Whether one should apply to a selective college during the “Early” application phase is more complicated than it seems. Colleges urge students to apply Early, but is really advantageous?
Statistics that compare acceptance rates are misleading. While Early applicants are offered admission at higher rates, the Early and Regular applicant pools are different. The majority of Early applicants are serious about the colleges to which they apply, and a high number of them are extremely well-qualified. Although the Regular applicant pool also includes great candidates, it also includes people who apply to a school on a whim, under pressure from peers or parents, or even just to receive a rejection letter from a prestigious institution. Early-applicant pools include “apples,” while Regular pools include “apples and oranges.” The numbers do not give an accurate impression of selectivity.
Colleges use the same grading scales for Early and Regular applicants; the admissions criteria do not change. With both Early and Regular applicants, colleges first identify those candidates who are obviously the cream of the crop. Of course, there are not enough of these “no brainer” candidates to fill a college class, so the challenge is to select among the strong candidates who are not automatic choices.
In the Early phase, colleges would be foolish to make too many admissions offers to candidates who are not clearly superior. To do so would be to risk overfilling a class before seeing what may come during the Regular phase. Some colleges – usually schools offering the binding Early Decision option – do give slight preferential treatment to those who apply Early, but the difference is not as significant as the colleges and numbers suggest.
Selective colleges formulate their diverse classes at the end of the process, in the final decision meetings. It is then that admissions committees select students who are not at the very top of the ratings. In March, colleges take extraordinary efforts to select their classes with desired geographic, ethnic, and socioeconomic distribution, including students who can contribute varied and unique talents. Diversity is considered when selecting Early admits too, but colleges are more conservative in November so that they do not limit their options in March.
Although some excellent candidates are deferred from the Early pool into the Regular pool, the number of truly competitive deferred candidates is much smaller than the entire group of deferrals. The vast majority of candidates who are deferred have no real chance of admission. Rather, they are deferred instead of rejected to avoid a public relations nightmare. It is safer for the colleges to send rejection letters all at once at the end of the process.
For candidates who are strong but not perfect, does applying Early help or hurt their chances? On the one hand, applying Early (and following up with the college after being deferred) indicates real interest in a college. However, Early candidates who are deferred may be at a disadvantage over strong Regular applicants. When the Regular applicants are first graded and sifted in January, few of their interview reports have been received. Because an outstanding interview report can lift one candidate above others, a Regular applicant has an opportunity through the interview to differentiate from the rest of the group. In a sense, the files of Early applicants have started to collect dust by March, so Early applicants who hope for serious consideration must find a way to re-energize their files.
Whether to apply to college Early or Regular should be based upon an applicant’s preparedness, not on what statistics or college representatives may say. If a student has identified a true first-choice school, and if the student is entirely satisfied with all of the test scores and essays, then consider applying Early. If any part of the application package requires improvement, then apply Regular and take the time to perfect the application materials. You only get one bite at the admissions apple.