Jan 8, 2011

Harvard Ponders Position on Early Admission

Shortly after the University of Virginia announced a return to non-binding Early Action, Princeton promptly reaffirmed its commitment to a “single review” process and indicated a desire to maintain the traveling roadshow the two schools created with Harvard several years ago.

“It works for us,” commented Robyn Kent, Princeton’s associate dean of admission. “President Tilghman is very committed to single review, and we have no plans to change our current application procedures.”

But now Harvard isn’t so sure. With the passing of the January 1st freshman application deadline, admissions staff may be taking a closer look at the costs and benefits of a process that results in relatively late submission of applications and supporting materials.

“We’re in the midst of a major study,” said Harvard Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William Fitzsimmons, in an interview with the Harvard Crimson. “At the moment, we don’t anticipate any changes, but we’re a dynamic institution.”

But change is clearly in the wind. In conversations concerning issues with the Common Application, Fitzsimmons expressed frustration with glitches in a system that prohibits colleges from downloading recommendations and transcripts earlier in the process.

For colleges with a “single review” process, meaning no Early Decision or Early Action, this can result in artificially long delays in receiving materials and getting application files started. These delays often result in bottlenecks toward the end of the process when the floodgate of materials suddenly opens.

Process problems combined with the understandable priorities of students seeking to submit at least one early application can result in a frantic rush of documents toward the end of the application cycle. And this makes staff crazy.

Harvard, along with UVa and Princeton, originally dropped its early admission program out of concern that the practice unfairly benefited more affluent or better coached students. At the time, all three schools hoped other high-profile colleges would follow their lead and join them in eliminating similar programs. That didn’t happen.

A side benefit of eliminating early admission was also considered the ability to set aside six weeks of fall travel time for carefully targeted recruitment trips. Without early notification deadlines, the three schools were able to use the extra downtime to promote greater accessibility in admissions.

But the free time has turned into more of a liability than a benefit, as applicants consider other schools and admissions possibilities before they begin preparing materials for schools with later deadlines. By December, high school students frequently claim to be burned out by the process and have little patience for starting new applications or beginning another set of supplementary essays.

Although UVa says the return to early action was a result of requests from counselors and parents, UVa’s Dean Roberts has been clear that the administrative nightmare of having so many applications come in December was an important factor in their consideration. There’s also been concern expressed about missed opportunities to recruit outstanding candidates before they commit to other schools.

Harvard has reviewed its decision every year, but the current review will be more extensive Dean Fitzsimmons told the Crimson. He promises, however, that the study will conclude in time for application materials for next year’s admissions season to be printed.

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