Early Admissions Trends for the Class of 2021

The early admissions train was packed this year with more and more students applying early action and early decision to their top college choices. By now, most students have received their early admissions decisions and are either elated by acceptance, disappointed with rejection, or stalled in the waiting room of deferral.

Whatever your early admissions outcomes, it is important to have an open mind and faith in the process of finding your “best-fit” school. In this blog, we have put together an in-depth analysis of this year’s trends and statistics. Take a look to see how you fit into the early admissions landscape.

Overall Early Application Trends

It was another record-breaking year: many schools saw record-high numbers of early applicants pools, which in turn often led lower acceptance rates.

Indeed, according to William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions and financial aid, “Early admission appears to be the ‘new normal’ now, as more students are applying early to Harvard and peer institutions than ever before.” This at least partially due to the fact that colleges too themselves continue to embrace the trend, with many filingl about half of their incoming classes from the early decision pool, including Dartmouth,Williams, Duke, University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern, and Middlebury College. Those who apply early tend to have better chances of admissions, but as a result, there are fewer spots available for Regular Decision applicants (further incentivizing students to apply early the next year).

Due to the advantages of applying early, many colleges have seen a sharp increase in the number of early applications. Over the past four years, Harvard has seen an increase of 38%. Northwestern, Princeton, and Williams have experienced increases of 30% or more.

This year, schools that received record-breaking numbers of early applications include Barnard (up 19% from last year), Columbia (up 16%), Cornell (up 10%), Georgetown (up 11%), Northwestern (up 23%), Wesleyan (up 17%), and Williams (up 25%).

Understandably, rising early applications resulted in historically low acceptance rates for many schools, including Cornell (25.6%), Georgetown (11.9%), Harvard (14.7%), MIT (7.8%), Princeton (15.4%), University of Pennsylvania (22%), and Williams (35%).

Overall Early Application Numbers

The following chart compares early admissions application numbers and acceptance rates for the class of 2021, 2020, 2019, and 2018. As a refresher, early decision (ED) is binding and mandates enrollment, single choice early action (SCEA) is restrictive but allows the student to wait until May 1st to decide, and early action (EA) is unrestrictive and non-binding. Early decision is typically associated with higher acceptance rates because the school is guaranteed enrollment, which increases the yield factor, and brings to campus students who have demonstrated a high degree of interest.

Early Admissions Statistics for a Sampling of Selective Colleges

School  # Apps ‘21 Early Apps ‘20 Early Apps ‘19 Early Apps ‘18 Increase in EA/ED Apps ’18-’21 Acct. Rate ‘21 Acct. Rate ‘20 Acct. Rate ‘19 Acct. Rate ’18
Brown University (ED) 3,170 3,030 3,043 3,088 2.6% 21.9% 22% 20.3% 18.8%
Cornell University (ED) 5,384 4,882 4,560 4,775 12.7% 25.6% 27.4% 26.1% 27.7%
Dartmouth College (ED) 1,999 1,927 1,859 1,678 19.1% 27.8% 26% 26% 27.9%
Duke University (ED) 3,516 3,455 3,180 3,180 10.6% 24.5% 23.5% 26% 25%
Georgetown University (REA) 7,822 7,027 6,840 6,749 15.9% 11.9% 13% 13% 14%
Harvard University (SCEA) 6,473 6,173 5,919 4,692 38% 14.7% 14.8% 16.5% 21.1%
Johns Hopkins University (ED) 1,934 1,929 1,865 1,595 21.2% 30.5% 30.3% 28.9% 33%
Middlebury College (ED) 673 636 667 686 -2% 51% 53.1% 42% 41.8%
MIT (EA) 8,394 7,767 6,519 6,820 23.1% 7.8% 8.4% 9.6% 9%
Northwestern University (ED) 3,736 3,022 2,793 2,863 30.5% n/a 35% 36.2% 32.3%
Princeton University (SCEA) 5,003 4,229 3,850 3,854 29.8% 15.4% 18.5% 19.9% 18.5%
Stanford University (REA) n/a 7,822 7,297 6,948 12.6% n/a 9.5% 10.2% 10.8%
University of Notre Dame (REA) 6,020 5,321 4,700* 6,551 28% since REA began in 2015 24.4% 30.2% 29.8% 29.9%
University of Pennsylvania (ED) 6,147 5,762 5,489 5,149 19.4% 22% 23.2% 24% 25.2%
Williams College (ED) 728 585 593 554 31.4% 35% 42% 41% 42.8%
Yale University (SCEA) 5,086 4,662 4,693 4,750 7.1% 17.1% 17% 16% 15.5%

*Notre Dame changed its early admissions program from Early Action to Restrictive Early Action in 2015.

