By Rod, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor and former Associate Director of Admissions at Case Western Reserve University
Applying to U.S. colleges can be a confusing and stressful process. Part of this stems from the fact that schools typically have several application rounds and deadlines that you need to know about. Understanding and leveraging these different application options, however, can provide a strategic advantage in the college application process.
As a college-bound highschooler, you will undoubtedly become familiar with terms like Early Decision (ED), Early Action (EA), and Regular Decision (RD). The reality of the application process is that the decision plan under which you apply can/does affect your chances of being accepted to your dream school. Each application round usually has a unique applicant pool and competitiveness profile, and so timing is extremely important in the college admission process.
Early Decision is a binding contract between student and college, if a student is accepted ED, they must enroll at that school and withdraw all other college applications. Therefore, applying to a school ED is not a decision that should be taken lightly. Applying ED also limits students’ ability to shop around for financial aid like they might otherwise do if applying under other rounds. The tradeoff, however, is that ED usually presents the best statistical chance of gaining admission to an institution. Applying Early Decision is the strongest possible way to demonstrate interest and colleges love to admit students who are not only a good fit, but who are also committed to attending.
Colleges are under tremendous pressure to maintain/improve their yield rate (the percentage of admitted students who end up enrolling) and higher yield which is good for their rankings. The Early Decision round is an important tool for building a class because it helps alleviate the pressures of bringing in a class that is reflective of institutional priorities. Because ED confers a statistical advantage at being admitted, students sometimes mistakenly believe that this is a good tool for leveraging below-average academic profiles for admission. The reality is much different, however. The ED pool is often filled with strong candidates that have planned ahead in order to be able to submit strong applications early on in their senior year. Most of these students have conducted thorough research of the institution and are confident that it would be a great fit academically, socially, and financially. Simply put, each school’s ED applicant pool tends to be made up of students that are likely to be a good cultural fit for the institution.
When you look at the academic profiles of students admitted through Early Decision, you might think the ED pool isn’t as competitive as EA or RD. That data can be misleading, however, because the ED pool is where you can also expect to find a good chunk of recruited athletes who usually have slightly below-average academic profiles – hence the reason you’re seeing lower GPAs, test scores, etc. than those of EA and RD applicants. If you were to exclude recruited athletes, on the other hand, you would often find that ED students are just as strong, if not stronger than students who get admitted through EA or RD. The takeaway from all of this is that the Early Decision application round best serves students looking to lock in their top-choice school rather than those hoping to use ED as way to boost their application chances.
The Early Action round offers students the opportunity to both submit their application and receive their decision early; unlike ED, however, EA is non-binding, which means students are not obliged to enroll if they are accepted. Admission rates for the EA round are usually higher than Regular Decision, but not higher than ED. Despite the higher acceptance rates, Early Applicant pools are arguably the most competitive, be it ED or EA. EA offers these top students a bit more flexibility than ED does, especially when it comes to thinking about financial fit given the cost of higher education in the U.S. Higher acceptance rates in EA over those of RD are usually a reflection of the quality and depth of the pool rather than any advantage garnered by applying early: EA applicants enjoy an early mover’s advantage in that they get to compete for more available spots. By the time RD applications are being considered, there are only so many potential spots left.
Regular Decision, like Early Action, is a non-binding admission plan. Among ED, EA, and RD, Regular Decision arguably has the least competitive applicant pool and usually also the lowest acceptance rates. Admissions data posted by the some of the most selective universities in the U.S. shows that Regular Decision admission rates are usually significantly lower than those of ED and EA. For example, Boston College admitted 39% of its early applicants in the 2020-21 admissions cycle, but only 17% of applicants during the RD round. The lower admit rates for RD not only stem from the lower competitiveness profile, but also the volume of applications reviewed under this decision plan relative to the number of spots available. As aforementioned, RD usually has the highest volume of applications of any round, and, at the same time, the least number of spots available for students to be admitted due to the early advantage of ED and EA applicants. In that same year, Boston College received 3,225 early applications but a pool of nearly 37,000 applications during the regular round.
Despite the lower likelihood of admission via this plan, RD still strategically makes sense for some students. For students who need to improve their GPA or test scores or put the finishing touches on their application, who just need more time for their college search, this plan may make the most sense. It also allows applicants more time for their college search if they are still trying to narrow down their top choice(s).
Deciding which admission plans to pursue when applying to college can be one of the most important decisions that a college-bound high school senior will make. Knowing the advantages and disadvantages of each decision plan as well as how to leverage them can give you an advantage in the college application process.
IvyWise counselors know that having an effective application strategy – that takes into account all of the application rounds – is critical to having the best chance of gaining admission to your top-choice universities. In an IvyWise program, your counselor will work with you to develop an application strategy that will yield the best outcomes and position you as a competitive applicant at your best-fit schools. For more information on how we can help you apply to college, download our free services brochure.