Demystifying the College Application: Applying Early Decision, Regular or Transfer

Fall greetings from Bill Parker, your friendly neighborhood University of Chicago alumni representative.  As this is written, the current admissions cycle is not only off but running in overdrive.  Almost all Chicago admissions staffers are on the road, attending college fairs and visiting high schools, meeting as many interested candidates (and their counselors) as possible, so just a skeleton staff remain back at the admissions office to take care of business.  As for me, all my autumn college fairs have been concluded. This year saw more interest in the U of C than ever; in fact, at the end of one fair, as I was packing up my paraphernalia and getting ready to depart, the fair’s director came up and informed me that my Chicago table had enjoyed the largest, most enthusiastic turnout among all the colleges represented there.  Wow!   This has never happened before. (Of course, the fact that the most recent US News rankings, which came out a couple of days earlier, showed the University at its highest ever rank was probably just coincidence)1I met some exceptionally talented students, and I hope all of them will apply.  And today, kids have already begun to apply; I’ve been assigned three interviews (more will come), and so I wanted to talk about admission decisions in a little more detail.

1This leads to amusing, and a bit sad, exchanges along the following lines:

Me:              “Nice to meet you.  How can I help you?”

Prospect:     “Could you please tell me about your school.”

Me:               “OK, sure.  First, though, what attracted you to us?”

Prospect:     “Your school is very good.”

Me:               “That’s most gratifying to hear.  Just curious, what do you mean by ‘good’?”

Prospect:     “It’s supposed to be highly rated...”

Me:               [Sigh.} ”All right.  Well……

Three categories of application.

1.  Early, in which students apply two months before the regular application deadline of January 1.  By applying early, applicants seek to avoid the last minute angst and hassle of the regular notification process; an early acceptance completely eliminates having to re-apply to other schools.  For Chicago, the early application deadline is November 1st.  [Warning:  the application deadlines I cite are for the U of C only; deadlines for other schools may vary; do your homework.]  Early acceptances can be either binding (under Early Decision), meaning that if you get offered admission, you are obligated to attend, or non-binding (under Early Action), under which attendance after being admitted is not obligatory (more on this later).2By applying for an Early Decision, applicants signal their first-choice school that this is my first choice and where I’d love to spend my next four years.  For most colleges, binding early acceptances collectively form the backbone of next year’s incoming class, so the most selective schools read these applications with rapt, careful attention.  Only the crème de la crème among the early applicants make this first cut.  Chicago releases its early admission decisions around December 20th, and it must be a great feeling to enter the holiday break with an early acceptance in your pocket (a feeling I never knew!).  Given the blizzard -- and the quality -- of early apps that the selective schools get inundated with, garnering an early acceptance into a Columbia or a Yale or a Stanford is an extraordinarily difficult feat to pull off, and being deferred carries no stigma whatever.3

2  Several  years ago, a most attractive applicant applied early to her co-favorite colleges, Chicago and a well known Ivy.  The Chicago application was, back then, non-binding (you can now apply either way); however, the Ivy application was binding.  She pulled off a notable double by snaring early acceptances from both institutions.  So what’s a girl to do?  Well, the U of C solved her conundrum for her.  When its admissions office learned of her binding acceptance at the Ivy, it swiftly notified her that it was rescinding her Chicago acceptance and wished her good luck. By doing so, the University relieved her of an awkward, even ugly, contractual contretemps with the Ivy and removed itself from a potential adversarial confrontation with the Ivy, both of which could have ensued if she had chosen Chicago, and it spared itself the pain of a loss in yield had she chosen the Ivy.

3  Neither does a flat turn-down.  As I’ve noted in prior posts, large numbers of fine prospects end up elsewhere, surviving and prospering despite not getting into Harvard.  There just isn’t enough room at the most selective schools for all the brilliant, accomplished students who seek to get in.

