College Early Admission Is Tougher Than Ever

This year’s early admission applicants had it tougher than ever, reports Steve Cohen.

The first results from this year’s college admissions race are in. Schools sent out their early-admission decisions last week, and the acceptance picture was depressingly similar to what it was last year—only tougher. Admission to “top” schools is insanely difficult, and the early-decision “edge” is eroding.

Early-decision applications were up at most colleges, but the number of slots in each freshman class reserved for early-decision kids held steady—which means that acceptance rates were, for the most part, slightly lower than a year ago.

Overall, about one-third of the nearly 100,000 high school seniors who participated in this early frenzy heard good news. Yet results varied widely, from a low of 20 percent at Brown to a high of 66 percent at Bucknell. And at early-action schools—Harvard, Yale and Stanford—the acceptance rates were all less than 20 percent.

“This is one of the toughest years we’ve seen in a long time,” said Mike Muska, the dean of college relations at Brooklyn’s Poly Prep, and a former senior admissions officer at several top colleges including Brown and Oberlin. “I’ve heard from colleagues all across New York about kids with 750 SAT scores across the board who were getting deferred or denied if they were unhooked.” (“Unhooked” is admission-speak for kids without a special skill or niche.)

Early-decision and early-action programs are used by many of the most popular and toughest-to-get-into colleges in the country. In exchange for an early application—and a professed expression of singular interest—colleges let kids know early in their senior year of high school whether they’ve been accepted. This spares the lucky ones a months-long ordeal of waiting.

The catch with early decision is that it’s a binding process: kids get to apply to one, and only one, college early. If accepted, they must attend. The early action option at Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale also limits kids to apply to just one school, but those programs are nonbinding. Meanwhile, early action programs at schools such as Boston College, University of Chicago, Georgetown, MIT, and Notre Dame allow students to apply to multiple early-action schools. Programs vary from school to school.

Kids, their parents, and guidance counselors know that chances of admission are significantly better—often three or four times better—if a kid applies early decision. At Williams College, for example, 41 percent of the students who applied early-decision were accepted this year, while the regular admission rate is expected to be about 17 percent. At Vanderbilt, the early-decision acceptance rate last week was 33 percent, while the regular admission rate will likely be about 16 percent.

Admissions officers from across the country all expressed the same reaction to this year’s class of applicants: they had superb credentials. Great grades, tough courses, high SAT/ACT scores and fascinating extracurricular achievement. In addition, two important trends seem to be emerging:

First, a far more diverse group of kids—minorities, first-generation college applicants and international students—are beginning to utilize the early-decision option. Some schools, like Amherst College, are aggressively encouraging kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to take advantage of the early-decision program that used to be the “secret” of prep schools and private college counselors. At many top private schools, more than 80 percent of the senior class applies to college under an early-decision or early-action program.

“Amherst hosted two Diversity Open Houses in the fall,” said Tom Parker, dean of admissions and financial aid. “We paid for over 200 kids to fly in, spend an overnight on campus, attend classes. Many of these kids are rated athletes, and we hope they will recognize that they can get a great education here and play competitive, Division III athletics.”

Johns Hopkins’s senior associate director of admission John Birney saw a similar trend: “Applicants were even better this year. Quality was up and there were more of them. Plus, we saw a larger percentage of under-represented minorities and students of color. It was terrific.”

The second trend is a move away from “deferring” kids who don’t get accepted in the early round, and instead, giving them a clear, final rejection. In the past, most kids who weren’t accepted early were considered a second time during the regular application process. And some schools still follow this pattern; Brown for example, deferred 2,000 of its 2,900 early applicants. Yale also sent out plenty of deferrals.

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But some colleges deferred none, or almost none, of the kids who didn’t make it in via the early route. Vanderbilt didn’t defer anyone, for example, and Northwestern deferred just over 1 percent.

“We don’t want to give them false hope,” said one admissions dean. And more than a few echoed that sentiment: “We are trying to provide closure; help them move on and find a college they will really be happy at.”

Poly Prep’s Muska adds: “For college counselors a denial from these schools can help us counsel our students about how to look at other schools where they will have a competitive chance. Kids should not waste time on applications to places which will view them in the same light that the college that just denied them did. The rejection is a very useful piece of feedback; certainly not pleasant but useful. And the reality is that most schools take less than 10 percent of those they defer.”

Kids—or, more precisely, the parents of kids—who don’t apply early-decision typically cite two reasons for not applying early. The first is that students haven’t made up their minds by October. They aren’t willing to commit to a single choice.

“How much more will a student know on Jan. 1 that he didn’t know—or should have known—on Nov. 1 ?” asks Scott Farber, president of A-List Education Services, a top tutoring company that provides free college counseling to low-income schools. “We encourage kids to do their college research early and do it intelligently. There are so many sources of information about colleges—their personalities as well as their offerings—that with a bit of effort, kids really can make pretty-well-informed choices. We don’t want them to lose the competitive advantage that early-decision programs provide, so we really encourage them to do their homework and make a choice. Little is to be gained by second-guessing yourself.”

The second reason parents hesitate about early-decision programs is financial aid. They believe that if their kids apply to numerous colleges, they will have more financial aid offers from which to compare. And yet, while more offers are indeed more offers, several admission and financial aid deans were adamant in pointing out that financial aid offers were not affected by the decision to apply early.

“The first student admitted early decision and the last student accepted during the regular process receive identical financial aid packages,” said Chris Guttentag, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Duke.

At some less wealthy schools, there’s actually more money available for early-decision kids than for kids who get admitted later in the year, after the financial aid coffers have run dry.

Not surprisingly, several deans said they’ve heard consistent concern over paying for college throughout this admission season. “People wonder how they are going to manage to pay for four years,” said Jim Miller, admissions dean at Brown. “Just a few years ago they could be confident about home equity loans or an intergenerational transfer; in short, help from grandparents. That is no longer the case.”

Money, or the lack of it in some state university systems, has triggered an increase in early-decision applications from students on the west coast, particularly from California. Several private colleges noted an increase in applicants from California high-school students. “These are kids who would otherwise attend the first-rate colleges in the University of California system,” noted one dean. “But with higher tuitions and reductions in services, private colleges are looking much more attractive.”

A handful of good colleges offer a second round of early decision: apply by Dec. 1 and you’ll hear by Jan. 1. Then the regular decision applications are due. The process seems nonstop and nerve-racking. But there is good news: “There are plenty of offers to go around at regular decision,” said Monica Inzer, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Hamilton College.

Stay calm and carry on.