This year, a record 7,615 students submitted Early Action (EA) applications to Harvard, up from last year’s record-breaker of 6,125, he said.
Fitzsimmons said the media spotlight on early admissions—beginning with “The Early Decision Racket,” an article by James M. Fallows ’70 that appeared in the Sept. 2001 issue of Atlantic Monthly—led to an increase of interest in early admissions programs.
“It makes a certain amount of sense...that, in general, early programs would see increases,” Fitzsimmons said.
Harvard was not the only highly competitive college to see a large jump in early applications.
According to a Nov. 13 story in the Yale Daily News, Yale received about 23 percent more early admissions applications, going from 2,100 in 2001 to 2,600 this year.
Marcela Muniz, assistant dean of admissions at Stanford, said her office had received 2,465 early applications this year, a 3 percent increase compared to last year’s figure of 2,391.
Fitzsimmons said the recent focus on the relative merits of nonbinding EA policies like Harvard’s, as opposed to the more prevalent Early Decision (ED) policy, where students promise to attend a first-choice school in exchange for a December admissions decision, might have made EA more attractive to applicants, particularly those for whom financial aid might be a consideration.
Georgetown University, another EA school, saw its early application numbers rise from about 4,400 to over 5,200, according to Georgetown spokesperson Julie Bataille.
“There was clearly a preference for EA [over ED],” said Joe Prieto, an admissions counselor at the Illinois Math and Science Academy.
This June, Harvard found itself at the center of the early admissions debate when a change in National Association for College Admission Counseling guidelines raised the possibility that Harvard might allow students who had been accepted under other schools’ binding ED programs to apply to and enroll at the College.
After criticism in the media, Harvard released a clarifying statement in July telling students accepted under ED at other schools that they had to withdraw all other applications.
But according to Fitzsimmons, who said he has “no idea” whether any of this year’s early applicants have submitted simultaneous applications to other EA or ED schools, the publicity had a positive effect on interest in applying early to Harvard.
“The more Harvard is in the news, the better it is from a recruiting point of view,” he said.
Fitzsimmons also attributed the increase to Harvard’s intensive recruitment efforts, which had received a “very good” response this year.
Admissions recruiting—Harvard toured 110 U.S. cities and “a good portion of the world”—might also help explain “uneven” geographic trends within the aggregate increase, he said.
The number of international early applicants rose by 46 percent—520 this year compared to 357 last year.
Fitzsimmons said he expected this trend would continue, especially since Harvard had “a new president and a new dean for whom internationalization is certainly a very high priority.”
Additionally, both the Pacific and mid-Atlantic regions saw 30.4 percent increases in early applications. Increases in other regions ranged “anywhere from 13 to 19 percent,” Fitzsimmons said.
Suggesting another potential explanation for the regional discrepancies, Fitzsimmons said that there had been “some speculation...that the events of 9-11 may have kept down the numbers of applications from the West Coast and some of the applications from abroad, particularly in the Middle East” in 2001.
The size of Harvard’s increase surprised college counselors at secondary schools that traditionally send a number of students to Harvard.
“Twenty-five percent is huge,” said Stephen Singer, director of college counseling at Horace Mann, a private school in the Bronx, N.Y.
“It’s a significant increase, no matter how you cut it,” said Lawrence J. Momo, director of college counseling at Trinity School, a private school in Manhattan.
Momo said that his office had sent “roughly the same number” of early admissions applications to Harvard this year.
Prieto, Singer and counselors at Stuyvesant, a magnet public high school in Manhattan, Collegiate, a private school in Manhattan and Roxbury Latin, a private school in Boston, concurred, noting that they had seen little—if any—change in the number of early applications to Harvard from their schools.
But Bruce Breimer, Collegiate’s director of college guidance, said he could understand the increases in terms of the national focus on early admissions programs.
“We have early on the brain,” he said. “In some ways I’m surprised that [Collegiate’s number of early applicants] are not up more.”
Singer said he attributed the surges in early admissions applications to “the frenzy of early.”
“It’s perceived increasingly to be a strategic advantage, and more and more kids are applying early in the hope of getting it over with,” he said.
Fitzsimmons, who said the increased number of applications has produced “a lot of work in a short time” for Harvard’s admissions office, said that he still expected Harvard to notify its early applicants as scheduled, on Dec. 13.
“We had to be creative, but we’ve gotten through it successfully,” he said.
—Staff writer Divya A. Mani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.