Early Decision A Week Away

One week from today, several hundred high school students from across the globe who are set on Swarthmore will click “submit” on the Common Application. They will inaugurate this year’s admissions process at Swarthmore as the college’s first round of early decision applicants.

For those who have forgotten, Swarthmore College, like most small, selective, liberal arts colleges, offers two ways for potential students to apply: early decision or regular decision. Early decision is intended for students who feel that Swarthmore is their clear first choice. It binds a student to attend if admitted (barring financial reasons), but also statistically increases the likelihood that they will get in.

Jim Bock, the Dean of Admissions, explained that having early decision is helpful to both the college and to students. “We compete with some really great schools, and we want to give students the advantage of having a first choice. But, if they have that, we want them to commit to Swarthmore,” he said, adding that it gives the college a competitive advantage, especially considering that as an applicant pool, the students who apply early decision are often the strongest applicants the college receives. “Early decision works in the college’s favor,” Bock said. “It helps us build a class, and it’s one of our strongest pools.”

While the Admissions Office is not yet sure how many students will have submitted early applications by the end of next week, they expect it to be similar to what they typically get. “Hopefully, we’ll get several hundred, which is what we normally get,” Bock said.

Swarthmore, like most peer institutions, has two rounds of early decision. Students who want to be in the first, and larger pool must submit their application by November 15th, while those applying through winter early decision must apply by January 1st, along with regular decision applicants. Bock said that the reason the school has two rounds of early decision is because some people who have selected Swarthmore as their first choice may not feel ready or be able to apply by November 15th.

“It’s an access question,” he said. “Many students who might find us as a first choice college may or may not have the ability to get together an application by November 15th, or to put their best foot forward, so it is better to submit by January 1st.” There are students who use early decision two as a means of furthering their admissions odds after getting rejected from another school early decision one, something Bock says the office is aware of. But Bock says that does not affect the admissions calculus. “We have no way of knowing that,” he said.

Still, more November early decision applicants were admitted than those applying for the second round. “Typically, we take more than a third fall early decision applicants and roughly twenty percent of our winter early decision candidates,” said Bock. This compares to the approximately thirteen percent admitted regular decision for the class of 2016, which yielded an overall admit rate of fourteen percent. But Bock credits the difference in part to the relative strength of the applicant pools, especially when accounting for the the discrepancy between the fall and january early decision rates. “Our fall early decision pool is typically quantitatively stronger,” said Bock.  “There is no disadvantage to applying fall early or winter early. It’s just a different deadline,” he emphasized.

This year, as a result of Hurricane Sandy, many schools have pushed back their early decision deadline. Swarthmore, however, has opted not to. As Bock explained, most of the schools who have pushed back their early decision deadline originally had it on November 1st, not November 15th, which the admissions office felt gave students enough time without an extension. “I don’t want to encourage people not to meet the deadline,” Bock added. He did say, however, that the school would work on a case-by-case basis with students who are having difficulty meeting the deadline as a result of the storm.

Some schools, unlike Swarthmore, have early action applications in place of early decision. Early action, like early decision, allows students to get an early response from the college. But unlike early decision, it is nonbinding.

Patrick Trainor ’16, applied to college both early decision, to Swarthmore, and early action, to the University of Chicago. “Chicago and Swarthmore were my top two,” Trainor explained. I really wanted to know if I could get into Chicago, and I wanted to know right away if Swat didn’t work out.”

Trainor was admitted to both, an experience that he found, at first, frustrating. “I was upset because I had already made a decision,” he said. But eventually, he decided applying early decision was the right move. “After I rationalized a little bit, I realized I was happy with Swat, and I would have picked it over Chicago again.”

“I really want to know who is committed to Swarthmore early, so I make it a binding commitment,” said Bock, explaining why Swarthmore has early decision and not early action. “You’re finding out early, but it’s creating a lot of applications from folks who may not truly be interested.”

In addition, it is a size trend. “Most small schools have early decision. Most large schools have early action,” he said.

The early decision process attracts candidates with a variety of different extracurricular activities and skills. But athletic recruits are among the applicants who most frequently take advantage of Swarthmore’s early decision process. Adam Hertz, the director of athletics, estimated that roughly half of recruits apply early. “I’d say right now it’s an even split,” he said.

Bock agreed, although he added that it “depends on the year.” He cited coaches as the reason that recruits are more likely than others to apply early. “They have an advocate in the system,” he said.

Hertz said that, provided a student has decided that Swarthmore is their first choice, the athletic department might encourage them to apply early. “We let them know the early decision option might be something they want to consider.”

But he added that they did not put pressure on those students who did not know where they wanted to go. “I don’t think we want to put pressure on anybody who hasn’t decided they want to be here.”

Regardless of being recruited, Hertz added, athletes applying to Swarthmore do it for more than sports-related reasons. “Students want to come to Swarthmore because of its academic reputation and their intellectual curiosity.”

Bock agreed, and felt that is true for all applicants. “Most people don’t apply to Swarthmore on a whim, and I think that’s doubly true with early decision.”

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