Early Decision Applications Improve Chances, Thick Strings Attached

Students who apply to a college through its formal “early decision” process increase their odds of acceptance. At Miami University, for example, the average ACT score of students admitted early decision last year was 26, compared to an average score of 28 for those who applied regular decision. Similarly, 70 percent of students who applied early decision to the Oxford, Ohio, school were accepted, while only 64 percent who applied later were accepted.

At St. Olaf College in Northfield, about 300 students apply early decision each year, and “historically we have admitted about 75 percent of them,” said Michael Kyle, vice president for Enrollment and College Relations. This compares to an acceptance rate of around 50 percent for students who apply regular decision.

Applying via the early decision route also appeals to many students because doing so can enable them to end their college search early — along with the anxiety that often comes with it. Typical early decision application deadlines are Nov. 1 or Nov. 15, with notifications going out in December.

Miami’s Susan Schaurer, assistant vice president for Enrollment Management and Director of Admissions, said that her college’s early decision option is for students who “want to ease the stress of their senior year and know that our school is their first choice.”

Of course, applying early decision to any institution that offers the option comes with strings attached. Students who are accepted agree to apply to no other schools and to withdraw applications to all other schools. In addition, a non-refundable deposit, usually several hundred dollars, is required. An early decision application is a binding contract between the student and the school.

Students who receive notice of acceptance at one school and nevertheless apply and get accepted elsewhere may find that their subsequent acceptance is revoked. Colleges take the early decision contract very seriously. Many admissions departments that have accepted a student early decision will contact their counterparts at the college where the student later attempts to enroll and ask that the student not be admitted.

At the very least, the deposit is forfeited, and the student will no longer be welcome to apply to the first college, even to graduate programs. Demonstrating financial hardship — if the accepting school offers an insufficient aid package — is the only legitimate way for a student to get out of the early decision contract.

Colleges benefit from the early decision process by knowing early on that a significant number of their freshman class is committed. This helps colleges with revenue projections, and provides a snapshot of what the new class will look like. Most colleges admit about a quarter to a third of the incoming class early decision, although some for some colleges the rate is higher.

Unlike early decision, applying “early action” is a non-binding option that many colleges offer. At Butler University in Indianapolis, Associate Director of Admissions Andy White said that students who apply early action “get full scholarship consideration,” adding that “the longer you wait to apply, the less money may be available to you.” Students who apply to Butler by the Nov. 1 deadline will receive notice by mid-December, but do not have to put down their deposit until May 1.