Several years ago, there was a rumor circulating that applying in the early rounds of the admissions cycle was a bad idea. The premise was that schools didn’t admit too many people early on, and didn’t award many scholarships, because they were waiting to see if anyone better came along. Hoping that it would be advantageous, candidates were opting to delay their applications, even if they were otherwise ready to submit.
Based on my experience at Dartmouth, as well as conversations with my peers at other schools, I strongly advise you to apply in the earliest round for which you are ready. The bottom line is that there are more spots available and more scholarship dollars on the table. While schools hope that there are many applicants in the pipeline, they never know how many people will apply in subsequent rounds. Committees also don’t know what the quality of the pool is likely to be, so if you are a decent candidate, they do not want to risk losing you, and will lean toward admission. If you wait until later rounds, many seats are indeed already filled and the dynamic has shifted – not in your favor. As the season continues, admissions committees feel confident that they will yield a strong class and are focused on keeping their test scores and grade point averages high, as well as managing selectivity and yield, all of which are important for rankings. This means that committees generally have less leeway to admit candidates with below average numbers, for example, and that they are going to look for candidates with truly exceptional characteristics in order to round out the class.
This does not mean that you should rush to submit your application if your essays, scores, etc, are not where they need to be. If taking more time enables you to present a stronger candidacy, albeit in a later round, then you are better off delaying. However, if you are almost ready to apply and were wondering if it was worth the effort required to submit now, it may well be worth the push.