Does Applying to College Early Decision Improve Your Odds of Acceptance?

When it comes to applying to college, there are many factors that go into your decision. From majors and programs to costs and location, finding the “right” school can be complicated. But, once you’ve narrowed down your list, the act of applying still looms. And it’s a game of strategy.

There are many ways you can approach the process. There are tips and tricks galore. How to improve your odds, how to make your essay memorable, or how to wow with your extracurricular involvement. But beyond what goes into your application, there is the question of when to actually apply. Some students will wait until the last minute–applying right before the final deadline–but others want to get in early at their dream school, applying either early action or early decision.

And that may well be a smart decision.

You’ve likely heard rumors that more students are accepted via early decision (ED), but does applying to college early actually help?

Just a few examples from this year’s early round will definitively answer this question.

Close up shot of a calendar.

Duke University’s Early Decision Acceptance Rate

Here are some facts and figures to consider about Duke’s ED program:

  • Duke University’s overall acceptance rate for everyone who applied in 2015-16 (the college graduating class of 2019) was 11% (this includes both ED and regular decision).
  • The ED acceptance rate for the Class of 2019 was 26%.
  • So, the percent of students accepted in the regular decision round must be significantly less than the 11% overall rate.
  • Early decision acceptances for the class of 2020 dropped to 23.5% and the number of ED acceptances make up 48% of Duke’s incoming class.
  • Nearly one-half of the incoming class has been determined before the regular decision deadline even arrives!

University of Pennsylvania’s Early Decision Program

Much like at Duke, Penn’s ED program makes it obvious why applying early can be hugely beneficial to students really wanting to attend:

  • University of Pennsylvania’s admitted 23.2% of its early decision applicants to the class of 2020.
  • The students accepted ED will make up over half (54.6%) of the incoming first year.

Early Action at Harvard

  • Harvard’s early action acceptance rate for the class of 2020 is a more modest 14.8%.
  • This is still significantly higher than the overall acceptance rate of 5%.
  • Last year, the Class of 2019 saw a 2.8% regular decision acceptance rate after an early action cycle that accepted 16.5% of applicants.
  • So, you can see that if you were one of the 4,673 students who applied early but were deferred to the regular cycle, your odds of getting in drop to under 3%.

Should you apply Early Action or Early Decision to Improve Your Odds?

Critics of early decision point out that because the process is binding, applicants are not able to compare financial aid packages from different schools and may be deterred from applying. This is, of course, true. And if money is an issue, you may certainly want to think very carefully before submitting a binding early application.

But, if your question is, does applying early to college actually help, the answer is clearly a resounding YES!