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Get An Early Start On College Admissions: Middle School Edition

We are often asked if middle school is too early to start thinking about college admissions. Though some would argue that thinking about college while in middle school could lead to additional stress for students, we would argue that the earlier students start thinking ahead, the less stressful the process will be. For example, forecasting out math and science tracks ahead of time means that you can still do something about level of course rigor early on. It is more stressful to find out in 11th grade that you have no chance of competing in the top college admissions pool because you didn’t accelerate in math back when you could have in 6th grade through an honors track.

On the extracurricular side, keep in mind that most talents kids develop in high school start in elementary or middle school. Few kids pick up the trombone in 9th grade and become gifted musicians out of the blue. Talents like art, singing, instrumental prowess tend to start in elementary or middle school. Same could be said about math competitions, science fairs or athletic prowess. 

Any athlete knows that starting early with skill building and fitting in your “10,000 hours” is what helps kids stand out later and develop expertise.


“How can my kids in 7th and 8th grade get a head start on high school?” is another question we are asked day in and day out.   

The most important track at most high schools is math and science, even if a student’s primary interests are in the humanities. Students should figure out how to jump ahead a year or two in math/science by taking courses like Pre-Algebra and Algebra online through places like Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth or Northwestern’s CTD. Likewise, for science – some high schools let students skip Earth Science and jump to Honors Biology in 9th grade. Many of our advanced students have been accelerating in math for years.

Let us break it down for you. Here are our top tips for leveraging your time in middle school to set yourself up for high school success


  1. Take extra math and science courses so that you can aim to reach a higher math level like Algebra II/Trig by 9th grade or even Pre-Calculus. For science, aim to jump over courses like Earth Science so you can reach Honors Biology if your school offers it.
  2. Read an hour a day from higher level books and magazines like The Atlantic, Time, Scientific American, National Geographic, and The Concord Review so you build up your reading skills. In the long run, reading is the best way to improve your academic performance. Work with us to get your personalized reading lists grade by grade and be a part of our unique vocabulary program. 
  3. Get involved in activities/sports/music/hobbies so that you can carry this leadership and skill set with you to high school.
  4. Be active in your classes, get to know your teachers as these teachers often communicate with high school teachers and recommend kids who stand out for honors track.
  5. Get organized – keep a whiteboard and map out assignments. Start an assignment notebook vs only using technology. Make early habits that will set you up for success.
  6. Take a “real” SAT before high school to get an idea of where you stand. Any standardized tests you take while in 7th or 8th grade do NOT go on your permanent record so you can get a good baseline score and address any weak areas.
  7. Get inspired and read about other kids doing extraordinary things. We love the documentary, I Am Greta, about Greta Thunberg as she launches a global movement on climate change. What do you care about?
  8. Learn to code. Even if you aren’t a computer science kid, coding is something even business school applicants are required to have. Take a coding class during the summer.  And, if you love to play video games, learn to create video games.
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Why Early Decision Still Makes Sense for Many Students

Post by: Dr. Michele Hernandez

We’ve had vigorous debates on this blog and with students and parents about the merits of early decision. As a brief primer, both early action and early decision have early November deadlines, but early action is NON binding (you do not have to say “yes”) while early decision is binding (you have to say “yes” and withdraw any other applications). The confusing thing is that HarvardYale, and Stanford have a “single choice/restrictive” early action policy (non-binding but you can only apply to state schools or international schools as back up) while the other five Ivies all have normal early decision. Princeton for this cycle is not doing any early round at all which throws a wrench into the scene.


As you can see from the tables below, early decision acceptance rates are 3 to 4 times higher than regular only acceptance rates while early action acceptance rates are higher, but not by as big a margin with the exception of MIT. The one thing that is indisputable is that regular only admittance rates are super low from 2-3% at Stanford (which didn’t give out exact numbers from this cycle so we are guesstimating) and Harvard to a “high” of 6-7%. Looking at just the numbers, there is a clear advantage to applying early action/early decision at every school. But as many perceptive readers of past posts pointed out, the difference is not quite as sharp because legacies and recruited athletes tend to get accepted in the early decision round so while it may look like Dartmouth takes 26% of ALL early applicants, it is going to be less than that for “non-hooked” applicants. As I will illustrate below, even so, it is worth it to apply early decision to increase your odds. Some argue that early decision can lock you into a financial bind as you cannot compare financial aid packages so is “only for the wealthy.” That is not true because the Ivies bend over backwards to give generous aid packages once they commit to a student and in the worst case scenario, you can be released from the early decision agreement if after you appeal your financial aid award, you still cannot afford it.


  1. Even taking into account legacies and recruited athletes, the acceptance rate is still higher than regular round.
  2. There are MANY fewer applicants in the early round (look at the table below – sometimes 8-10 times fewer in early!) which means your application, essays, teacher recs and materials are read much more carefully and typically by admissions officers rather than outside readers.
  3. Not only are there fewer applicants in early, but with legacies and athletes who tend to be in the lower side academically, truly strong applicants who are academic superstars shine brighter in the early decision round than in the regular round. To say it another way, the regular round is much more competitive with many of the nation’s top students waiting until regular round. The early round overall is weaker because of the recruited athletes and legacies and “reach” applicants.
  4. Applying early decision tells the college that you picked them first – and you love their school and are willing to commit. That means for a student who might be “on the border,” often admissions officers will take that student in early but not in regular. This is demonstrated interest on steroids.
  5. What about getting deferred? Think of it this way, if you were deferred in the early round, you would have been rejected in the regular round, so nothing lost there. Plus, deferred students have a chance to send an update with new grades, awards, scores, etc… and roughly 5-15% of deferred kids (depending on the school) will be accepted during the regular round. The advantage is that the college knows it is your top choice, signaled by the original ED choice.
  6. Finally, with COVID still in the picture, many schools (especially small liberal arts schools) have lost a ton of tuition dollars from last year plus have many added expenses to develop a Coronavirus plan (paying for HEPA filters, more ventilation, etc…). That means that students who don’t need financial aid AND who apply ED will have higher admissions odds this year.
  7. Related to the above, we predict that many liberal arts colleges along with top universities will admit a higher percentage of the class in the ED round to lock in tuition paying students.


