This April, as millions of American high school students learned which colleges had admitted them to the Class of 2018, those settling for a second, third, or fourth choice school could take solace in the fact that they were not alone. “Best, Brightest and Rejected,” read the title of a New York Times cover story in April. “Elite Colleges Turn Away Up to 95%”. 

Stanford University’s 5% acceptance rate set a record for the lowest ever at any college. Admissions officers were similarly selective at other elite institutions. Harvard admitted roughly 6% of applicants; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about 8%. Many large public institutions, including the University of California Berkeley and UCLA, admitted only 1 in 5 students.

Imagine what those disappointed students would give to apply to an Ivy League college with a more forgiving acceptance rate of 1 in 3 students or even just 1 in 5. 

With less fanfare, that is exactly what took place a few months earlier. In December, a small subset of high school seniors took advantage of colleges’ early admissions programs and received an admissions decision. Those applying early to Stanford were admitted at the friendlier rate of 10.8%. Harvard accepted 21.1% of its early applicants; the University of Pennsylvania accepted 25.2%. By the time colleges sent out regular decision letters in April, these early birds had already claimed over 40% of the spots in Ivy League schools’ new freshman class.

Despite the disparity in acceptance rates, it is not three times as easy to get into Harvard by applying early; the applicant pools are very different for regular and early decision. But it is measurably easier to get in early -- an advantage that mostly benefits the rich and privileged. The single acceptance rate reported each year suggests that every applicant faces the same process; the inflated early admissions rate is a reminder that not every applicant is playing the same game.

A Brief History of Applying Early

“Prior to World War II,” academics Christopher Avery and Jonathan Levin recount in their investigation of early admission, “colleges admitted virtually all qualified applicants.” Colleges introduced early admissions policies after World War II, when applying to college became more competitive. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, a number of colleges used early admissions to fill almost their entire student body, while the Ivy League instead sent students a letter grade from ‘A’ to ‘C’, with an ‘A’ indicating almost assured acceptance. Beginning in the mid 1970s, however, colleges began to limit how many students could be accepted early and the Ivies adopted today’s familiar format. From that point, the programs’ popularity increased, with more and more students applying early. Some 450+ colleges currently run early admissions programs.

In today’s format, high school students applying early send in an application in October or November and receive an answer in December or January -- shortly before the regular application deadline. Most programs are “early decision,” which requires that accepted students attend the university without applying elsewhere. A minority of schools have “early action” programs that still allow accepted students to consider other schools. Although students applying early decision (ED) don’t sign legally binding contracts, colleges enforce the agreements by sharing information, refusing to accept students who applied ED elsewhere, and encouraging high school counselors to police the policy.

At its best, early admissions can allow admitted seniors to skip much of the stress of the application process while colleges gain the certainty of offering admittance only to students who want to (and will) attend next fall.

At its worst, early admissions offer a leg up to privileged students who are savvy enough to take advantage -- and who don’t need to shop around for the best financial aid package. Describing early admissions back in 2001, the president of Cornell told the Times, “Historically, for the most part, it has been an upper-middle-class white students from the Northeast phenomenon.'' 

In 2006, Harvard eliminated its early admissions program. “We think this will produce a fairer process, because the existing process has been shown to advantage those who are already advantaged,’’ interim president Derek Bok stated. Princeton and the University of Virginia followed suit, and Yale expressed interest in doing the same, leading critics of early admissions to cheer. But in early 2011, all 3 schools reinstated their programs. Early admissions are here to stay.

The Admissions Rate Fiction

Every April, when college acceptance letters clog the mail, the media duly reports the acceptance rates at colleges and universities across the country. The acceptance rate, calculated simply by dividing the number of accepted students by the total number of applications, does an imperfect but serviceable job at representing the selectivity of different institutions. But in reality, even if you ignore all the complications -- of legacy students, recruited athletes, diversity, and financial aid -- no student faces that acceptance rate.

Calculations based on data assembled by the author. Interested readers can refer to the New York Times feature on admission rates for the Class of 2017. Rates may not be exact due to students deferred early being accepted regular decision.

An *asterisk indicates the university has a non-binding early action program, as opposed to a binding early decision program.

That is because the early and regular admissions decisions are very different. In the case of Ivy League schools (plus MIT and Stanford), only 2,000 to 6,000 students apply early to each college compared to the 12,000 to 35,000 that apply regular. But colleges accept a much higher percentage of those few, early applicants. We see this in the above graph, which uses data from last year’s (2013) admissions decisions. (We used last year’s data since schools are still taking students off the waitlist. We excluded Columbia as we could not find early admissions numbers.) 

Regular applicants, in fact, face a lower acceptance rate than the officially reported rate, which includes early applicants. So while the media reported an acceptance rate of 5.8% for Harvard, the rate faced by the majority of students applying early in 2013 was a measly 3.8%. 

Although a minority of students apply early, colleges fill a large portion of their student body with early applicants. Only 4,856 of Harvard’s 35,023 applicants sent in an early application, yet they represent over 44% of accepted students. By the time January is over, a few thousand applicants have claimed somewhere between 30 and 60 percent of the spots at each of America’s most prestigious universities, leaving the tens of thousands of regular applicants to fight for the remaining seats.

