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Getting A Lot of Action, Early


By Judd B. Kessler

When Harvard changed its early application policy last week—retaining early action, but forbidding applicants from applying early elsewhere—three prominent administrators publicly justified the switch. Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath-Lewis ’70-’73 and University President Lawrence H. Summers pitched the University’s line: that the policy switch would take stress off Byerly Hall and allow the admissions office to focus only on students who can legally choose to matriculate—all while making applicants better off.

Fitzsimmons told The Crimson and The New York Times that an increased number of applications had stretched the resources of Byerly Hall. He told the Times: “We got 7,600 early-admissions applications this year, 1,500 more than last year. Our system was approaching the point where another jump of that magnitude would make it very difficult to make thoughtful decisions.”

Yes, Harvard’s 1,500 early action application jump is truly tremendous—nearly a 25 percent increase and almost enough students to fill an entire incoming class. It’s also not incredibly surprising, since Harvard’s name has such a big draw and because there are few reasons not to apply early in a non-binding system. But while maintaining the thoughtful decisions essential to admissions, Byerly Hall ought to accommodate the increase. If applicants are strong enough to require more decision-making resources—more time spent around an admissions table—they can potentially make Harvard’s next class even better.

McGrath-Lewis told The Crimson that the policy change would simplify the process by allowing the admissions office to “focus on those candidates who are free to accept our offer.” Presently, Harvard’s early applicants can simultaneously apply early decision elsewhere, which means the College sends thick letters to some students who are legally bound to attend another school. And yes, the time and resources spent debating applicants who, in the end, cannot legally attend Harvard—88 were accepted last year, according to McGrath-Lewis—is a burden.

But it should be noted that most of these additional applications come attached with the standard $60 fee. Some have waivers instead, but 1,500 additional fees can add up to as much as $90,000—money that can cover the administrative costs associated with extra applications.

But only part of the burden of handling many early applications is monetary—the early process requires a faster turn-around. If feeling rushed, however, the admissions office can simply defer truly borderline students and reconsider them in the regular process. And the less restrictive policy gives these borderline students the chance of getting in early at another school.

But the extra deliberation time necessary under the current system may actually be well spent. If the goal of the process is to select the most qualified applicants, then Harvard must consider even those applicants who might get bound to another institution. The admissions game—especially in the Ivy League—becomes more and more of a craps shoot each year. Highly qualified students who would surely be great additions to Harvard’s incoming class—and no-doubt look sharp in Crimson—might not get into their binding early decision schools. Harvard should not dismiss them before they’ve even applied.

Some have raised fears that these changes are in response to a decrease in yield—the percentage of students who accept an offer to attend Harvard. Yield is used in the calculation of U.S. News and World Report rankings. And Harvard’s yield, which is the highest in the country at roughly 90 percent, will likely decrease if the College continues to accept students who may be bound elsewhere. Although it is misleading to count students in the yield who don’t have a choice in matriculation, if U.S. News continues to tabulate this way, Harvard should simply accept the slight drop in yield rather than change its policy.

Summers has erroneously charged that changing the early admissions policy would improve the process for high school applicants. He said in a press release: “Our return to a single early application policy is far better for students.... This kind of program was never intended to put extra pressure on students by moving the deadline for multiple applications into the early fall.”

But the change in the process does not directly benefit students. One of the main benefits for applying early is that it eliminates much of the uncertainty about where a student will matriculate. Students are served well by knowing their admissions status to schools in December, so that they can complete the process or readjust their expectations for their subsequent applications.

Fitzsimmons was right when he told the Times that “The process for high school seniors has become more and more frenzied.” But when he says that “Guidance counselors tell us it boils down to an early-application free-for-all, which is not healthy,” he must recognize that applying to college will remain an unhealthy free-for-all, regardless. Students are hurt if they are interested in multiple schools and can only apply to Harvard—without a chance of getting admitted early elsewhere. And Harvard is hurt if qualified students—who want to get in early and end the frenzied process—forsake Harvard to apply early to a few schools with more lenient early action programs.

Judd B. Kessler ’04 is an economics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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