Deferral Stats

The statistics for deferral are not as widely published as acceptance rates. According to the available information, many schools defer more than half of their early applicant pool to the regular admissions round.

Notable exceptions include Duke, Middlebury, Northwestern, Notre Dame, and Stanford who deny most applicants who are not accepted in the early round. For these schools, deferral is used to indicate that your application is competitive and will be given serious consideration in the regular admissions process.

Some schools, like the University of Michigan, use large numbers of deferrals to control class size as they have continued to receive increasingly large early applicant pools. Some colleges defer especially strong candidates who may view the college as a “safe” school, wait to see if the student withdraws the application based on acceptance by more selective colleges, and then may accept the student late-January through March.

For deferred students, there are several steps you can take to increase your chances of admission in Regular Decision, including re-visiting, arranging for an additional letter of recommendation from a 12th grade teacher, and sending a follow-up letter with updates. Above all, stay positive, and continue to do your best academically. See our blog for more information.

Percent of Early Apps Deferred for Recent Classes

School Class of 2021 Class of 2020 Class of 2019 Class of 2018
Brown University (ED) 60% 63% 65% n/a
Cornell University (ED) 20.9% 23.6% 20% n/a
Duke University (ED) 20% 19% 19% 22%
Georgetown University (REA) 88.1%* 87% 87% 86%
Harvard University (SCEA) n/a 75.7% 72.5% 68%
Middlebury College (ED) 9% 11.6% 12% 14%
MIT (EA) 69.7% 61.5% 68.4% 66.5%
Princeton University (SCEA) n/a n/a n/a 78.9%
Stanford University (REA) n/a 9% 7.7% 8.5%
University of Notre Dame (REA) 14.8% 15.4% 17% 13.7%
Yale University (SCEA) 53% 53% 57% 58%

*Georgetown defers all students who are not accepted early action.

Changes in Early Admissions Plans

As early applications have increased, colleges are trying to get a better grasp on the predictability of their yield (the percentage of accepted students who choose to attend). To this end, many schools have replaced non-binding Early Action plans with binding Early Decision plans. In addition, colleges have added a second round of Early Decision, called ED2.

Early Decision 2 deadlines tend to be January 1st or 15th (but may range from December 15th – February 1st). While Early Decision 2 helps schools to improve yield rates and rankings, there is also the benefit for students who need more time to improve test scores, show strong senior year grades, get a better sense of financial need, or re-visit schools. ED2 also allows students who have not been accepted to their first choice to declare a second school as their clear favorite, thus demonstrating strong interest.

Schools that added Early Decision options include Fairfield University (ED2), Haverford College (ED2), Loyola Marymount University (ED1), Providence College (ED2), University of Chicago (ED1/2), University of Miami (ED2), Wake Forest University (ED2), and Wellesley College (ED2).

Tulane University switched from offering a Single Choice Early Action program to allowing students to apply either Early Action, or Early Decision 1 and 2. Texas A&M added Early Action for engineering.

Increased Diversity Continues to be a Priority

Many of the most selective colleges continue to use early admissions for the big “hooks” – underrepresented minorities, lower socioeconomic, first-generation, and international students, as well as recruited athletes, and legacies.

Colleges have successfully broadened their outreach efforts to attract a more diverse applicant pool. For example, Penn partnered with over 40 community-based organizations that represent underserved students, including the national nonprofit program QuestBridge and Philadelphia’s Steppingstone Scholars program. This year, Dartmouth admitted its largest Early Decision cohort of QuestBridge students.

According to William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, “It does appear, say relative to the time when we gave up early admission, that there is greater ethnic and greater economic diversity in early pools these days, and therefore, in the admitted pool.” At Brown, over a third of early decision admits are students of color, the largest ratio in school history. Similarly, Duke broke a university record in that 41% of admitted early applicants are students of color.