Applying Strategically

Colleges official position is that applying early offers little to no advantage. Harvard’s admissions page counsels applicants:

Harvard does not offer an advantage to students who apply early. Higher Early Action acceptance rates reflect the remarkable strength of Early Action pools. For any individual student, the final decision will be the same whether the student applies Early Action or Regular Decision.

Dartmouth similarly states that the only “advantage” to applying early is hearing back earlier. Yet the dean of admission at Amherst College has publicly lamented that students’ first question at information sessions is whether applying early makes it easier to get in. The students have reason to be suspicious. Despite denying any advantage to applying early, Dartmouth tells applicants:

With highly recruited Division 1 athletes removed from the Early Decision applicant pool, the rate of admission during Early Decision falls back to a level that is more comparable, although slightly higher, than the overall rate of admission. So, there is a small statistical advantage to applying to Dartmouth under the Early Decision plan, but the advantage is not so great that it should be the "driving force" behind an applicant's decision to apply early.

It’s not exactly heartening for applicants that a chunk of accepted students are star quarterbacks or scions of the university’s biggest fundraiser, but it seems plausible that the pool of early applicants is particularly impressive. Is it true?

Unfortunately, colleges are barely more forthcoming and open with admissions data than Apple is with new product releases. But a few studies do offer a glimpse behind the curtain.

The iconic study on early admissions was published in 2003 by Christopher Avery, Richard Zeckhauser, and Andrew Fairbanks -- professors at Harvard and a former associate dean of admissions, respectively. Fourteen of the 20 most selective colleges supplied them with admissions decisions from 1991-92 to 1996-97, supplemented with survey data to 1999-2000. (An unusual degree of access that has not since been matched, which is why everyone cites this decade old study.) The researchers then removed minorities, alumni children, and recruited athletes -- reasoning that these groups often have a powerful “hook” -- and then compared the early and regular applications.

The authors found that the common explanation that early applicants are a stronger crop of students is “part exaggeration and part myth.” Early applicants at the most selective colleges like Harvard and Stanford, which offer early action, had slightly higher test scores and class ranks. In contrast, early applicants at schools with early decision, which still includes half of the Ivy League, had “slightly weaker qualifications” than the regular applicants. 

As you’d expect, the authors found that applying early is an advantage -- comparable to a 100 point boost in SAT scores (on the old test where 1600 was a perfect score). In another paper by two of the authors, which uses just the more recent survey data, they describe that benefit as a 17-20% increase in the odds of being accepted at an elite early action school like Harvard and a 31-37% increase at an early decision school like Dartmouth or Boston College.

Part of the reason early admissions is so powerful is that selective universities must choose from a pool of qualified applicants that could fill the freshman class many times over. A high school student who already published a paper in Nature will likely get in through regular or early decision; a C student with an uninspiring application will be rejected either way. But for the flood of “bright, well-rounded kids,” a small advantage is a big deal. It doesn’t matter if colleges are truthful when they say, as Brown does, that “We admit Early Decision applicants only when we are confident that we would offer them admission as a Regular Decision applicant.” The entire game is standing out among the thousands and thousands of students who could be admitted.

Disadvantaging the Disadvantaged?

A number of students, parents, and administrators dislike that early admissions pushes the college application process even earlier into high school, pressuring students to make a decision and finish an application early in their senior year. 

But the more pressing critique is that early admissions are an on-ramp to college taken overwhelmingly by the wealthy. As the Times put it in 2012, the “students in prep schools in New York and beyond” have “long dominated” early admissions.

Why is this the case?

One reason is that middle and especially upper class students are more likely to know about early decision well in advance. After all, they are advised by a college counselor or private tutor to prepare an application and decide on a school in time for the early deadline. An entire industry of professionals who are paid to coach students through the college application process point out the early admissions advantage, and wealthier students can afford to preemptively visit colleges to pick a favorite.

The major disadvantage for low income students is that it constrains their financial aid options. Most colleges use early decision, which is binding. (Although not legally enforceable, colleges’ policing efforts result in over 90% of accepted students attending the school they applied early decision to.) As long as colleges offer financial aid reflecting the federally-mandated Expected Family Contribution, acceptance remains binding. As a result, students lose the ability to compare financial aid offers, perhaps choosing a school that offers more generous grants. As Georgetown’s dean of admissions told The Atlantic:

"A cynical view is that early decision is a programmatic way of rationing your financial aid. First, the ED pool is more affluent, so you spend less money enrolling your class. And then there is absolutely no need to compete on financial packages. I am dealing with a very attractive candidate right now, admitted in our nonbinding program, who is comparing our aid package with [that of a prestigious university that offered her a full grant]. If she had applied there early decision, they wouldn't have had to do that."

A study published in 2011 backs up this perspective of the affluence of those who apply early. Investigating a national data set of around 90,000 students, the authors found that white and affluent students apply early at the highest rates. After controlling for where students attend high school and several other variables, they also determined that the best predictor of whether a student would apply early was whether he or she sought advice from a private college counselor. “Our findings,” they write, “indicate that early admissions programs, and in particular, early decision, perpetuate social privilege and stratification.”

