As Early Admissions Rise, So Does Pressure

UPDATED: March 27, 2014, at 12:29 a.m.

For the nearly 30,000 high school seniors who applied regular decision to Harvard’s Class of 2018, the number of unread emails in their inboxes will inconspicuously jump by one Thursday afternoon. After three months of anticipation, applicants to Harvard will click on an email which contains either congratulations or apologies.

But while their peers are anxiously watching their inboxes, 992 students have already received the golden ticket of admission through Harvard’s restrictive early action program. Those 992 students—the highest number admitted early in the last six early admissions cycles—represent about half of the approximately 2,000 students who will be admitted to the Class of 2018, based on analysis of admissions results from previous years.

Early Admissions By the Numbers

With more students applying and being accepted early, admissions counselors and experts say that the admissions process has been pushed earlier and earlier for many students in recent years.


“The admissions process is really beginning at age 15 in a lot of instances, instead of age 17,” Steven R. Goodman, an educational consultant and admissions strategist, said in an interview. “In light of this, students need to visit colleges early in order to be prepared earlier.”

While early birds are catching many acceptances, college counselors and students alike view the climate of early acceptance programs with ambivalence. Some say the programs can give students a beneficial head start, but others say they merely increase pressures and force certain demographics out of the ivy-covered gates.


Prompted by the rationale that early acceptance policies tended to disadvantage students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, Harvard’s Office of Admissions and Financial Aid eliminated the early action option for applications to the Class of 2012. The University of Virginia and Princeton University followed suit shortly thereafter and eliminated their early action programs.

At the time of the announcement in 2006, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 said the University would re-evaluate its admissions processes at the end of each admissions cycle and how they affected the demographics of the applicant pool.

In 2011, after a similar review, Harvard, along with the University of Virginia and Princeton, announced that the early action option would return for students applying to the Class of 2016.

“We looked carefully at trends in Harvard admissions these past years and saw that many highly talented students, including some of the best-prepared low-income and underrepresented minority students, were choosing programs with an early-action option, and therefore were missing out on the opportunity to consider Harvard,” Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith said in a statement at the time.

This year, applicants to the Class of 2018 represented the third early action pool since its reinstatement in 2011. Though the number of early applicants was slightly fewer than last year, the number admitted rose by just over 100, from 885 to 992.

High school students and admissions officers, noticing that a large portion of college acceptances are delivered early, note that early admission and decision programs, both old and reinstated, create pressures to begin college searches earlier.