There's a lot of hype floating around that some schools accept almost all of their incoming freshmen from their pool of Early Decision (ED) applicants. While it's true that there may be a higher acceptance rate among the early action pool, this doesn’t necessarily hold true at every school, nor does it mean that all the spots get filled up early. (It also doesn't mean that all schools even have early acceptance options, because some schools are doing away with them altogether.)
Realistically, all schools only have so many openings set aside for the incoming class, and they want to give those spots to the best candidates possible. If they give away every bed they have by December, then they won't have room to accept the Colorado State Spelling Bee Champion who applies in February. Some schools hedge their bets just as some students do when applying to college. They may defer a portion of their ED applicants so they can eyeball what comes across their application desks later in the year.
Early admission by the numbers
It’s generally true that many of the most exclusive schools are the ones most likely to offer Early Decision admission options, and research supports the buzz that you stand a better chance of scoring a coveted spot by applying early. On average, 25 to 50 percent of the freshman classes at these schools come from ED applicants. (Those numbers could be higher, depending on the school.) However, that means that come springtime, although there’s still another 50 to 75 percent of the class to accept, you’ll be competing against a much larger pool of applicants and your chances of getting accepted are lower. So, statistically speaking, a larger percentage of the ED applicants are accepted than of the applicants who apply during the normal timeline.
There are a few schools who accept a very large majority of their incoming class from their early admission applicants, and the only way to know if your choice school is among those is to do your research. Ask the school directly about their admission statistics to get a better picture of your chances of acceptance and discuss what this means with your school guidance counselor. In some cases, an Early Decision application really may be the only way to edge out your competition. Before you send off that paperwork, make sure one more time it’s what you want since an early acceptance under ED means you have entered into a binding agreement to attend that school and you can’t apply anywhere else.
Keep in mind as well that some schools, Ivy League included, are starting to do away with early application options altogether. Harvard and Princeton no longer offer the option of applying early and there are a number of schools that are considering doing away with their policies as well. There are several reasons for doing so, but the gist of their reasoning is that it skews the playing field and leaves a number of students at a distinct disadvantage when application time rolls around. Schools that are doing away with early application procedures hope to soothe the competitive nature of "getting in" and allow everyone the opportunity to apply at the same time and under the same conditions.
Early action and financial aid
If you’re like most students, finances probably play an important role in making your final decision about where to apply. As part of your decision process about ED, you should meet with your choice school's financial aid office as early as your junior year. You’ll be able to get an idea if the school is an economically viable choice or if it’s just too far out of the ballpark.
Ask your parents to bring their tax forms so they can get an idea of their likely Expected Family Contribution, and you can find out ahead of time what financial aid you’re likely to receive. By checking it out early on, you can avoid the wrenching disappointment of getting in but not being able to go. Acceptance decisions for early action applicants show up in your mailbox months before you hear from the Financial Aid office.
Early admission and you
So what does all this mean? Should you apply for Early Decision at a school that you’re considering? Not unless you are 100 percent absolutely, positively certain that it’s THE school that you want to attend above all others. However, just because you really want to go there doesn’t mean you should feel like you have to apply early, either. Early application is really only a good tactic when you and the school are truly well matched. In a nutshell, don’t waste their time or yours if you’re not really sure it’s your top choice or if there is a strong likelihood you won’t get accepted.
If you decide to go for it, give your all to that crucial essay by emphasizing your strengths and vividly describing what makes the school a perfect fit for you. Schools that have Early Decision options want to accept ED applicants because they are usually the most qualified and most sought-after students, and they are students who are communicating that by applying as ED, they really want to get in to that school. Admission committees look favorably upon excellent candidates who desire nothing more than to be a part of their student body. If it’s a competitive school, you fit the profile, and you really have your heart set on it, then by all means, apply Early Decision and better your chances of being able to call it your alma mater.