How Early Applications Can Improve the College Admission Process

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How Early Applications Can Improve the College Admission Process

Breaking down the four early college application options.

No one sets out to be a tutor. It just sort of happens.

And while tutoring has its perks - most notably flexibility and high hourly pay - the churn rate is high. That is, tutors typically don't stick with it that long and very few of us ever make tutoring a full-time gig. There are lots of possible explanations for the high attrition, but to me, the biggest culprit is residual stress. The well-intentioned tutor can evolve into a stress receptacle for frustrated, anxious, and utterly overwhelmed parents, students, and teachers. And that can lead to tutors leaving the industry.

When it comes to anxiety in education, there are two processes which stand out above the rest:

1) SAT/ACT Prep
2) The College Application Process

I've already written about how to minimize SAT/ACT stress, so I thought I'd spend some time talking about the college process. More specifically, I'd like to talk about how certain types of early applications can significantly decrease stress and improve outcomes.

The College Application Process

First and foremost, picking a college should be about finding a school that fits the student. Everything from tuition, to school size, to location, to student faculty ratio, to available majors, etc. should be considered. If possible, parents/kids should not only tour schools, but also sit in on actual classes.

That said, there’s quite a bit of math to the college application process and understanding what college admissions officers are looking for can greatly increase the odds of getting in.

Simply put, college admission officers are looking to build a diverse student body brimming with high-achievers who will go on to become industry leaders and then, of course, donate often and generously to the schools which helped them along their way. Got it? Okay, now consider this:

In 2014, Naviance reported that almost 20% of seniors planned on applying to 11 or more colleges.

The numbers today are almost certainly even higher.

There’s a lot to unpack there, but let’s start with the most obvious: a student can only actually attend one school. Because so many kids are applying to so many schools, colleges have an increasingly tough time determining which students will matriculate upon being accepted. In 2016, only 35% of acceptance letters were met with yeses to the schools that accepted them. These low yields have led some colleges to pass on talented kids who admissions officers think won't ultimately attend.

To summarize:

  • Kids are applying to more schools than ever;

  • The schools, in an effort to increase ranking, are turning more and more kids away;

  • Low admit rates are leading kids to apply to even more schools.

It’s an extremely vicious cycle. But there’s good news: early applications.

Early Application Options

There are four types of early applications:

1) Early Action
2) Early Decision
3) Restrictive Early Action (Single-Choice Early Action)
4) Rolling Admission

To better understand how the above options affect admission chances I looked at the top 125 colleges’ deadlines and admission rates for last year’s applicant pool.*

Here’s what I found:

Early Action (E.A.)
  • What is it? A non-binding early application. In other words, you are not committed if they accept you.

  • When is it due? Usually November 1 or November 15 When do you get a response? Typically by mid/late December

  • How common is it? About ⅓ of the top 125 schools have an E.A. option.

  • How does it help your chances? The average increase in admission odds is 9.8% * What’s the downside? Getting your materials submitted sooner.

  • Key takeaway? Given that this work will need to get done eventually and that being accepted early doesn’t mean you have to go, students should look to apply early action to as many schools as reasonably interest them. Since E.A. notifications often come back before Regular Decision applications are due, a student who hits on one or more E.A.’s, may be spared time/effort on R.D. applications to schools they were never that excited about.

*I calculated this by comparing the R.D. admission rate with the E.A. admission rate at that same school.

Early Decision
  • What is it? A binding early application. If they accept you, you are committed to enroll. (Kind of.)

  • When is it due? Usually November 1 or November 15

  • When do you get a response? Typically by mid/late December.

  • How common is it? About 2/3 of the top 125 schools have an E.D. option.

  • How does it help your chances? The average increase in admission odds is 18.5% *

  • What’s the downside? Getting your materials submitted sooner and, if you are accepted, to a school you aren’t crazy about, reneging is tricky. Key takeaway? If you have a dream school, you’ve crunched the numbers and your application portfolio puts you in reasonable contention, you should go for it. Your chances of admission at most schools increase significantly when you apply E.D. because schools know you really want to come and, more crucially, they know they can count on your matriculation. This really helps them craft the student body they’re after. But if you’re not sure, don’t do it. Reneging on an E.D. acceptance is at best complicated and unethical and, at worst, expensive and litigious.

*I calculated this by comparing the R.D. admission rate with the E.D. admission rate at that same school.

Restrictive Early Action
  • What is it? A non-binding early application. If they accept you, you don’t have to go.

  • When is it due? November 1

  • When do you get a response? December 15 How common is it? Less than 10 schools in the country have this option and they are all extremely elite: Georgetown, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale, to name a few.

  • How does it help your chances? The average increase in admission odds is 8%*

  • What’s the downside? Getting your materials submitted sooner and, much more importantly, applying R.E.A. means you cannot apply early action or early decision to any other school.

  • Key takeaway? None of the handful of elite schools offering R.E.A. have an E.D. option. In other words, if your dream school is in this category, R.E.A. is the most definitive way you can declare your desire to attend. However, like E.D., if there’s even a trace of hesitation here don’t do it. Limiting your early action applications to one (as R.E.A. demands) can radically affect your odds at many, many other schools. That coupled with the murky admission bump make R.E.A. a bad bet for virtually all applicants.

*I calculated this by comparing the R.D. admission rate with the R.E.A. admission rate at that same school. But due to the small number of schools offering this and the fact that some of them didn’t publish admission data on it, your R.E.A. bump may very well be less 8%.

Rolling Admission
  • What is it? A non-binding early application. If they accept you, you don’t have to go.

  • When is it due? September 1 - Spring

  • When do you get a response? Mid-September - Spring

  • How common is it? About 10 schools in the top 125 have this option and they tend to be larger and slightly less competitive schools.

  • How does it help your chances? Getting things done sooner means you get admission info sooner and that can help you make other choices regarding financial aid and subsequent applications.

  • What's the downside? Getting your materials submitted sooner.

  • Key takeaway? If a school you’re interested in has this option, you might as well go for it.

For an even more comprehensive look at the differences between the four, check this out.

Finding a great college that fits a student’s various interests and criteria can be challenging. Finding one that is willing to accept that student is even tougher. But if you (parents and applicants) do your research and start the process well in advance, early applications represent a tremendous opportunity. Applying early clarifies for colleges just how interested students are, which often leads colleges to reciprocate with increased admission rates. And that can lead to happier, healthier teens with more (and better) school options to choose from.

*To state the obvious, last year’s admission stats do not perfectly predict this coming year’s. Likewise, some schools either fudged their numbers or withheld them altogether. All told, I worked with what I could find to draw conclusions noted herein. There is much more research to be done and many more years’ worth of data to explore to get a more precise look at trends and odds. As I unearth new info, I’ll do my best to synthesize the findings in subsequent posts. In other words, stay tuned.