2. Regular, for which applications are due January 1, can be likened to The Dating Game combined with The Gong Show.  Earlies who have been carried over get mixed in with a tsunami of regular notification applicants.  The admissions committee, under a deadline that always seems to be approaching much too soon, struggle mightily to give all applicants a fair reading and hearing.  During this period, the workings of the committee can be described as a manic exercise in constrained optimization:  their goal (or objective function) is to select from among thousands and thousands of applications a necessary and sufficient number of the best candidates to fill out next fall’s entering class, subject to minimizing the likelihood that an applicant, once accepted, will end up someplace else -- no college, selective or otherwise, likes having its acceptees snaked by a rival.  [To cite an extreme case, the authoritative Fiske Guide to Colleges reports that highly regarded Washington University in St. Louis, “Maintains low acceptance rate -- and higher ranking -- by favoring early decision and denying top applicants whom it thinks will enroll elsewhere.” Fiske continues, “Word among high school guidance counselors is that no one gets admitted to selectivity-conscious Washington U through regular admission -- you are either locked in through early admissions or cherry-picked off the wait list.” (Fiske, 2017 ed., pps. 767, 770)]  The Harvards and Stanfords, which stand a notch or two above WashU in institutional desirability, don’t need to employ procedures that implicitly stack the deck against applicants thought likely to enroll elsewhere, but make no mistake, if they sense equivocation in an applicant, they are not above denying or wait-listing anyone about whom they harbor strong doubts on this score.  So do other hyper-selective schools, including the U of C.  For Chicago, regular decisions are released around the 20th of March -- the date varies from year to year -- and as I noted in an earlier post, Dean Boyer will once again be invited to the admissions office where, for about two seconds, his index finger will be magically transformed into a digital wand that transmits the University’s sincerest greetings and welcoming acceptance to hundreds of harried, anxious applicants.

3. Transfer, which covers applicants from colleges and universities who seek another institution in which to continue their studies.  The transfer decision comes out in April, well after regular notifications go out.  Compared to the applications received for the early and regular decisions, many fewer transfer applications end up being processed, and because they involve students who already are attending college, further discussion doesn’t concern us, so we’ll move on.


Early application deadlines are looming.  For early decisions, there are three outcomes:   

1)     Accepted.  You’re in!  (Whopee!!).  Nothing more to be said.  Some acceptees wait to learn the result of any application(s) elsewhere, but for those who submitted a binding application, all they need do is send in their room deposit and, metaphorically, they’re on their way.

2)     Deferred. Your application has been postponed until regular notification, which will not be announced until mid-March.  You’re not out of the game, but you will have to endure a 3-month wait to find out whether you’ve been accepted.

3)    Denied.  You application is turned down.  For an application denied, there’s no appeal, so, briefly, cry bitter tears and move swiftly on to Plan B -- apply to your next school(s).


A few words about signaling and the early admissions process.  By signaling, I mean telegraphing intentions, sending unwritten messages.  Previously, we touched on binding and non-binding applications.  Through binding Early Decision, an applicant effectively informs a college, Admit me, and I’ll pull on track shoes and run all the way to New Haven/Cambridge/the Midway/wherever -- and you can take that to the bank (literally). All three interested parties -- the applicant, his/her college advisor, and the college -- know this.  And it brings to mind an interesting ploy.  Phillips Exeter Academy, in Exeter, NH, an old-line and extremely high powered New England prep school (in the last three years, Exeter has sent 19 of its students off to Brown, 40 to Columbia, 28 to Harvard, 22 to MIT, 21 to Princeton, 23 to Stanford, 33 to Yale and 20 each to Cornell, Dartmouth and, yes, Chicago4 -- I think you get the picture), will not allow its kids to apply early to any school except their first choice.  And Exeter makes sure that colleges know this.  In doing so, it is implicitly telling colleges, Here are applicants whom we deem an excellent fit for your institution and whom we believe will do extremely well there.  You’ve long known the quality of our students.  For these applicants, you are their first choice: they get admitted, they will attendThis saves you (colleges) from having to sift through early apps of our talented kids for whom you are not their first choice (a real energy drainer and time waster that occurred each year until Exeter implemented this policy).  In this way, an Exeter “product” is differentiated from peers from other schools that do not follow this policy.  So, Dear Reader, do you think this is a sound practice?

