Does the Early Bird Get the Worm?


Rachna, Jha had ‘good’ SAT scores, great academic grades and was extremely keen on getting into Columbia University – an Ivy League university. Ordinarily, Rachna’s chances of getting into Columbia would be around 14 per cent, but because she applied for the Early Decision Programme, her chances of getting admission were close to 40 per cent. In fact, she was finally offered admission to one of the most coveted universities in the US.
Does Rachna’s story show that early decision increases your chances of getting admission? Few universities will actually claim that a student has better chances of getting admission if they apply through the Early Decision (ED) Programme. In fact, Harvard University’s website states, “There is no incentive whatsoever for Early Action (EA) colleges to admit weaker candidates early and then have to reject stronger Regular Action candidates. Diminishing the quality of the student body would be antithetical to the goals of any institution.” However, statistics speak for themselves: for the class of 2009, Cornell University admitted 24 per cent of applicants who applied for regular admission as compared to 41.7 per cent of the students who applied for early decision. Similarly, Amherst College accepted 35 per cent of ED candidates as compared to 17.7 per cent of regular candidates. Again, at the University of Pennsylvania the numbers were 17.9 per cent and 34.2 per cent for regular vs early decision applicants. (Statistics obtained from college reports.)
ED has ramifi cations on the SAT scores as well. Research by Christopher Avery of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government showed that applicants with a combined SAT score of 1400 to 1490 who applied for early decision were as likely to be accepted as ‘Regular Admission’ candidates whose scores range from 1500 to 1600. Similarly, an ED candidate with scores ranging from 1200 to 1290 had a greater chance of being accepted than a Regular Admission candidate with scores ranging from 1300 to 1390 (all scores mentioned here are on the old scoring scale).
Applicants who are admitted under the ED programme cannot initiate new applications and must withdraw their applications from all pending universities. Also, keep in mind that you are not allowed to apply to two universities for Early Decision. Even though the ED Programme works best for those who don’t require any financial assistance, many schools like Dartmouth College will match the financial need of students if admitted under this programme. Other schools let you off the hook if their fi nancial aid off er does not match the fi nancial need you demonstrated.
James Fallows of Th e Atlantic has a contradictory view of the entire ED Programme. “Today’s high school students and their parents have no choice but to adapt their applications strategies to the way early decision has changed the nature of college admissions. Tomorrow’s students should hope that the increasingly obvious drawbacks of the system will lead to its elimination,” states Fallows.
Fallows on his website claims that universities such as the University of Pennsylvania have increased their number of students through the ED Programme, “When US News published its fi rst list of best colleges, in 1983, Penn was not even ranked among national universities. Last year, it was tied with Stanford for number six — ahead of Dartmouth, Columbia, Cornell, and Brown in the Ivy League, and of Duke and the University of Chicago. It also made
unusually effective use of the most controversial tactic in today’s elite-college admissions business: the Early Decision Programme.”
Despite Fallows’ views, ED and EA Programmes have their advantages. Harvard and Princeton had dropped all EA processes in 2007. However, in February 2011, they restarted a less restricve EA Programme.
If you decide to apply to any school for ED or EA, it is advisable that you make an educated choice. If you are admitted under the ED programme, you will have to attend the college, so be sure that this college is your first choice.


Early Decision is the Early Admission Programme offered where you must commit in advance to attend the university if admitted under the ED Programme. Harvard and some other institutions offer the Early Action Programme. EA is non-binding and if you are admitted under this programme you are not obligated to enroll at the university. However, you cannot apply for EA or ED to more than one university. You can still apply to as many colleges as you like for Regular Admission if you apply to one college under the EA programme.

What’s in it for the colleges?

There are obvious reasons why colleges prefer to admit students under Early Decision. The more students a university admitted, the fewer acceptances the university needs from the regular admission pool to fill its class— which would make the university look better statistically. For example, consider a college that needs 1,000 students to fill its freshman class. Suppose the college receives 10,000 applications per year and has an average enrollment rate of 50 per cent (for every 100 students accepted, 50 attend the college), the college would have to issue 2,000 acceptance letters in order to meet their need for 1,000 students. This college’s selective percentage would be 20.
Now if this college introduces an ED programme, and admits 250 students, then the college needs only 750 more students to fill its freshman class. But suddenly the college’s statistics improve. The college is likely to receive the same number of applicants – say 2,000 through ED and 8,000 under regular admission. But now the college has to admit only 750 students from Regular Admissions and hence the college’s selectivity percentage is now 9.4 and it is likely to shoot up in rankings.

Volume 1 Issue 4


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