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Good timing is needed for the perfect photograph, sports play or musical performance. Timing also matters in college admissions, with some schools more likely to accept students who apply before the regular decision deadline.
The National Association for College Admission Counseling identifies three ways that students can apply before the traditional regular decision deadline, which is Jan. 1 at many schools. Those options are early action, restrictive early action and early decision.
According to the NACAC website, early action is defined as a process whereby students “apply early and receive a decision well in advance of the institution’s regular response date.” Restrictive early action is similar, though a student may be asked not to apply early at other colleges and must confirm his or her plans to enroll by May 1 if offered admission.
Neither of these two processes are binding, meaning a student is not expected to commit to that college if offered admission.
But then there’s early decision. This process requires students who apply early to “make a commitment to a first-choice institution where, if admitted they definitely will enroll and withdraw all other applications,” according to the NACAC website.
Unlike other admissions processes, early decision is binding and may come with consequences for students who back out.
According to the College Board, about 450 colleges offer some form of early admissions plans. And while eager students may have an admissions edge by applying early, the College Board website encourages students to think twice about the process if they wish to compare financial aid packages from multiple colleges or need to sharpen their admissions profile.
But for students who are ready to apply early, doing so can make a big difference at certain schools, according to a U.S. News analysis of fall 2019 admissions data submitted by 156 ranked colleges in an annual survey. At the 10 colleges where early admissions acceptance rates were much higher than regular decision, the average difference was nearly 50 percentage points.
At some colleges, early applicants had an even greater edge. Georgia State University, for example, reported that it accepted 100% of students in fall 2019 who applied early, compared with 39% of those who applied regular decision — a difference of 61 percentage points.
Among all ranked schools that submitted this data, the early admissions acceptance rate was 17 percentage points higher, on average, than the regular decision acceptance rate.
Of course, this difference varies by college, and at a few schools the reverse is true, meaning regular decision applicants have a greater advantage. Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, for example, admitted 44% of students who applied early, compared with 79% of students who applied regular decision, a difference of 35 percentage points. Only 19 colleges reported they admitted more students via regular decision than early admissions.
Below is a list of the 10 ranked colleges where early applicants had the greatest admissions advantage compared with regular applicants in fall 2019. Unranked schools, which did not meet certain criteria required by U.S. News to be numerically ranked, were not considered for this report.
|School name (state)||Type of early admissions program||Percent of early applicants admitted early*||Percent of regular applicants admitted||Difference in acceptance rates (percentage points)||U.S. News rank and category|
|Georgia State University||Early action only||100%||39%||61||206 (tie), National Universities|
|University of Dallas||Early action only||86%||26%||60||6 (tie), Regional Universities (West)|
|University of Maryland–College Park||Early action only||59%||4%||55||58 (tie), National Universities|
|Trinity University (TX)||Both early decision and early action||58%||4%||54||1, Regional Universities (West)|
|Elmhurst University (IL)||Early action only||100%||49%||51||15 (tie), Regional Universities (Midwest)|
|Butler University (IN)||Early action only||86%||41%||45||1, Regional Universities (Midwest)|
|Augustana College (IL)||Early action only||82%||37%||45||96 (tie), National Liberal Arts Colleges|
|Bryant University (RI)||Both early decision and early action||94%||51%||43||7, Regional Universities (North)|
|Worcester Polytechnic Institute (MA)||Both early decision and early action||64%||22%||42||66 (tie), National Universities|
|The University of the South (TN)||Both early decision and early action||82%||43%||39||47 (tie), National Liberal Arts Colleges|
*Some colleges defer some applicants to the regular admissions pool, where they have an additional chance of admittance, so the percentage of early applicants who are eventually accepted may be higher.
Don’t see your school in the top 10? Access the U.S. News College Compass to find early admissions statistics, complete rankings and much more. Sign up for the U.S. News Extra Help: College Admissions free email newsletter to receive expert advice twice a month.
U.S. News surveyed more than 1,800 colleges and universities for our 2020 survey of undergraduate programs. Schools self-reported myriad data regarding their academic programs and the makeup of their student body, among other areas, making U.S. News’ data the most accurate and detailed collection of college facts and figures of its kind. While U.S. News uses much of this survey data to rank schools for our annual Best Colleges rankings, the data can also be useful when examined on a smaller scale. U.S. News will now produce lists of data, separate from the overall rankings, meant to provide students and parents a means to find which schools excel, or have room to grow, in specific areas that are important to them. While the data comes from the schools themselves, these lists are not related to, and have no influence over, U.S. News’ rankings of Best Colleges, Best Graduate Schools or Best Online Programs. The acceptance rate data above is correct as of Oct. 13, 2020.
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