By Tasha, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor
Early Decision, Early Action, Early Decision II, Restrictive Early Action — believe it or not, the list goes on. There is no shortage of early application options for college admissions these days, and some hold a significant statistical advantage to students. Yes, this means that in some early processes, most students are significantly more likely to receive offers of admissions than if they applied Regular Decision. The percent advantage ranges from school to school and differs when it comes to Early Action programs. Read on for a breakdown of the numbers and for insight on why students should consider participating in early admissions programs.
Types of Early Applications
Before diving into the numbers, it’s important to understand the different early application types. The most important distinction is between Early Decision and Early Action. Early Decision is a binding contract between the applicant and the college to which they are applying. This means students can only apply Early Decision to one college or university and must attend if admitted. Students should only apply Early Decision if the university is their top choice and they feel comfortable committing to attending if they are accepted. This application deadline is typically between November 1 and 15, and students are usually notified by mid- to late December.
Early Decision II is a similar binding agreement but with a later deadline, usually the same deadline as Regular Decision. Students are typically notified of admission sometime in February before regular admission decisions come out. Some schools even allow students to switch from Regular Decision to Early Decision II by a certain deadline.
Early Action also has an early deadline — typically November 1 or November 15 — with a decision release date of mid-December. But that’s where the similarity ends. Early Action is non-binding, and standard programs allow students to apply to multiple places Early Action. However, some Restrictive Early Action or Single Choice Early Action programs restrict whether a student applies EA or ED to another college. Early Action is a good option for students with strong grades who are not ready to commit and do not need to wait on their fall senior grades.
Now that we’ve broken down these basic early admission definitions, let’s address why a student would consider one of these programs. The statistical advantages are clear.
Early Decision: A Significant Advantage, and Growing
Let’s start with Early Decision, which can offer a significant advantage over Regular Decision. How large of an advantage? Well, that depends on the institution. Regular Decision admissions have become more competitive in recent years, while the advantage of Early Decision has increased.
Let’s take Vanderbilt University as an example. In 2023, Vanderbilt admitted 4.2% of their Regular Decision applicants. Let’s compare this to 2013, when they admitted 11.7% of Regular Decision applicants. The Regular Decision admission rate decreased by more than half over a period of 10 years.
For Early Decision admissions, it’s a different picture. In 2023, Vanderbilt admitted 15.7% of Early Decision applicants. In 2013, that number was 21.6%. Though these numbers show that the Early Decision process has also gotten more competitive during those same 10 years, the percent decrease in Early Decision admissions rates is significantly less drastic than it is for Regular Decision.
So, what does this all mean? Simply put, it means that college applicants should seriously consider having an early application strategy and including Early Decision in that strategy because it is likely to be advantageous.
Many colleges and universities are increasing the number of students they admit through the Early Decision process. The reason for this is so they can maintain or even improve their yield rates — that is, ensuring students admitted to the university are likely to enroll. After admitting a larger percentage of their class through Early Decision, colleges have fewer available spots to fill by the time they get to the Regular Decision round.
Admissions trends show that colleges are admitting a larger percentage of their class through Early Decision than they have in the past. For example, Middlebury College filled 56.32% of the class of 2017 through Early Decision — a very large percentage at the time already. Ten years later, Middlebury filled 70.68% of its class of 2027 through Early Decision.* If this trend continues, having an Early Decision strategy is going to become even more important for college hopefuls.
Early Action: Less Significant Advantage, but Worth Pursuing
Early Action, the non-binding early application option, has a less significant statistical advantage. The Early Action pool tends to be particularly strong, as it is much smaller than Regular Decision but filled with students who were able to apply early without waiting for their fall semester grades. Early Action applicants may also have a slight advantage in terms of being reviewed first — these applicants may be offered admission when there are more spots to fill, prior to regular admissions, when there are more applications and fewer available spots.
Georgetown University, for example, offers Early Action and does not offer Early Decision. In 2022, their Early Action admission rate was 9.98% while their Regular Decision admission rate was 13.34%. This is a relatively small difference for what are already extremely difficult admission rates. So, while applying Early Action can provide students with some advantage, it is not nearly as significant as the Early Decision statistical advantage — and should never be used solely as a way to “boost” your application chances. Only apply early if your application is the best that it can be.
Colleges are making these changes in what is a rapidly evolving college admissions landscape. With test-optional policies abounding, Supreme Court case decisions affecting college admissions, and the rapidly increasing volume of applicants every year, university administrators are being strategic to meet their own admissions and enrollment goals.
Prospective students and their families who are aware of these factors and of the advantage of participating in an early admissions program are off to a great start. That said, we know the numbers and data can be overwhelming. An IvyWise counselor can help guide prospective students through every step of the college admissions process.
* The Class of 2027 data includes an undisclosed number of students admitted through Middlebury’s first cohort of QuestBridge Scholars. However, the number of students in the cohort is likely small, so the increase in ED percentage is still significant.