4 Source:  Phillips Exeter Academy website/College Counseling/”Where do Exonians go to College?”

I think it borders on brilliant.  Consider:  College admissions officers dislike uncertainty (defined here as the likelihood -- the unpleasant surprise -- of losing an early Exeter acceptee to another college), all the more as the selectivity of their institution increases.  And so for them, Exeter’s policy takes a discrete bit of uncertainty entirely off the table.  An Exonian, early admitted to, say, Yale, can no longer spurn it for Princeton (or, heaven forbid, Harvard -- Aarrgghh!).  Now, just because a kid applies from Exeter, it doesn’t mean he has a lock on a Yale acceptance.  Maybe he submits a so-so essay, maybe he’s interpersonally incompetent, maybe Yale has already accepted enough applicants from Exeter this year and has to draw the line somewhere and his application falls on the wrong side of that line; the upshot, he may not get in.  Moreover, caveat emptor, it is up to Yale to perform its due diligence -- it doesn’t want to end up with a pig in a poke, a misfit.  Neither does Exeter.  Its seal of approval -- its teacher and counselor recommendations -- strongly auger against a square peg winding up in Yale’s round hole.  If, to his teachers and counselors, a kid just doesn’t have the right stuff for Yale and, against their advice, he applies early anyway, the resulting recommendations (or a phone call) will alert the Yale admissions office that we don’t think this kid is quite right for you.  And this, I assure you, is a message that a Yale would take to heart.  Exeter places the highest value on its relationship with the colleges to which its sends its graduates -- especially Yale and the other Ivies; hey! it has been sending kids off to some of them since before 1800, and it is in the interest neither of Exeter nor the Ivies to see this relationship damaged.5Which is why Exeter wants Yale to only accept graduates who are likely to prosper there, not ones likely to crash and burn.  In times of extraordinarily -- and increasingly -- intense competition for a place at the most selective colleges, Exeter’s policy maximizes the chance for its kids to land a spot at their chosen college.

5 Exeter and other such schools have long served the Ivies as feeder schools.   For a long, long time, feeders collectively contributed up to 60 percent of the freshman class for Ivies and related schools.  Years ago, Exeter and a number of similar Northeastern schools almost exclusively fulfilled this function for Harvard, Yale and other Ivies, but in the last 50 years, their feeder net has widened to include upper income and magnet high schools and Exeter-like schools across the country (e.g., Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, Lakeside School in Seattle).  Similarly, Stanford, in Palo Alto, California, which boasted the largest population of any state and a vast talent pool that lay 2.700 miles from the closest Ivy, metaphorically owned the state, but as the tentacles of the Ivies extended to the West Coast, so, too, did Stanford’s begin to reach out to the East Coast -- and into traditionally Ivy feeders.  (To mention a couple of decidedly non-Ivies, Vanderbilt University was reportedly fed by upper income high schools in Atlanta, Birmingham and Dallas; Northwestern University, by upper income high schools around Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Westchester County, NY.  Conversely, the U of C, having long marched to its own drummer, long suffered from an anemic feeder network that, if it supplied over 20 percent of students for an entering class, then it provided the University with a veritable bumper crop.  This is swiftly changing; for the past several years, the U of C’s feeder tentacles have been growing as if they were appended to an octopus on steroids.)  Feeder school applicants are generally of high caliber, and, more important, a college can count on its feeders year in and year out to supply it with plentiful numbers of admissible applicants, and so for sometimes harried admissions deans, they serve to remove, or largely dampen, the uncertainty attendant to filling out a class by performing this function

Here’s a related aspect to signaling.  George, a friend on Chicago’s admissions committee, tells of a well known prep school (not Exeter) which one year supplied Chicago with 11 apparently fine applicants -- yet none got admitted.  Aggrieved, after the dust cleared following the release of regular notifications, the school guidance counselor called George, “What happened?  Some great kids applied. You were their first choice.  What went wrong?”  What went wrong was that 10 of them applied via regular decision.  If students from a secondary school of this caliber had really wanted to get into Chicago, they should have applied early.  From a school like this, George explained, an applicant needs to signal the University -- and its peers -- when it is his first choice, and this is accomplished by applying early.  And, he noted, the counselor should have known this.  Signaling, it all came down to signaling.

This leads us to the Early Action (non-binding) applications.  From our prior discussion, it should be clear that, to a selective college, an early application which does not carry the promise of attendance upon being accepted is like trying to spend Confederate money in an economy fueled by Yankee dollars.  What do you mean?  Suppose you are dean of admissions for Ivy-Plus U, and you have before you the early applications of two almost identical students, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.  Both are equally attractive and highly admissible.  The sole difference:  Dee applied for binding Early Decision while Dum applied for Early Action.  Now you’ll need to save spaces for kids applying via regular notification, so you can accept just one of them now.  Who gets your nod?   If you answered Tweedle Dee, give yourself a gold star and go to the head of the class.  Right now, you’re assembling the core of next year’s class, and you want kids whom you know will show up next September, not someone who could suddenly be smitten with wanderlust and go somewhere else.  (This does not mean that Tweedle Dum is out of the running; if you like him, you kick his folder over into the regular notification pool).  I trust this example explains why, rightly or wrongly -- and with a couple of exceptions -- the most selective schools may view non-binding early applications as second class applications and treat them accordingly.  The exceptions include applicants from mega-rich (e.g., Bill Gates’s kids, if he has any) or powerful families (do you really think any university would turn down Malia Obama?).  Another exception is a super achieving minority student, and even though, to admissions offices at the most selective colleges, superb candidates are a commodity, certain minorities supply them in far smaller numbers, and so applicants from this quarter tend to be prized all the more. 


