What Colleges Can Learn About Applicants From When They Apply

Roche mug for CHE[1]What can admissions offices learn about prospective students based on when they send in their applications? Quite a bit, writes James Roche in a guest post today. Mr. Roche, associate provost for enrollment management at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, will present on this topic at the annual meeting this week of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Several years ago, as director of institutional research and a member of the enrollment-management team at Washington State University, I and some of my colleagues were reviewing our admissions process. As we pored over an already-very-thorough application-review procedure to see what else we could consider, one member of the group joked that maybe we should just admit students as they applied, first come first served, until we hit our enrollment target.

While we never pursued that route, the idea made me wonder if there was a connection between when in the admissions cycle applicants submitted their application and other factors, such as their incoming quality measures and their performance and persistence at the university.

Not long after the discussion with my colleagues, I became associate vice president for enrollment management at Washington State, and became more intrigued with the question. I began my analysis of it by charting six years of WSU data showing the date when entering freshmen had submitted their applications.

Visualizing the data as a timeline made it immediately clear that a significant number of applicants wait until late in the admissions cycle. Although the university’s application priority date is January 31, less than half of applications arrived before January, and about a quarter weren’t completed until several days before the deadline. Human nature being what it is, I wasn’t surprised.

A change of jobs gave me the opportunity to compare data from two state universities. Despite different admissions processes at the two institutions, the submit-date patterns were the same. At UMass-Amherst, where we use an early-action/regular-decision approach, the line graph shows a significant spike in submissions near the November 1 early-action deadline and another spike near January 15 for regular decision.

The question that persists is whether the date that applicants submit their applications has anything at all to do with their overall academic quality and the impact it has on persistence and performance. The short answer is: Yes!

Before giving a few highlights I should point out that, for the sake of comparison and discussion, I combined applicants’ high-school GPAs and standardized-test scores into a single composite quality score. The resulting composite score has a maximum value of 3600. While the data that follow and appear in the table below are for UMass-Amherst, the WSU data showed the same results.

The analysis supported the common notion that students with higher composite scores tend to submit their applications earlier in the cycle. As a result, early submitters tend to have better outcomes. However, when you compare those outcome measures with the application-submission date within the same composite-score range, differences in performance and persistence begin to appear.

Application Timing and Academic Performance

Composite quality score Month application submitted Average high-school GPA Average SAT score
(critical reading and math)
Average 1st-year college GPA Percentage with
1st-year college GPA less than 2.0
retention rate
2750 to 3600 November 3.96 1282 3.50 1.4% 94%
2750 to 3600 January 3.94 1281 3.33 2.8% 92%
2600 to 2749 November 3.66 1201 3.22 1.8% 93%
2600 to 2749 January 3.65 1206 3.04 5.0% 91%
2450 to 2599 November 3.47 1135 3.11 2.5% 92%
2450 to 2599 January 3.47 1132 2.86 9.2% 83%
2350 to 2449 November 3.37 1052 3.06 2.9% 90%
2350 to 2449 January 3.35 1066 2.78 7.6% 78%


In this chart showing data on three cohorts of entering students at UMass-Amherst, those with scores between 2750 and 3600 who submitted their application for regular decision in November were retained at a 94-percent rate and had a UMass first-year GPA average of 3.50. Only 1.4 percent of them ended their first year with a GPA of less than 2.0.

Their counterparts in the same range who applied within two weeks of the January 15 deadline showed a 92-percent retention rate and a first-year GPA of 3.33, and 2.8 percent of them finished the year with a GPA of less than 2.0.

Those differences may seem marginal, but as you descend into the lower composite-score groups, the differences are much sharper. Using the same submission-date comparisons of November versus two weeks before the January 15 deadline, the 2450-to-2599 group had a first-year retention rate of 92 percent (November) versus 83 percent (January); a first-year UMass GPA of 3.11 versus 2.86; and only 2.5 percent with a first-year GPA less than 2.0 versus 9.2 percent.

By the way, notice that the applicants from the 2450-to-2599 range who applied in November had essentially the same outcomes as those in the 2750-to-3600 range who applied two weeks before the January deadline.

So what’s going on? Research on the traits of successful people suggests that, among other things, they are organized, focused, detail-oriented, efficient, confident, conscientious, responsible, resilient, committed, motivated, and decisive. The same descriptions are used when talking about predictors of student success.

It’s likely that the same behavior that drives the application process also drives performance in the classroom. While many students possess those characteristics before they get to college, others look to their university experience to help develop them.

Other factors related to why students succeed and persist are interwoven with those traits. For example, their commitment to the university in which they enroll is likely to be stronger if it was their first choice rather than their safety school.

The academic qualifications applicants bring play an important role in their success, but the point in the admissions cycle when they submit their application provides an additional layer of insight. When integrated with other predictors of success, such as noncognitive inventories and indexes, the submit date can help determine the level of support and the kind of guidance and direction students are likely to need in their college careers.

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