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Admissionado’s Guide to Navigating Rolling Admissions

January 29, 2019 :: Alex Collazo

Deadlines are stressful things. You etch the date into your mind, and it begins to loom over everything in your life. You may feel a lurching in your stomach late at night, or look back with regret at a carefree weekend that ought to have involved more essay writing.

But what if you encounter this instruction on an admissions website:

“Rolling admissions – applications are evaluated as they arrive.”

No one likes a deadline, but consider applying to a school with rolling admissions and you’ll find that NOT having one can be just as worrying. One wonders: Am I already too late? Is it possible to be too early? Should I drop everything and apply right now? The answer to the last question is no, btw …

First, read this Admissionado guide to rolling admissions.

How does rolling admissions work?

Instead of collecting applications until a deadline and then picking the ones they like best, rolling admissions schools process applications as they are submitted, and make their decision on each applicant immediately. This has a number of consequences:

  • Admissions committees using rounds compare all applicants in the round to each other and pick a certain number for the class; admissions committees using rolling admissions can only compare applicants to earlier applicants, aiming to fill slots at a certain target pace.
  • The rounds process means that all decisions are released in a batch, X weeks after the deadline; rolling admissions means decisions are released individually, X weeks after the application was submitted.
  • Departments using rounds might offer a number of rounds, each one with a successively lower but fairly predictable acceptance rate (early decision, regular decision, etc.); rolling admissions departments accept people until the class is full, meaning that acceptance rates trend down gradually over the course of the entire application season, and could be near zero long before the final day of the application window.

Some schools will create a hybrid system—rolling admissions with a “priority” or “early decision” deadline by which a certain percentage of the class will be admitted (for example, Rutgers college admissions), or a rounds system with so many rounds that it’s functionally a rolling admissions system (for example, INSEAD MBA). Also, note that some universities may have a separate, fixed financial aid deadline.

Why not just have a deadline?

Universities who offer rolling admissions have many different explanations for why they use the system, but the big one, the one they won’t advertise, is that it’s easier and cheaper. A deadline means a bunch of work coming in all at the same time, and the admissions team must be big enough to handle those spikes. Rolling admissions means a steadier “flow” of applications, which can be handled by a smaller full time team. Simple!

But that convenience comes at a price. While schools with deadlines can pool applications from all the potential members of their future class, rolling admissions schools have to decide on individuals without a complete picture of the competition. The committee has to predict their needs carefully based on the prior year’s applicants, and hope that the applicant pool hasn’t changed in unpredictable ways.

What types of programs offer rolling admissions?

In general, rolling admissions are a good fit for schools with:

  • Admissions departments operating under some sort of time or budgetary constraint—either an underfunded adcom that receives way too many applicants, or a very small applicant pool that is judged by professors rather than full-time admissions professionals.
  • A lot more qualified applicants than seats in the class.
  • Fairly quantitative or straightforward admissions procedures that don’t require deep comparison between applicants.
  • Many nontraditional or currently employed applicants who aren’t used to planning their lives around an application season.
  • Many applicants who are either going to this program or not going to school at all (i.e., the applicant won’t have to weigh acceptances against each other).

Most types of programs, graduate or undergraduate, will have at least a couple of rolling admissions offerings available. In the U.S. college world, these are often large state schools who are confident they will get way more qualified applicants than they need and have a public service mission beyond simply accepting the most elite candidates. For some professionally oriented graduate programs (for example, a master of finance), almost all schools have rolling admissions. And for some program types the divide is regional, with U.S. schools using rounds and European schools rolling.

What’s the winning strategy?

In general, the earlier the better. Most rolling admissions schools have an application window that ends long after most of their competitors’ deadline rounds, but at selective programs the seats may have been filled long before that date.

On the other hand, rolling admissions programs are generally less selective. No Ivy League institution accepts undergraduate applications on a rolling basis, and the colleges that do tend to have acceptance rates north of 40 percent.  Even within the types of graduate program where rolling admissions dominate, the exceptions are at the high end.

Consider the master of finance, where almost all of the top 25 schools have rolling admissions, except the highest ranking American program, MIT Sloan. In situations like this, the elite universities are essentially calling “dibs” on the best applicants, knowing that they can afford to be inflexible. So earlier is always better, but a strong applicant may not need the boost given rolling admissions programs’ tendency to have higher acceptance rates.

There is another key element though: the decision deadline, or when the university requires applicants to accept or reject their offer of admissions. For most schools, this deadline is after the end of the application window, meaning that you could submit your application in September, receive an acceptance letter in November, and not commit to attend until May, after hearing back about your other applications.

However, some schools require a response within X weeks of the admit notification. Early applications to this type of program are effectively early decision applications—you will have to decide before you know how your other applications fared. This affects not only your own application timing, but also that of everyone else, meaning that schools of this type may receive fewer applications early and have more spots open later in the year than programs without a tight decision deadline.

What if I’m a bit late?

Rolling admissions programs tend to be open to applications later than universities using rounds, making them ideal targets for latecomers who only tuned in to the admissions process after December deadlines passed. It is certainly possible to gain admission late in the game, but applicants should understand that this will be significantly more challenging. Even a school with a high overall acceptance rate can become very selective by March as the number of seats dwindles, so cast a wide net and apply to plenty of safety schools.

The rolling admissions system also injects an additional element of chance into the process—if an adcom did a poor job forecasting applicant numbers and quality, they may have a lot of seats still available or none at all. Finally, later applicants must accept that they could probably do better if they submitted early for next year rather than late for this one. Whether climbing X steps up the university rankings is worth a year’s delay is a decision applicants must make based on their personal circumstances.

What’s the bottom line?

The quality of your application is what matters most, no matter what deadline structure the admissions committee uses. A rolling admissions system can create urgency to submit ASAP, but if delaying your application a week will mean more time and thought put into your essays and supporting materials, it’s almost always the right move.

Good luck!


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