In the early 1990s, the University of Pennsylvania was struggling to keep up with their fellow Ivy League universities and found themselves frequently relegated to “back-up plan” status among the nation’s top students. Their institution’s location in less-than-idyllic West Philadelphia and the “sounds like a state school” name contributed to their relative woes. In an effort to net more big fish, UPenn offered prospective students a bargain of Mephistophelean proportions—make a binding commitment to us months before the regular admissions cycle begins and we’ll offer you significantly improved odds of acceptance. Those who fondly recalled hearing their grandmothers utter the axiom “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” quickly shook hands on the deal. Non-binding forms of the early application process have been around since the 1950s, but as we neared the 2000s, hundreds of schools began to see the advantage of locking in members of their freshman class as early as possible.

Fast-forward to 2021-2022 and Early Decision is a massive factor in the admissions game, and whether/how to deploy your “ED card” may be an important component of your overall application strategy. It is a quid pro quo of sorts—the college can count on you, a desirable applicant as a guaranteed enrollee into their incoming freshman class and you can gain an edge in the admissions process. In this article we will answer the following questions:

  • How can applying early decision help you?
  • How can applying early decision not help you?
  • How do I pick the right early decision school.

Let’s begin by further examining how ED benefits the applicant.

How Early Decision can help you

The Early Decision “card” is one of the most powerful strategic tools an applicant possesses. No other tactical move will increase your admission odds more at a school that may be just a hair beyond your reach.

In general, colleges that offer Early Decision grant far more favorable acceptance rates to early applicants than to those in the regular round. For example, in the 2020-21 admissions season (Class of 2025) Dartmouth accepted 21% of ED applicants, Duke accepted 17%, and Vanderbilt took in 18%

Compare this to the acceptance rates for the general applicant pool:

  • Dartmouth: 4.5%
  • Duke: 4.2%
  • Vanderbilt: 5.3%

Academic research has demonstrated that applying ED is worth 100 points on the SAT. This makes sense—colleges, even of the elite variety, are competing with each other for top candidates. Any applicant who applies via Early Decision is irrevocably committing themselves to one school. For admissions officers who lose sleep over yield rates (the percentage of accepted students who ultimately enroll), these pledged applicants are the antidote to their insomnia.

For a complete list of competitive colleges’ ED vs. RD acceptances rates (updated in August 2020), visit our Dataverse page.

How Early Decision cannot help you

The glamorization of the million-to-one chance is deeply ingrained in the American ethos. From Rocky Balboa becoming heavyweight champ to The Golden Ticket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we are taught to believe that good fortune just might happen in spite of infinitesimal odds. Every time the Powerball hits a billion dollars, half of the country begins daydreaming what they will do with their ten figure winnings, ignoring the reality that they are more likely to be killed by a vending machine (an actual statistical fact). Each year, we witness countless students with absolutely fantastic, but not quite Duke/Vanderbilt/Williams numbers, use their sole Early Decision or Restrictive Early Action (REA) application on those very institutions.

Too often we see students with ACTs in the 31-33 range (1440-1490 SAT equivalent) who are in the top 10% of their class wish to cast their sole ED opportunity toward one of these three schools. Those who do are, without fail, disappointed.

The average SAT score of an admitted applicant at Brown, Columbia, and Duke is right around 1500. Further, it’s important to remember that this includes special applicants such as those from disadvantaged backgrounds, athletes, or legacies who may have scores significantly below the mean. These schools simply have little incentive to snatch up applicants with a 1450 SAT who sit in the top 10% of their class; they barely have to compete for students who boast perfect credentials. A quick examination of various college’s yield rates further illuminates this point.

In 2021, Harvard and Stanford possessed the top yield rates in the country at 82%.  The University of Chicago (81%), MIT (77%) and Princeton (70%) also sit atop the statistical category. Sitting a notch below, Penn and Cornell, both ED schools, have yield rates of 69% and 60%, respectively, which are quite high relative to other elite institutions. On the other hand, Tufts and Johns Hopkins have yield rates around the 38-48% mark. Rice and NYU are close to 40%. Emory, Lehigh, and GW are typically between 25-30%. These elite schools, given their lower yield rate, will be more motivated to lock down applicants within an acceptable range of their standards.

How to pick the perfect Early Decision school

They key is to pick a school that: a) you want to attend; b) you can afford; and c) is an institution where you have a realistic chance to be accepted.

Students with credentials similar to those mentioned above should set their sights on more reasonable reach schools. Think of it as needing to stand on your tippy toes to gain admission versus scaling a 60-foot ladder. The average student admitted to schools like Penn, Bowdoin, and Cornell have SATs in the mid-1400s and are in the top 10% of their high school class. If you are in the SAT ballpark and boast a strong GPA, class rank, etc., then institutions of this ilk have every reason to strongly consider you, the bird in the hand, versus those still in the regular decision bush.

Final Thoughts

The Early Decision “card,” if used thoughtfully, can be a decisive strategic advantage in the game of college admissions and yet, for some reason, many students elect to use it as the application equivalent of a Mega Millions ticket.

Unless you are in a special category (athlete, legacy, underrepresented minority), or your core stats are above the mean of accepted applicants, an ED application to Brown, Columbia, or Duke is dead on arrival. The truly Enlightened College Applicant (shameless plug), will eschew the Powerball strategy and invest their singular early opportunity in a school that actually has a realistic chance to say, “Yes.”