Early acceptance rates to Ivy League schools are drastically higher than regular — but the reason why isn’t as obvious as it seems

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The figures may look a little out of sync with regular decision acceptance rates to those who follow admissions trends.
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Courtesy of Stefan Stoykov

The Ivy League classes of 2021 are one step closer to attending the school of their dreams.

Last week, every Ivy League school, with the exception of Columbia University, reported the number of students who applied and were accepted early this year, giving a glimpse into the college choices of tens of thousands of students.

The figures may look a little out of sync with acceptance rates released during the spring.

Harvard reported the lowest acceptance rate of the bunch, with 14.5% of applicants gaining acceptance. That’s nearly three times higher (meaning more students were able to gain acceptance) than last spring’s acceptance rate of 5.2%, which includes both the early and regular decision applicants.

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Business Insider

Harvard isn’t the only school where early application percentage rates are drastically higher than rates released in spring.

To give you an idea of where the University stands in comparison to its peers, below are the decision acceptance rates for the class of 2020, released last spring:

8. Cornell University – 13.96%

7. Dartmouth College – 10.52%

6. University of Pennsylvania – 9.41%

5. Brown University – 9.01%

4. Princeton University – 6.46%

3. Yale University – 6.27%

2. Columbia University – 6.04%

1. Harvard University – 5.2%

Every single Ivy League school, by a factor of two or three, appears easier to access when applying early. The contrast appears even starker if you were to isolate just the regular decision rate from the early decision rate, though all of the Ivies announce their spring numbers as a combination of the two.

So what gives?

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Harvard University
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Marcio Jose Bastos Silva / Shutterstock

Ivy admissions offices emphasize that the reason it appears easier to get into schools during early admissions is more a factor of the strength of the applicant pool rather than an ease of acceptance.

In other words, students who apply early to Harvard are probably better qualified compared the larger applicant pool, and more confident in their chances of being admitted.

“We have continued to stress to applicants, their families, and their guidance counselors that there is no advantage in applying early to Harvard,” William R. Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, said, in a release from Harvard. “The reason students are admitted – early or during the Regular Action process – is that their academic, extracurricular, and personal strengths are extraordinary.”

Harvard releases a survey on incoming freshman every year that provides details on the makeup of the class. For the Class 2019 – the most recent survey conducted– the survey indicated that students admitted early had higher SAT scores than regular admissions students, on average. Early admissions students scored an average 2239, compared to 2217 for regular admissions.

Still, schools certainly find early applicants attractive as they can lock in a higher “yield” – the number of admitted students who decide to go to the college. Early decision is binding, and early action means that students are only allowed to apply to one school early (though they can apply regular decision to other schools) and then make their final choice in the spring.

Some higher education experts feel that there is certainly an advantage to applying early, and that its practice is troubling, as it disproportionately helps wealthier students. The early admissions process is not possible for students who need to weigh the different financial aid packages they are offered before making a decision.

Early admissions “significantly disadvantages students from low-income and middle-income families, who are already underrepresented at such schools,” columnist Frank Bruni wrote in The New York Times.

Still, it doesn’t seem that the early admissions process is going anywhere soon. The Ivy League had a record number of early applications this year, and, more broadly, about 450 American colleges accept early applicants.