Harvard Changes Admissions Policy for Early Applicants

Echoing similar decisions made in the last year by Yale, Princeton, and Brown Universities, Harvard College announced last Thursday that it plans to modify its Early Action (EA) policy next year for the Class of 2008. Under the new policy, which will affect current Phillips Academy Uppers and beyond, students who apply for early acceptance to Harvard will learn of their admissions decision by mid-December, but will not be permitted to apply early to another institution. However, those students accepted to Harvard will not have to notify the school as to whether they wish to attend until May 1, thus allowing them to apply to other colleges under the regular decision program. According to Harvard Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons, the policy is a result of an unfortunate trend that has seen students apply early to selective universities because they feel required to do so to gain admission, even if they do not have enough knowledge to make an informed decision about where they want to attend. Harvard’s previous admissions policy adhered to the EA plan, by which students may apply early to as many colleges as they would like, including binding Early Decision (ED) schools, with the condition that they would attend the ED school, if accepted. According to a statement issued on Harvard’s website, the university’s new policy aligns more closely with the “original intent of the national early admission programs that began nearly half a century ago: that students with a clear and well-considered interest in a particular college have the option of being informed of their admission prior to the normal spring notification date.” Last year, Harvard received 7,600 applications for early admission – a figure that represented a 1,500 increase from the previous year. Mr. Fitzsimmons noted that another such gain could make it more difficult for the Harvard admissions staff to make thoughtful decisions about the fate of individual applicants Harvard explained that the heightened interest in the early admissions program has resulted from a general rise in the intensity level of the college admissions process: students and their parents now spend more time learning about the process, and colleges themselves also devote an unprecedented amount of time to recruiting talented applicants. Consequently, many students feel that they must apply early to a college, regardless of whether or not they have explored their options thoroughly. Often, students believe the popular myth that an early acceptance appears more prestigious than a regular one and that it is less difficult to be accepted as an early applicant. In addition, colleges do not make the admissions process any easier for their applicants; from 1991 to 1996, the number of colleges with early admissions programs rose by 20 percent. However, a statement on Harvard’s website stresses that, “higher Early Action acceptance rates reflect the remarkable strength of Early Action applicant pools – not less rigorous admissions standards.” Furthermore, the statement noted, “There is no incentive whatsoever for Early Action colleges to admit weaker candidates early and then have to reject stronger Regular Action candidates. Diminishing the quality of the student body would be antithetical to the goals of any institution.” These statements explain that while Regular Decision may represent a wise choice for a student whose academic and extracurricular records have not been consistently strong, EA is suitable for those satisfied with their transcripts. Such a fact may account for why Harvard’s EA pool is historically stronger than that of its Regular Action program. According to the university’s website, there are two features of their EA program that the school feels make it a better choice than a binding ED policy that several selective universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth College, and Cornell University, still employ. The first such feature of Harvard’s program is the flexibility which it allows students in choosing colleges. For example, if a student is accepted by Harvard’s EA program, the student is then able to explore other college choices during the remainder of his or her Senior year while having one college option secure. Harvard cites this flexibility as a reason as to why its graduation rate, 97 percent, stands as the nation’s highest. The second positive aspect of Harvard’s admission program is the opportunity that it provides for students to explore multiple financial aid options. Two different colleges may offer racially different financial aid packages, and, as 70 percent of Harvard’s student body receives some sort of financial aid, it is a pertinent issue for accepted students. The press release on Harvard’s website stated, “Both Regular Action and Early Action have allowed students the opportunity to use the full Senior year to reflect on their future plans and to focus on which college will provide the best educational foundation for their individual needs and aspirations.” This year, the PA Class of 2003 boasted a 24 percent admissions rate to Harvard. This percentage is significantly higher than Harvard’s overall admissions rate of 11 percent. In addition, 58 percent of those Andover students accepted to Harvard applied under the EA program. The comparatively high Harvard admissions rate for this year’s Seniors also marks an increase from the 19 percent who gained admission to the university last year.