Sidebar:  To students who are offered early admission, my sincerest congratulations -- and a cautionary tale.  Mike, a high school classmate, had done extremely well in high school for three years and got early accepted to Yale.  So far, so good.  But now, with Yale acceptance in hand, Mike entered into the worst case of senior slump the school had ever seen -- he, or his grades, went into a veritable free-fall.  Yale and other colleges respond positively but not indulgently to senior slump.  No doubt Mike was unaware that Yale (and other selective colleges, for Yale is by no means alone) follow up their acceptances by asking high schools to supply mid-year and year-end grades for their acceptees.  This simple, routine precaution precludes them from enrolling students who, after they’ve received offers of admission, figure that since all their work has been done (after all, they got accepted early, didn’t they?), they can blow off academics for the remainder of the year -- and maybe for four college years, as well.  Selective colleges, which dislike uncertainty, have no desire to indulge this possibility; they want only kids who perform at a high level all year long, so latent slugs get superannuated before they arrive on campus.  Which happened to Mike, whose descent had taken him so far that in March, he received word along the following lines, “Dear Mike:  In view of your recent academic [non-]performance, and with great regret, your acceptance to Yale University is rescinded herewith.  Sincerely,  --Yale University.”    Arguably the best way to approach schoolwork after an early (or for that matter, a regular) college acceptance is as though you still are applying there, or as a old teacher put it, There is no senior slump, just a sprint to the finish line!


 By way of moving our discussion along to regular decisions, suppose the school of your dreams, the one to which you applied via Early Decision, notifies you that your application is being carried over into the regular decision pool -- you’re still in the hunt, but the game is not yet in the bag.  Moreover, because your application wasn’t early accepted, the binding aspect no longer holds.  So how do you respond?   Do you sit on your hands and hope, hope, hope that the gods of acceptance smile down on you?  Do you take any action?  For that matter, are there, at this juncture, any moves you can even make?  Well, there are.  If you still want to attend Ivy-Plus U, probably more than ever, you can still help, and not hurt, your cause.  First, waste no time in informing the college that it’s still your first choice, and that if you get accepted, you’ll be there next September.  Second, if there’s time remaining before the end of your grading period, do your very best on end of term exams (I tell kids, “Bust your butt between now and finals”).  Third, if, after submitting your early application, more honors or achievements accrue to you, then let the college know about them; if you’ve been elected Captain of the Tiddlywinks Team or named first chair kazoo in the regional orchestra or named all-state pizza piecrust twirler -- whatever -- ask that these be made part of your folder.  If you were recently handed back a paper or project that garnered high praise (and a high grade), work which represents your absolute best effort, send it in, too, along with a note saying so, and asking that it be added to your application folder.  Remember, there’s a better than even chance that others sweating out the waiting period will be doing likewise. This is no time to hide your light under a bushel.  Then, after you have given the application your best shot, you may not be able to relax, but whether or not you get admitted, you can hold your head high because nobody can expect you to do more or better than your best.

There are three possible outcomes from regular decision:

