Did Early Decision Fill Most of the Seats for the Class of 2017? Do the math...

This time of year brings a slew of headlines trumpeting the arrival of decisions for those who applied under early action or early decision plans. But if you're a student who opted to take advantage of the additional time afforded by applying regular decision instead of applying under an early plan, you may feel you have cause to worry.

Among the stories about the record numbers of early applicants, here's one of the media's favorite memes every year: “The college you’re applying to has filled half its freshman class with early decision applicants!”

If you've read headlines like this and worried there won’t be enough room left if you are applying under regular decision, throw that thought in the circular file underneath your desk along with other forms of media madness.

This is a case where the numbers can be deceiving.

The question is not how many seats are being taken up in the class by applicants who applied under early decision. The question is, what percentage of the school’s total admission offers is already gone? It sounds incredible, but it’s true that even when half the seats are filled with ED applicants, fewer than half the acceptances have been given out.

As Nancy Hargrave Meislahn, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid at Wesleyan University, notes in our book, "Even when you’re looking at a place that has a pretty heavy investment in early decision, there are still lots of places open in the regular decision cycle. So the notion that if you don’t apply early there are no seats left is a false assumption. At Wesleyan, even when we’ve taken 38–40 percent of our class early, given our yield in the spring, that’s only about 15–16 percent of our total number of offers of admission."

That's because this is how it actually works. Here's the math. Say a highly selective college can only enroll ten students in its freshman class, and five are accepted early decision. Because the ED process required their prior commitment to attend if accepted, the college knows for sure they are coming. Yes, that leaves five spots to be filled in next year’s class under regular decision. But remember that the dean of admission knows that students accepted through the regular decision process haven’t precommitted to actually attend. In fact, on average for this hypothetical but not untypical college, only about half will end up attending. The college can admit ten students under its RD process to fill the remaining five seats.

So the college will actually admit fifteen students total. When five acceptances were given early decision, that wasn’t half the fat envelopes— it was only one- third.  Two- thirds are still left for the regular decision process.

No reason to panic.

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