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

By Rajkamal Rao   
Updated, 06/25/2020

The results of the Early Decision/Early Action programs at elite schools for the class of 2024 are all in. These are for high school students who will start college in the Fall of 2020.

And the results are not pretty. Here's a list of some students that we know about all of whom didn't get offers of admission. For privacy reasons, I have withheld important identifying information.

  1. Stanford EA. Denied. Someone ranked #11 out of 726 students at LD Bell High School; NMS Semifinalist; 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 in a Katy ISD high school.

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.

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?

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

Consider Yale. To understand the power of the prestigious university's EA program, let's look at the class of 2022 - the latest for which public data is available at the time of writing of this post - when more than 35,000 students applied, all to win admission to the 1,491 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 2022 because top universities viscerally hate the idea of increasing class sizes. This means that 796/1491 = 53% of all spots are already awarded to the EA 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, but that's a rare possibility. Suppose that all 796 students gladly accept their Yale offer.

There are now only 695 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 565 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 2022. The new universe of students for the class of 2024 would be 35,000 x 1.05 x 1.05 = about 38,500 students. Subtracting the 5,777 students who applied ED/EA, we have 32,723 students who apply in the regular pool, all for 565 seats!

This brings Yale's selectivity for the regular decision cycle down to 1.73%, an amazingly low probability.

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 1.73% 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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