1.     You’ve been offered admission. (Whew!  And Hurrah!!)

2.     You’ve been placed on the waitlist. (Hmmm…)

3.     Your application has been turned down.  There’s no appeal.  (Rats!)

We’ve briefly touched in the joys of acceptance and the agony of rejection, so let’s turn to the waitlist, a little understood device.  Most applicants assume that if I’m placed on the wait list, I have a fair chance of getting in when (and if) my college turns to its waitlist to fill out its class.  But today, it’s a very, very small chance; only a handful of wait-listed candidates actually receive that desperately hoped-for summons.  Why?  Two reasons.  First, selective colleges have become highly expert at estimating just how many applicants they need to accept to fill next September’s entering class, and their calculations take into account turn downs (yes, this happens even to Harvard and Stanford) and allow for summer melt.  This means that few, if any, from their wait list will receive offers of admission (incidentally, this was how I got into UVA, where I did my undergraduate work, and only now, with the passage of many years, do I realize how very, very fortunate I was to have received that acceptance).  The other reason has to do with signaling; selective colleges employ their wait list both as an extension of their deny pool and as a means of signaling.  For example, suppose a legacy who applies to Harvard just doesn’t have the right stuff to get admitted -- not every John Adams is followed by a John Quincy Adams -- but the college doesn’t want to disappoint his alumni parent(s) -- and risk ending a greatly valued stream of annual contributions from Dad, Mom and, in extreme cases, their alumni friends -- by flatly rejecting Junior.  The wait list is tailor made to accommodate this situation; the parents can say -- truthfully -- that Junior was wait-listed at Harvard (this actually happened to my friend Sam, a nice guy -- but no John Quincy Adams).  Does a Sam have a snowball’s chance in hell of being pulled in off Harvard’s wait list?  No way.  So for him, getting wait-listed effectively meant getting turned down.  But Sam’s parents could tell friends at cocktail parties that he’d been wait-listed at dad’s alma mater, a face saving artifice supplied to them courtesy of Harvard College.

Colleges also routinely wait-list fine candidates who, for one reason or other, come up short.  Years ago, I interviewed a kid from Washington, DC for whom Chicago was his first choice.  As a member of his school’s debate team, he had recently returned from an out of town tournament.  So, how did the team do?  Well, the other team members weren’t as well prepared as I was, replied the applicant, so we didn’t place as well as we otherwise might have.  After this interview, I felt as though I needed a shower, and I posted a less than enthusiastic interview report.  Then, afterwards, it hit me; our team is good, mediocre or lousy is pretty much an expected response, but I’m terrific and the other team members suck was not an answer I expected -- though it was the one I got -- and it was at once clear that he was no team player.  I got so incensed that I called Andre, the admissions reader for the applicant’s school and explained why I wouldn’t want him as a lab partner, a dorm mate or classmate, and I especially didn’t want him at the University of Chicago.  Andre agreed, “Part of our job is to keep the butt-heads out”-- a verbatim quote.  Naturally, I was furious upon learning that the debater had merely been wait-listed, not turned down cold, and so I called Andre to find out why.  His answer:  despite ‘flunking’ the interview, the kid was a strong candidate (on paper, anyway, with good grades and high test scores) who had received a ringing endorsement from his school.  Not wishing to alienate the school and risk having it push promising future applicants elsewhere -- back then, Chicago was a long, long way from achieving its current prosperity in college admissions -- by wait-listing this kid, the University signaled the school that theirs was an otherwise fine applicant who fell just short.  In many, many cases, a wait-list notification signals his school, He almost made the grade. Send us more just like him.6  In fact, one could argue that the primary recipient of this signal is as much the high school as it is the applicant.  So, for Sam and my debater (I really like and enjoy almost all kids I meet; this one was an inglorious exception), neither had a ghost of a chance of getting into their first choice.

6. Before you claim that a college uses the wait list to send a bogus message to applicants who are fated to remain there, remember that the difference between kids admitted and kids who fall short often comes down to the most minute detail.  In truth, the most selective colleges could build a terrific entering class strictly from kids on their wait list.  One of Dick Taliaferro’s kids, who applied but didn‘t get admitted to Yale, wound up graduating Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude from Penn, then took an MD with honors from the Yale School of Medicine and became a professor of medicine at a distinguished medical school.   Even though Yale College didn’t accept him, do you have the slightest doubt he couldn’t have done extremely well there?  But that’s how strong the competition is, and this explains how an applicant can come close to getting in and yet not quite clear the bar.  On a macro level, to my brother the boarding school college advisor, a visiting Princeton admissions rep revealed 30 years ago that his school could admit its usual freshman class, fill a second class from its remaining applicants that would be virtually equal in quality to the first cut, and then could dip back into the pool to select a third class that would fall a notch below the first and second cuts yet still be good enough to do Princeton proud.  Its applicant pool was that deep. 

            If you are wait-listed at a selective college, know up front that you probably won’t be going there next September.  But, if you still have your heart set on attending, then never give up.  Notify the school that if it admits you from the wait list, you will be there next September.  If you have a couple of good reasons you’d like to attend, reasons that didn’t make it into your application, there is no better time than now to trot them out.  Play the game to the end, and, as I’ve recommended before, make the college close its door on you; there’s no need to close that door on yourself, and you gain nothing by doing so.  And yes, Virginia!  Miracles occasionally still occur.


            Well, that’s probably enough to chew over for the time being.  I wish you all the luck in the world with your application(s), and hope that your first choice is where you’ll find yourself attending next fall. 


Bill ParkerComment