As I’ve argued before, if I could wave my magic wand, I would force all the top colleges to have two rounds of early decision (I and II) but 1- limit the number to perhaps only 30-35% of the total class rather than 50% as U Penn takes now for example) and 2- provide super generous financial aid/grants to students. That way colleges could still reserve 60-70% of the spots for regular round but still give students two rounds to indicate a true first choice. I would eliminate single choice early action so HYPS don’t artificially elevate themselves over the other schools simply based on policy. In a typical year, 20,000 to 25,000 students are deferred or rejected from HYPS, freak out, and then apply to 20-30 schools in regular round. That is why the system is flooded with a ridiculous number of applicants in regular round. Changing the system would reduce that number dramatically. But no school wants to act in a vacuum – they need to join hands and take the plunge all at once to insert some measure of sanity into the process.



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Is Early Decision Right for You?

For many students, the most fraught part of the admissions process is not writing essays or asking for letters of recommendation, but choosing an Early Decision school. Applying Early Decision allows students to submit an application to a single school during the fall and receive that school’s admissions decision shortly afterwards (usually in December). The catch: Early Decision is binding. If students are admitted to their ED school, they must attend.

For many students, this is a stressful premise. How can you identify the one school that is the best fit for you? Should you commit to a single school at the outset of your senior year, or should you wait to see the results of all of your applications? If you do decide to apply Early Decision, should you apply to a major reach school or aim for one more easily in range?

We know this is a major decision for many of our students, so we’ve provided some general guidelines below to help you make this choice. We recommend that you apply Early Decision if:

You have a clear top-choice school: If your favorite school offers Early Decision, it makes sense to apply in that round. After all, you’d be more than happy to commit to attending that school! As a bonus, if you are admitted in the Early Decision round, you’ll be done with the college admissions process before the end of winter break. No regular round stress for you.

You want to boost your odds of admission: As we’ve discussed before, applying to a school Early Decision can double your odds of admission in some cases. The Early Decision applicant pool is usually much smaller than the applicant pool in the regular round, which allows admissions officers to spend more time reviewing each application. What’s more, schools that offer Early Decision generally fill about half of the incoming class in the early round. As a result, your odds of admission are always higher in Early Decision than they would be in the regular round. Last year, for example, Columbia had an early admit rate of 14.57% and a Regular Decision admit rate of 4.04%. (For more on the early admit rates for some of the very top schools, take a look at the data we’ve collected here.)

The one caveat: your odds will only improve in the Early Decision round if that school is in range for you. While the Early Decision applicant pool may be smaller overall, it will still include lots of very qualified candidates. If your grades and test scores are well below average for a school, your application won’t make it through the admissions review process, even in the early round. 

You are a legacy: There’s no denying that being a legacy gives you an advantage at almost every school. (For more details on how this works, check out our recent blog post on legacy hooks.) In many cases, however, legacy status carries far more weight during the early round. Some schools, like Cornell, are very up-front about the importance of applying Early Decision for legacy applicants. Other schools may not say this outright, but they generally follow similar practices. This means that — if you are a legacy applicant at a school you love — applying Early Decision to that school will allow you to get the most out of your legacy status.

We hope this helps you to figure out if Early Decision is the right choice for you! If it is, take a look at the deadlines for some top Early Decision schools:


Amherst College – Nov. 1, 2019

Babson College – Nov. 1, 2019

Barnard College – Nov. 1, 2019

Bates College – Nov. 15, 2019

Bentley University – Nov. 15, 2019

Boston College – Nov. 1, 2019

Boston University – Nov. 1, 2019

Bowdoin College – Nov. 15, 2019

Brown University – Nov. 1, 2019

Bryn Mawr College – Nov. 15, 2019

Bucknell University – Nov. 15, 2019

Carnegie Mellon University – Nov. 1, 2019

Claremont McKenna College – Nov. 1, 2019

Colby College – Nov. 15, 2019

Colgate University – Nov. 15, 2019

Columbia University – Nov. 1, 2019

Connecticut College – Nov. 15, 2019

Cornell University – Nov. 1, 2019

Dartmouth University – Nov. 1, 2019

Dickinson College – Nov. 15, 2019

Duke University – Nov. 1, 2019

Emory University – Nov. 1, 2019

Harvey Mudd College – Nov. 15, 2019

Haverford College – Nov. 15, 2019

Johns Hopkins University – Nov. 1, 2019

Middlebury University – Nov. 1, 2019

New York University – Nov. 1, 2019

Northwestern University – Nov. 1, 2019

Pomona College – Nov. 1, 2019

Rice University – Nov. 1, 2019

Swarthmore College – Nov. 15, 2019

Tufts University – Nov. 1, 2019

Tulane University – Nov. 1, 2019

University of Chicago – Nov. 1, 2019

University of Pennsylvania – Nov. 1, 2019

University of Virginia – Oct. 15, 2019

Vanderbilt University – Nov. 1, 2019

Villanova University – Nov. 1, 2019

Washington University in St. Louis – Nov. 1, 2019

Williams College – Nov. 15, 2019