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So far so good for a return to the old way of admissions. Harvard College recently announced that it has received 4,245 applications in its first early action application cycle since 2006. When Harvard announced the reversal of its decision to end early admissions, along with Princeton, in February 2011, we agreed with the choice to consider early action applications so long as the system would be carefully guarded against disadvantaging students from lower socio-economic or rural backgrounds and used to help increase campus diversity. The College’s admissions office should do what it can to attract the most talented and diverse applicants possible to submit early applications. In the recent announcement, Dean William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 spoke of the striking diversity of the early action applicants; assuming Harvard can deliver on its pledge to attract more diverse students at this stage, the advantages of the policy change are not limited to attracting the best talent.
In recent years, college admissions has become so competitive that high school seniors regularly apply to a dozen or more colleges and lose the ability to put careful thought into each college to which they apply. Colleges, in turn, are driven to market themselves aggressively and recruit as many applicants (and later matriculates) as possible, knowing that they are, for many students, but one of an extensive list of attractive options. Though many interpret the College’s reintroduction of early action as an exacerbation of this vicious cycle, we believe that early action in fact does the opposite: In choosing just one out of a number of colleges that offer single-choice early admissions programs applicants are compelled to research their options carefully and apply early to the college that best suits their needs. In light of this, we welcome the success of Harvard’s first early action cycle in five years, and we encourage colleges to use early admissions to market their individuality and promote discernment in the college search.
The race for the greatest number of applicants has resulted in a “vanilla” marketing strategy among colleges—instead of advertising their distinct personalities to high school students colleges often try to make themselves appear to be all things to all applicants, an approach that is unhelpful and misleading. Colleges should be frank about their strengths, weaknesses, and campus culture. For instance, Harvard may not be an ideal choice for a student who strives to be the best at everything that they do and admissions officers would do well to point that out. Because students often can only apply early to one private college, like Harvard, and one state or public school, the early admissions cycle requires applicants to choose carefully. This will hopefully incentivize colleges to accentuate their individuality.
This focus on presenting a college’s individuality should help the admissions office to work with a clearly defined approach toward an early action program that does not recreate the same situation that led to its abolition in 2006. While we are glad to see Harvard’s administration, including Dean Fitzsimmons, stress the importance of working hard at increasing diversity among early applicants, without greater transparency about the applicants students, prospective students, and our wider community have no way of telling how fruitful results have been. Dean Fitzsimmons’ recent statement that the pool of 4,245 applicants is “a very diverse group ethnically” is scant in detail and not necessarily a sign of increased socio-economic diversity among early applicants. Popular criticism of early action and early decision programs, not just at Harvard but across many schools, has focused on its exploitation by legacy students looking to apply where they know they have the best chance before others have made up their minds or have the support structure to complete an early application.
Given that Harvard’s undergraduate classes have been substantially diverse for some time now, a very ethnically diverse group might conceivably also be full of legacy applicants, or else simply students from a privileged background. While a raw statistical breakdown of this year’s applicants will likely not emerge until April or May 2012, we urge the admissions office to make early action a true opportunity to find the applicants for whom Harvard is the best fit—wherever and in whatever circumstance they grow up. We are glad to see so many applicants applying through early action, and hope that it makes applicants think hard about where they really see themselves going to school.
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