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College Revises Early Action Restrictions

Early applicants must wait to send applications to other schools

By Dan Rosenheck, Crimson Staff Writer

After a sharp rise in Early Action applications this year, the University announced yesterday that it would re-institute a policy preventing applicants from applying early to both Harvard and other colleges.

In an effort to comply with national guidelines established in fall 2001, Harvard decided last year that it would allow its Early Action candidates to also apply early to an Early Decision school.

Students accepted through Early Action at Harvard are not required to enroll. By contrast, students applying through an Early Decision program at other colleges are obligated to attend if accepted.

The College reversed course after an unprecedented increase in early applications stretched Byerly Hall’s resources to the limit with applications from many students who were not eligible to enroll, according to Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67.

This fall, early applications soared from their customary level of 6,000 to around 7,500. But according to Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-’73, 88 students who were accepted early—about one in 13—withdrew their applications when they were accepted to other colleges under binding Early Decision, slightly decreasing Harvard’s early yield, which at its traditional level near 90 percent is the highest in the country.

“[The policy change] allows us to focus on those candidates who are free to accept our offer,” said McGrath Lewis. “It’s more honest and simpler for applicants…We did expend a great deal of effort in evaluating people who would not have been in the pool [under the old policy], and we would prefer not to do it again.”

McGrath Lewis said University President Lawrence H. Summers approved the change yesterday.

“Our return to a single early application policy is far better for students,” Summers said in a press release. “It is more closely aligned with the original intent of early admission programs, which are designed for students with a clear and well-considered interest in a particular college or university. This kind of program was never intended to put extra pressure on students by moving the deadline for multiple applications into the early fall.”

The old policy left applicants who had been accepted early by both Harvard and an Early Decision school holding a Harvard acceptance letter they could not use without violating their commitment to another college.

Last spring, Harvard’s Standing Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid discussed letting those students enroll anyway, but administrators decided against it after a series of critical articles ran in national newspapers.

While most students in this situation honored their Early Decision agreement and withdrew, McGrath Lewis said, three or four failed to withdraw their Harvard applications. In one case, she said, the University was recently informed by another elite institution that a student whom that college had accepted under Early Decision was also accepted through Regular Action at Harvard after being deferred. When Harvard contacted the student, according to McGrath Lewis, she said she “forgot” that she was expected to withdraw her application to Harvard.

“I don’t doubt she will do the right thing,” McGrath Lewis said. “[But if not,] we will say no thanks.”

In a “handful” of cases, according to Fitzsimmons, students with other binding commitments tried to enroll at Harvard anyway, but were told they could not after an admissions official spoke to their college counselors.

“We spent a great deal of time with a relatively small number of people who ended up being admitted here and to a binding Early Decision college,” Fitzsimmons said. “This is not easy. But we were very clear. If they were admitted binding Early Decision somewhere else, they really had to go.”

However, he said, Harvard did not inform those students’ Early Decision schools that they had tried to break their commitments and attend Harvard.

The greatest number of students who could not accept Harvard’s early offer of admission because of an Early Decision commitment attended Yale, followed by Stanford—although one such takeaway was scored by the University of Indiana at Bloomington. Princeton did not allow its Early Decision candidates to apply early elsewhere.

Much of the enforcement for Early Decision agreements was undertaken by high schools, who could endanger their relationships with colleges if their students backed out of binding agreements. According to Stephen Singer, the college counselor at Horace Mann School in the Bronx, Horace Mann required students applying early to multiple colleges—and their parents—to sign a written promise to attend their Early Decision school if accepted. This agreement was included in their files, he said, and specified that if they tried to renege on their agreements, Horace Mann would call the relevant colleges and inform them of the situation.

“We intended to be as vigilant as humanly possible,” he said.

By reverting to its prior policy, Harvard’s rules now conflict with the definitions adopted by the National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) in September 2001, which prompted Harvard to try allowing its Early Action candidates to apply elsewhere Early Decision. NACAC’s written policies require that its member colleges conform to its definitions or risk expulsion from the organization.

But now that a number of leading institutions are disregarding NACAC’s rule allowing Early Decision applicants to also apply Early Action—Princeton, Brown, Yale, Stanford and now Harvard all limit their early candidates to one early application—NACAC has decided to delay enforcement until it can review its definition, according to Martin A. Wilder, NACAC vice president for admission, counseling and enrollment practices.

Bruce Breimer, the college counselor at New York’s Collegiate School, said it was not surprising that NACAC would back down after facing resistance from its most influential members.

“Harvard was trying to be a good team player, but NACAC doesn’t have the stature that a misplaced guideline should induce colleges to do things they don’t want to do,” he said. “NACAC is a well-intentioned bureaucratic organization that has never shown the kind of leadership that would give it that kind of standing.”

Harvard’s return to its old policy aligns it with Yale and Stanford, who announced this fall they would end their binding Early Decision programs and offer Early Action next fall—and like Harvard, they will not allow their early candidates to file other early applications.

Last year, Harvard was the only college among the nation’s four most selective institutions to offer Early Action, but after the shifts by Yale and Stanford, only Princeton still requires early applicants to enroll.

Wilder said this might represent an emerging consensus on early admissions policy among the most selective schools.

“It may be moving in the direction [of consensus],” he said, “but only of a very small, extremely selective group of schools.”

But Breimer said he thought it was unlikely that the nation’s elite schools would offer the same early admissions policy in the near future.

“There’s no move towards unanimity or uniformity,” he said. “Early Decision has worked well for Princeton. Is this the start of some sort of uniform policy? I doubt it.”

Princeton’s outgoing Dean of Admission, Fred Hargadon, has traditionally been a devoted supporter of Early Decision. Breimer said his successor would likely take two years before deciding whether to change Princeton’s policy in order to see how Yale and Stanford’s moves to Early Action affected their yields, or the proportion of accepted students who attend.

—Staff writer Dan Rosenheck can be reached at

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