Why Colleges Love Early Admissions

Given these findings, and the elitist perception of early admissions, why do universities maintain the program? 

The chief reason is yield management. A typical, selective college receives at least three applications for every spot in its freshman class. Schools have a sense how many students they need to admit to get the right class size -- Harvard admits fewer because so many students say yes; Notre Dame admits more students because some will choose Boston College or an Ivy instead. But it’s still difficult to predict, and twice as difficult to make sure that universities get, say, a student from all 50 states. (Administrators love saying that the freshman class has a student from every state.)

Tom McManus, a former Regional Director of Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, tells one college counselor that early admissions allows colleges to lock in certain desired student populations early. A college can ensure they get their sports recruits, affluent domestic and foreign students (who can pay full tuition), star musicians, and even the one kid from Idaho. According to McManus, “you might sacrifice on test scores in the early rounds as you can make up for it later with high scores.” And as the Georgetown administrator quoted above points out, colleges may be able to do this while rationing their financial aid, since students won’t walk for a better package elsewhere.

Admissions officers also love early admission because it spreads out their work over the year. The employees reading applications have a much easier time if admissions is split into regular and early admissions cycles, rather than just one massive deadline. 

More importantly, early admissions, especially early decision, makes colleges look much better in rankings like the U.S. News Best Colleges list. One metric used in the rankings is how many accepted students choose another college. The fact that so few students choose another university over MIT, for example, demonstrates its prestige. (Or at least that is the logic.) Since early decision doesn’t give admitted students the choice to go elsewhere -- as compared to regular decision admits who may have applied to 7 to 10 schools -- it makes a university look much more prestigious. Early decision also allows a selective but not top-10 school, such as Boston College, to lock down high achieving students that may not realize the power of their application without applying to several “reach” schools.

Less cynically, deans profess that filling a campus with students who made that college their number one pick makes a big difference. Pomona College’s admissions director tells The Atlantic, “It's worth something to the institution to enroll kids who view the college as their first choice. Fewer people are whining about transferring from Day One. They turn out to be a lot of the campus leaders." According to a University of Pennsylvania administrator, "You can't overstate what that does for the mood of the campus."

Here To Stay

“We piloted the elimination of early action... out of particular concern for students at under-resourced high schools who might not be able to access the early admissions process. Over the past several years, however, interest in early admissions has increased, as students and families from across the economic spectrum seek certainty about college choices and financing. Our goal now is to reinstitute an early-action program consistent with our bedrock commitment to access, affordability, and excellence.”

~Harvard President Drew Faust announcing the return of early admissions

In February of 2011, Harvard announced that it would reinstitute its early admissions program. Administrators said that minority and low-income students -- the students administrators claimed were hurt by early admissions just 5 years earlier -- were no longer missing out on early admissions. In the words of one Harvard dean:

“We looked carefully at trends in Harvard admissions these past years and saw that many highly talented students, including some of the best-prepared low-income and underrepresented minority students, were choosing programs with an early-action option, and therefore were missing out on the opportunity to consider Harvard.”

Given the tight fist colleges maintain over admissions data, we won’t know the validity of that claim until blue chip researchers manage to win custody of that information. Until then, the history of early admissions gives plenty of reason for skepticism. 

There is some evidence of the trend Harvard describes. In 2012, the New York Times noted the rise in early admissions applications and called it democratizing: “Early admission to top colleges, once the almost exclusive preserve of the East Coast elite, is now being pursued by a much broader and more diverse group of students, including foreigners and minorities.” That said, the study cited above on the unbearable whiteness of early applicants was published in 2011; it’s hard to believe the demographics switched so abruptly in under 5 years.

For all its faults, however, early admissions does serve an important purpose as the only way students can signal to a university that it is their first choice school.

Currently, admissions rates at selective colleges decrease every year. This is partly because more students from around the world apply, but it is also due to students sending in more applications. (One survey found that only 9% of students applied to 7+ colleges in 1990, whereas 29% did by 2011.) As colleges solicit more and more applications to achieve a prestigiously low admissions rate, more students apply. This leads students -- freaked out by low admission rates -- to apply to more schools, which further reduces the admissions rate and perpetuates the cycle. 

This is very inefficient. With every student hedging their bets by applying to many schools, colleges routinely accept students who really want to go elsewhere and reject equally qualified students who rate those colleges as their first choice. Early admissions is one of the only ways to produce a better match.

Of course, it doesn’t seem worth it if the system routinely disadvantages low income and minority students, making it harder for them to win acceptance to prestigious schools and to negotiate more generous financial aid. If every school had a nonbinding early action program, that could help. But the few universities that currently run nonbinding programs are universities like Stanford and Harvard that can afford not to be binding because so few students choose to go elsewhere. 

Until colleges and universities make some hard choices, early admissions will continue to help rich kids cut the line to America’s most desired campuses.

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google PlusTo get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.

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