top of page

Should I Apply Early Decision? (A Business Perspective)

Early bird gets the worm. Does that apply to applying early decision to college?

Early decision application deadlines are coming up (usually November 1 or November 15).

Because of that, there is a lot of chatter out there about whether or not you should apply early, whether or not that helps your admissions chances, and which colleges where applying early decision helps.

We’re talking exclusively about early decision here, because applying early action doesn’t have any significant effect on your chances of college admission (though you do get to find out whether or not you were accepted sooner) – the reason will become clear as you keep reading.

Mainstream advice

Most college admission coaching services just give you a recommendation (usually something on the lines of, “If you have a very strong profile and resume for college application, then yes. If not, then no.”). While also telling you that early decision is binding, that you better be sure you want to attend that university, that you have to rescind all other applications if accepted, etc.

All are fair and valid points. Except we are not most people, nor are our readers (who want to know beyond just how to get into college).

To be quite frank, none of that matters if you don’t understand the “why?”

Focusing on “why?” instead of just “what?” or “how?”

In this post, we will explain the REASONING it might or might not make sense for you to apply early decision. Because who cares about the recommendation if you don’t know what outcome it is geared towards?

And what good is it if you don’t develop the ability to make your own decisions and are instead forever reliant on others to tell you what to do?

(Hint: With all the doomsday predictions of A.I. destroying jobs in the future, who do you think will get rendered irrelevant first?)

Then, as we usually do, we will help you think of ways to use that gleaned insight to apply it in other parts of your life beyond just answering “Should I apply early decision?”

Importance of thinking about what the other side wants

Remember, we’re trying to influence the behavior of others (i.e. how to get colleges to notice you and how to get into college).

So we must think of what THEY want and how THEY win. If we align what you bring to the table with what they are looking for, you’re going to have a strong chance of getting admitted to the college of your choice.

Intro to enrollment management & how incoming freshman classes are constructed

Given that we want to be selfishly unselfish and act with the interests of the universities in mind, we need to understand what drives their behavior when it comes to college admissions.

Generally speaking, colleges all want the most talented, influential, and/or prominent students. Those students go on to become rich and/or famous, which brings money and fame to the school (in the form of alumni donations, increased applicants competing for a limited supply of enrollment offers, and prestige via association).

That means colleges have their wish list of “most desirables” to assemble their ideal, well-rounded student body (note: this is not to be confused with wanting well-rounded STUDENTS).

But don’t forget the business side – university financial aid departments have to make the numbers work (through tuition, the endowment, and state funding if it’s a public university).

The most desirable students are not always those that have the most ability to pay. The most desirable also have other suitors. For this upper echelon of talented students, the roles have reversed: the universities are wooing the students.

Should I apply early decision? It depends on how much the college wants you.

How do colleges do that? They entice the most hard-to-get students to enroll by offering them generous financial aid offers (including “free” money like scholarships and grants), subsidized by the full-price tuitions paid by students who fall lower on the colleges’ Desirability Totem Pole.

Note: Ivy League universities only offer need-based aid, not the aforementioned merit-based aid. Why? Because they don’t need to since they have a lot of leverage from being so sought-after by students.

Why spend extra money to construct the same student body if you don’t have to? Just like you wouldn’t pay more for the exact same good or service (assuming factors like convenience and scarcity are held equal), universities wouldn’t either.

Total applications, acceptance rate, and yield rate

Having said all that, and given that universities want money and fame, they obsess over their annual rankings (which help attract both). Three metrics college admissions committees try to influence as a result are total number of applications, acceptance rate, and yield rate (the percentage of accepted students who end up enrolling).

This is because to construct the best incoming class possible and maximize future money and fame, colleges need more (Harvard makes $3 million gross in rejected applications annually) and better applications to choose from, and they need to ensure a higher percentage of students accept their admissions offers.

More choices = more leverage = colleges need to offer less financial aid to round out their freshman class…i.e. lower cost to maintain their yield rate.

In other words, if you think of students as the customers, colleges are trying to lower their Customer Acquisition Cost (i.e. amount of resources needed to assemble a freshman class) and increase their Customer Lifetime Value (i.e. tuition paid and future alumni donations) in order to make more money and increase the university’s prestige.

What that means for you & should you apply early decision?

Now for the big question: should you apply early decision? To answer that, we need to ask you difficult questions that require the cold, hard, honest truth.

(1) Relative to the typical profile of accepted students of the college you want to attend, how “desirable” are you to their college admissions team?

(2) If the answer is “very” (if you are a legacy applicant, a recruited athlete, or related to a prominent individual in society, then consider yourself part of this category), then college admissions departments will jump through hoops to convince you to enroll at their university and protect their yield rate (which is always at risk of taking a hit when it comes to recruiting the most desirable students). Applying early decision very well may be a beneficial option for you.

(3) If the answer is “not very,” then the one value proposition you are bringing to the table by applying early decision – i.e. committing to enroll if offered admission – is not going to be as enticing for colleges. You’d also be competing against a much stronger overall candidate pool (i.e. higher percentage of “desirables”).

(4) If you fall into the “not very” category, the next question to ask is, “How can I develop into someone who is highly-desired by colleges?”

Lessons learned & applied to other parts of your life

(1) To be in high demand, always be of high value: If you are highly-desired, you will have more leverage to get what you want on better terms.

(2) Pay attention to actions, not words: Understand where the money is being spent, taking into account the varying motivations of each set of buyers.


Colleges want money and fame. Rankings are a big driver of both. Total applications, acceptance rate, and yield rate drive rankings. That means more applications, better students applying, and more students more likely to enroll.

Your value and desirability dictate whether or not applying early decision is right for you.

The one part in this equation you control is your value and desirability. Focus on that.

To get what you want, know how others operate and help them get what they want.

Featured Posts
bottom of page