An Independent School • Grades 5-12
The early bird gets the worm ... if they choose their worm wisely!
The early bird gets the worm ... if they choose their worm wisely!

by Ari Worthman, director of college counseling

Every year, college admissions becomes tougher. As colleges expand their reach through aggressive marketing and technology, the quality and size of their applicant pools grow. But the available spaces remain the same. 

This year, the competition for admission crossed a new threshold. A major reason: colleges' increased favoring of applicants who apply early. Schools for some time have been gradually shrinking the number of spots available to applicants in the general round, known as Regular Decision, or RD, while allotting more spaces to those who apply Early Decision, or ED. This year, the ratio shifted noticeably — leading to an even starker difference in acceptance rates for ED versus RD applicants. The ratio of RD applicants to spaces available was smaller than 10 to 1 at many colleges — a ratio that used to exist at only the four or five most selective institutions. My advice for future classes: seriously consider applying ED.

By applying ED in early November, the applicant, college counselor, and parent or guardian sign an agreement that the student will enroll if admitted. Therefore, students apply ED to only one school. Because of this restriction, ED pools are smaller than RD pools and somewhat less selective. (Note that there are other early application programs, such as the nonbinding Early Action, where students receive an early response but do not have to commit to the college early, to which this new trend does not apply.)

Once a program only for the wealthy, ED has become more accessible to all students, regardless of financial circumstances. Traditionally a major drawback of ED for students who need financial aid has been that it does not allow families to compare financial aid packages from multiple schools. But that has now become less of a factor. First, through resources such as Smart Track, families can predict which schools are likely to offer strong packages and use this information to inform their ED choice. Second, at many colleges that are unable to meet all applicants' full-financial need, students are now more likely to get a stronger package in the ED round, a change from only a few years ago. Families receive an award when their student is admitted. An insufficient financial aid package is the only reason a college will release a student from the ED agreement.  

While not all colleges offer ED plans, those that do — most private institutions — prioritize ED applicants. Consider the University of Pennsylvania. After the ED round, Penn had filled 54 percent of its entering class. More than half the spaces were gone before RD applicants were even considered. Yet, the ED pool accounted for only 16 percent of total applicants. 

In other words, Penn filled 54 percent of its class from 16 percent of its applicants

Similarly, Northwestern filled 52 percent of its class from 10 percent of its applicants. Brown filled 45 percent from 10 percent. Liberal arts colleges tout similar figures. Wesleyan filled 37 percent from a mere 6 percent. Middlebury filled more than 50 percent from 7 percent. This is the new normal.

Don't be mislead by the words "early" and "regular." Regardless of name, ED is the priority deadline. RD is the late application deadline — the pool from which the remaining spaces are filled after the priority round.

ED provides many benefits for colleges. The program locks in many students eager to attend, which increases school spirit and builds community. It also lowers overall acceptance rates, bolstering colleges' prestige and rankings in publications such as U.S. News & World Report. Because students are not bound to attend if admitted in RD, colleges must admit many more RD applicants than there are spaces. By admitting large numbers in ED, colleges can significantly shrink the number of offers in RD, thereby lowering their acceptance rate significantly. This makes the RD pool hyper competitive.

Of course, Lakeside college counselors work with students to build robust RD college lists where they'll be admissible. But in RD, students' chances shrink significantly at very selective schools.

As the trend favoring ED began developing in recent years, increasing numbers of Lakeside seniors have applied early; this year, almost two-thirds of the class did. When Lakeside college counselors contacted universities for insights on this year's cycle, we found an all-time high in the number of schools reporting single-digit RD admission rates. This provides context for why Lakeside seniors with 4.0 GPAs and near-perfect test scores, as well as strong extracurricular records and personal qualities, were rejected at schools such as Carnegie Mellon, Tufts, University of Chicago, Bowdoin, Middlebury, Pomona, and Swarthmore.

As the benefit of applying ED continues to grow — and as the disadvantage of applying RD increases — it's extremely important that Lakeside applicants choose their ED school wisely and not overshoot (apply to a college where their grades, curriculum, and test scores are out-of-range). By forgoing an application to a wisely chosen ED school where they'd maximize their chances of admission, they risk getting rejected from most, if not all, of the highly selective colleges on their list. 

When the college counselors begin working with students one-on-one in January of junior year, we guide our students through a timeline and process that ensures they're poised to apply for an ED choice. Students do not need to begin the process sooner — in fact, that is ill-advised, as younger students' opinions on colleges usually change during junior and senior years — but it does mean that students must fully engage the process from the start of second semester of 11th grade.

Sometimes parents ask why we don't encourage students to "shoot higher" or "aim for the stars," especially in ED. Shooting for the stars — applying to the nation's most selective schools in the early round — could mean the student loses all their top choices. If they're willing to apply ED to a slightly less selective college that they also love, they are more likely to be admitted to a top choice, even if it's not the top choice. 

We will support any student who wants to shoot for the stars, but the cost can be extremely high. It's important that students and families understand the risks so they can make an informed choice. 

Early Decision is a complicated topic, and one we've been discussing with parents and guardians of juniors in meetings over the past few weeks. If you are a parent/guardian of a freshman or sophomore, we invite you to come to the college coffee talk on Thursday, May 3 at 8:30 a.m. in the Fireplace Room. We'll discuss ED and other trends in the college admission landscape. 

Ari Worthman is Lakeside's director of college counseling. You can reach him at 206-440-2958 and at CollegeCounseling@lakesideschool.org.