Increases in the diversity of the student population are typically the result of institutional priorities. In 2011, Northwestern’s strategic plan established globalization goals that included more international students, achieved through outreach, more financial aid, and better orientation programs for international freshmen. The efforts were successful, and in 2015, Northwestern’s international population (both undergraduate and graduate) increased from 4,330 to over 6,000 students. For the undergraduate Class of 2021, Northwestern experienced an increase in international student early submissions, up by 39% from last year.

In 2014, Wesleyan actively sought increases in low- and middle-income students through a program of increased affordability, by replacing more loans with grants. As part of its overall goal of greater diversity, Wesleyan received its highest number of early applications from international students, up 75%. The school also saw a 44% increase in early applications from U.S. students of color, including a 56% increase from African American students.

Early Acceptance for Spring Semester

Some schools are offering early admissions acceptance for the spring semester of 2018, rather than the fall of 2017. This trend is driven by a need to fill seats caused by freshman attrition and junior year abroad programs. It is also a tactic that is sometimes part of a plan to shift students, whose GPA and test scores are not as strong, away from the September-starting freshmen cohort. The stats for the US News & World Reports rankings are compiled from freshmen who begin first semester.

Hamilton, Cornell, Elon, University of Miami, University of Maryland, and USC are all schools that have employed this January admission option. In January 2017, Cornell welcomed 60 incoming freshman through their First-Year Spring Admission Program.

While not traditional, this option allows the student to gain acceptance to the school, but also frees them from any Early Decision binding commitment. Students can often participate in service projects, take classes at another institution, work, or go abroad for the fall semester, followed by spring matriculation. A benefit of graduating in February versus May is that the job market is not as flooded with new graduates. But students who begin in spring semester can graduate with their class in June by meeting credit requirements through taking more courses during their 3 ½ years on campus, taking courses in the semester before they start, or applying AP credits.

The Common Application and Other Applications

 With nearly 700 member colleges, the Common Application is still the most popular platform for the college application process. However, there are some other options have tried to compete, including the new Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success (Coalition) with its locker feature and the Universal College Application (UCA). The UCA was launched in 2013 in response to technical failures of the revamped Common Application, but it never gained sufficient critical mass of adoption by high school students. The Coalition was developed in 2015 in order to provide greater access to college applications for under-resourced students; and has steadily grown in members, with over 90 participating colleges at present. In addition, several schools continue to have their own application, including Clemson University, Elon University, Georgetown University, and Loyola University Maryland.

The Common App unveiled a new account rollover feature this year, and institutions of note that joined the organization included Baylor University, George Mason University, Indiana University-Bloomington, and University of Wisconsin-Madison.

For international students, UCAS has traditionally been the UK’s centralized application form for higher education institutions. UCAS limits students to applying to a maximum of five university programs. You are also limited to applying to one school in all of the Oxford and Cambridge’s colleges, known collectively as Oxbridge. More international students are now using the Common Application, which has a much greater limit of 20 total universities. Several international schools have joined the Common App, including St Andrews, King’s College London, and the University of Glasgow. See our blog on UK Universities to learn more!

Notable Moments in Early Admissions for the Class of 2021

  • For the first time in Penn’s history, female applicants made up half of the students admitted to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences through the Early Decision program.
  • Stanford will not release early admissions statistics for the Class of 2021 until the end of the admissions cycle.
  • Tulane University mistakenly sent early acceptance emails to 130 applicants due to a coding glitch in their new software. The Director of Admission, Jeff Schiffman, publicly apologized for any distress this caused the recipients of the erroneous acceptances.
  • Yale is set to open two residential colleges next fall and plans to admit 15% more students to the class of 2021.
  • Michigan’s Ross School of Business plans to admit 80% of its incoming class through the preferred admissions program. Current Michigan students who wish to apply to Ross will do so through internal transfer admissions. This year, BBA applicants were required to submit a Ross-specific portfolio, which included an essay component and an artifact that demonstrates “action-based learning.”
  • ACT scores for the October 16 test date were significantly delayed, which created a delay in applying early for many students and obscured their understanding of their admissions chances before applying. The hard lesson is that students should try to take their testing as early as possible.

Deciding whether and where to apply early can be daunting, but here at Collegiate Gateway we are happy to help you decipher your options and understand the changing landscape of early admissions. Please feel free to contact us!

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