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For the second straight year, Yale had the lowest early acceptance rate in the Ivy League.

With 724 students accepted from a pool of 4,084, the percentage of undergraduate applicants admitted early this fall dropped to 17.7 percent from last year’s acceptance rate of 17.9 percent, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel said last week, while 48 percent of early applicants were deferred and 33.3 percent were rejected. No other Ivy League university accepted less than 20 percent of its early applicants.

University officials said Yale’s relatively low acceptance rate was to be expected, given the University’s 2003 switch to a single-choice early action policy and the subsequent surge in early applications.

“The acceptance percentage was lower because the number of early applications was higher,” Yale President Richard Levin said. “We continue to see a very strong early applicant pool.”

Brenzel said he sees the small difference between last year’s and this year’s acceptance rates as an indication that the number of students applying early and the number Yale would like to accept has reached a balance that pleases University officials.

“We have not wanted to accept more students early for two reasons,” Brenzel said. “One, we already feel that applicants tend to overestimate the importance of an early application, and we do not want to make this worse, and two, we are perhaps less focused on boosting our yield percentage and more focused on making sure that we give a thoughtful review to the full pool of applicants and make ourselves accessible to the very best students overall.”

In the three years since the University introduced single-choice early action, approximately 88 percent of students admitted early have chosen Yale. Brenzel said he expects a similar percentage to matriculate at Yale this year.

Among the Ivies, Brown University was the second most selective, with an acceptance rate of 22.7 percent. While Yale received 3.5 percent more early applications than last year, Brown received 16 percent more applications, an increase that Brown Dean of Admissions Jim Miller said he attributes to a continuing student response to the university’s 2003 adoption of a need-blind admissions policy.

“We see early decision this year for us as a harbinger for regular,” Miller said. “We took fewer students early in order to make sure we have enough room.”

Among Yale’s non-Ivy League peer institutions, only the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had a lower early acceptance rate, taking 377 of its 3,100 applicants for an admissions rate of 12.2 percent. Stanford University accepted 18.9 percent of its early applicants.

Columbia and Princeton universities were the next most selective Ivies, with acceptance rates of 25.9 percent and 26.8 percent, respectively. Harvard University had the fifth most selective rate, admitting 807 of its 3,872 applicants for an early acceptance rate of 28.1 percent, a sizeable jump from last year’s 21 percent. Harvard deferred 73 percent of its applicants and denied only 3.8 percent, said Marlyn McGrath Lewis, Harvard’s director of admissions.

Barbara Sarullo, the director of college counseling at Scarsdale High School in Scarsdale, N.Y., said that roughly the same percentage of students were accepted early at the Ivies from Scarsdale High as last year. But she said more students were deferred, as opposed to rejected, at the Ivies than in the past.

“If a student is not going to be admitted regular, then it is preferable for the student to be rejected rather than deferred,” she said.

Brenzel said Yale rejects a third of its early applicants to help them move on with their admissions processes. Last year, about 13 percent of deferred students were accepted in regular decision.

“We let more students know that their application won’t be accepted primarily in order to help them shift their focus and efforts to other schools,” he said. “We do try to defer only those candidates who we believe have a legitimate chance of being accepted in the spring.”

This year, the University of Pennsylvania had an early acceptance rate of 28.6 percent — down from last year’s 34 percent — admitting 1,180 of its 4,120 applicants. Dartmouth University posted a 30.2 percent acceptance rate this fall. Cornell University did not respond to repeated requests for early admissions figures.

David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association of College Admissions Counselors, said he believes the acceptance rates of the Ivy League schools have generally begun to stabilize.

“There haven’t really been any dramatic policy changes in the past couple of years,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to see any radical changes in the acceptance rates. At the most selective schools, there seems to be a never-ending demand among early [applicants].”

Students who applied to Yale by the Jan. 1 regular decision deadline or whose early applications were deferred will be notified of their admissions outcomes by the beginning of April.