It's getting harder to get into colleges using ED/EA

By Rajkamal Rao   
Updated, 12/30/2020


What is ED/EA?

An ED student commits to attending their first-choice college giving up many rights. If accepted, they voluntarily agree to withdraw applications to other colleges. The student is unable to compare financial aid offers because there are no competing offers, to begin with.

Early Decision - Image Courtesy:

Early Action - Image Courtesy:

In return, the college, grateful that students are willing to commit to it and lock in a seat, slightly lowers the standards of admission. For the student, this means an increased chance of winning admission.

At Tulane University, an elite school with an acceptance rate of less than 10%, 46,000 students applied to its class of 2026. Of the 1,800 freshmen seats available, nearly two-thirds who were admitted had applied ED (Tulane has two ED rounds with most admitted from the first round). Only 106 students gained acceptance from the regular decision pool.

This appeal - of landing a coveted slot early in the admissions process - is drawing more and more students to apply early in a game wrought with strategy, anxiety, high-fives, and unfortunately, disappointment. Which school should I apply ED to? Do I apply ED? Or EA, where my action is not binding? Do I apply restrictive EA (like to Yale and Stanford) where my action is not binding but I am still obligated to apply to no other school on an ED/EA basis?
Class of 2025 Analysis
The results of the Early Decision/Early Action programs at elite schools for the class of 2025 are all in. These numbers are for high school students who will start college in the Fall of 2021.

The table below shows that it is practically impossible to gain admission to the top schools in the regular pool. Top colleges continue to fill more seats during the ED/EA window leaving behind fewer seats for the regular season. This promise has resulted in an explosion in the number of students applying early forcing colleges to become extremely selective even for the early pool. At Harvard, the number of early applicants increased by a whopping 57 percent from last year, while 148 fewer students won admission.

Despite these grim statistics, the only chance of getting in, however slim, is through the ED/EA window. Our analysis proves this for six top schools - Brown, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Rice, and Yale. We don't know the full regular admission numbers yet, so we assumed that the number of overall applicants will remain the same (as for the class of 2023, the latest year for which numbers are available) although many non-elite colleges are reporting lower student interest because of Covid-19.

Rao Advisors analysis based on numbers provided by the institutions

Class of 2024 Analysis (Detailed)
This analysis is for high school students who started college in the Fall of 2020. Here are some anecdotal results from clients we know.

  1. Stanford EA. Denied. Someone ranked #11 out of 726 students at LD Bell High School; NMS Finalist; Perfect score on the ACT in Math and Reading. Varsity athlete.

  2. Yale EA. Deferred. Someone who is a valedictorian in a TX high school near the DFW Airport.

  3. Stanford EA. Denied. Someone who is a valedictorian in a Frisco ISD high school.

  4. Cornell ED. Denied. Someone who is a star debater and won numerous UIL competitions, and was ranked close to 11% in a Houston ISD high school.

  5. Duke ED. Denied. Someone who started a 503(c) non-profit for the empowerment of women and had outstanding extracurricular activities.

The 2024 ED/EA calculus for Yale (using real numbers)

To understand the power of the prestigious university's EA program, let's look at the class of 2023 - the latest for which public data is available at the time of writing of this post - when 36,844 students applied, all to win admission to the 1,526 freshmen spots that were open. Women won selection at a rate of 6%; men, 7%. These numbers were for the entire freshman class - students applying EA and regular decision.

For the class of 2024, Yale News reported that 796 students received offers of admission from the EA pool (out of 5,777 students who applied EA), so the selectivity of the EA pool was 13.78%, more than double the selectivity for women two years ago in the mixed overall pool (remember that it was 6%) and nearly double for men.

It's this distinguishing feature that attracts more and more students to apply for ED/EA: You substantially increase your chances of winning a seat - but with so many students applying, the ED/EA pool is becoming bigger and bigger each year. Just think of it this way. If everyone in the class of 2024 ED/EA pool had been given admission, that would nearly fill the entire Yale undergrad body, all four years of students!

Worse, ED/EA programs dramatically cut opportunities for students applying for regular admission.

Assume that the strength of the 2024 freshman class is the same as that for 2023 because top universities viscerally hate the idea of increasing class sizes. This means that 796/1526 = 52% of all spots are already awarded to the ED pool. Yale is an EA school - students are allowed to turn Yale down and go somewhere else - but truthfully, who would turn a Yale offer away? Some lucky students who will get into Harvard or Princeton during the regular cycle would, but that's a rare possibility. Suppose that all 796 students gladly accept their Yale offer.

There are now only 730 seats left to fill during the regular decision cycle, a pathetically low number. But wait, don't forget deferrals. Yale News said that 3,235 students from the EA pool were deferred admission, which means that these students will be competing with those who applied during the regular decision cycle with a slight edge, the edge of having expressed loyalty and interest to Yale ahead of those in the regular cycle who may have expressed such loyalty to some other school (like Chicago or Columbia) during those colleges' ED cycle.

Suppose that 4% of the deferred pool wins admission during the regular cycle. This equates to 130 seats, leaving 590 seats up for grabs for the regulars.

While we don't yet have numbers for the total applicant universe, assume a 5% increase year over year from the class of 2023. The new universe of students for the class of 2024 would be 36,844 x 1.05  = about 38,686 students. Subtracting the 5,777 students who applied ED/EA, we have 32,909 students who apply in the regular pool, all for 590 seats!

This brings Yale's selectivity for the regular decision cycle down to 1.73% for admitted seats, an amazingly low probability. For offered seats, we should divide this by Yale's yield of 69% resulting in a selectivity of 2.50%. 

So what was seemingly a 6% chance for women and a 7% chance for men -  overall - breaks down this way:
  1. A 13.78% chance if you're lucky to be in the EA pool.
  2. A 2.50% chance if you are in the regular pool.


It is little wonder that more and more students want to apply ED/EA. But this simply makes the situation more lopsided as it becomes increasingly harder to win ED/EA admission. And the regular decision cycle reduces itself to a joke.

In fact, for those who apply regular decision, merit today matters very little. Only luck does.

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