point. Will the day soon arrive when all but the most ill-informed and disorganized students receive their college acceptance notifications by mid-December?

Although it’s hard to predict exactly where this trend is heading, one thing’s for certain. College-bound students and their families should take the early admission option seriously.

Since early admission requires that students complete their college research and choose a favorite school by October or November of senior year, it demands that the entire college preparation and search process must start earlier. Today it makes more sense than ever for high school students to begin researching and visiting colleges as early as their sophomore year.

What you need to know

Schools offer various kinds of early application opportunities—each with its own rules and deadlines. Most require that a student apply to just one school via this process. Some programs benefit certain kinds of students more than others, while some programs are more beneficial to certain categories of schools. The two most common programs by far are Early Action and Early Decision.

Early Decision (ED)

Early Decision is designed for students who are certain which college is their first choice. They have already researched their college options carefully and are ready to make a commitment to one.

In ED programs, students who apply must agree to enroll at the school if they are accepted. For this reason ED is referred to as “binding.” Students are allowed to apply to only one school’s ED program, but they are encouraged to apply to other schools for general admissions in case they are rejected from the ED school.

ED applicants apply to their first-choice school early, generally in November. They receive an early admission decision from the school, usually in mid-December. If all goes well and they are admitted, they then withdraw their applications at other schools.

The pros: ED programs tend to tend to have high acceptances rates and allow students to resolve their college plans early during senior year. This helps to minimize the stress of college applications and allows students to enjoy the second half of 12th grade with less to worry about.

The cons: ED programs have been criticized widely for giving an advantage to students from affluent families, who can pay full price and don’t need to worry about financial aid when making their decisions. Traditionally, students who are applying for financial aid have needed to wait until receiving all their acceptances and financial aid offers—usually on April first—before making their choice. In response to these concerns, most schools that offer ED have created a loophole that allows applicants to reject the offer if the financial aid package is inadequate to meet the family’s needs.

Students applying for ED and financial aid must complete a large amount of paperwork, including financial aid forms, early in the fall of senior year. The process necessitates a high level of organization and planning, much of which must take place during junior year.

Early Action (EA)

Like Early Decision, Early Action is designed for students who have researched their college options carefully in advance. However, it provides more wiggle room for applicants who may experience a sudden change of heart, as well as for those concerned about financial aid.

In EA programs, accepted students are notified early but are generally not required to make a commitment or enroll until May 1, the same date as other students. That is why EA is referred to as “non-binding.”

The pros: EA programs offer higher acceptance rates than the regular admissions programs do. This boosts an applicant’s chances of acceptance. But EA programs also allow applicants to wait and weigh their various offers before making a final decision. EA applicants get many of the benefits of applying early, without the biggest drawbacks.

The cons: Although EA programs have higher acceptance rates than regular admissions programs, they offer lower acceptance rates than ED programs.

Students applying for EA and financial aid must complete a large amount of paperwork early in the fall of senior year. The process necessitates a high level of organization and planning, much of which must take place during junior year.

The take-away

Because the odds are increasingly stacked in favor of those who apply for early admission, more and more students are doing so. Even students who require serious financial aid are joining the rush—and many colleges are trying to accommodate their needs.

Early admission requires applicants and their families to be better prepared and better organized than ever before. In order to choose a favorite college to meet the early admissions deadlines, a high school student ought to have completed his or her college visits by the end of junior year or during that summer. This intensive process suggests that high school students should start thinking seriously about college, and preparing for what’s to come, as early as sophomore year.

The message for high school sophomores and juniors is that if they get a jump on the college admissions process – and the time to start is right now – they can substantially improve the chances of getting into their first choice college.

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