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John Harvard's Journal

Stemming the Applications Flood

May-June 2003

Harvard College will henceforth require that early-action applicants for admission not apply early elsewhere. Students admitted early to Harvard, in December, remain free to apply to other institutions in the regular action cycle (where offers of admission are mailed April 1), and need not make their final choice before May 1, the national "common reply" date. This change returns Harvard to its earlier practice, and aligns it with the original intent of early admissions, at a time when such policies are under scrutiny and in transition nationwide (see "'Entering the Elite'").

According to William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid, Harvard's decision benefits students. The College received a record 7,600-plus early applications this year, 1,500 more than last year. The rapidly expanding early-admission pool, he said, might suggest that more students were rushing into premature college choices — applying early to multiple colleges they have barely explored in the hope of gaining an edge over other applicants. Advancing the college-admission timetable in this way affects course selection and student behavior in high school; strains the capacity of teachers and counselors to advise students and write letters of recommendation; and tests colleges' ability to evaluate applicants adequately during the short time available in the fall.

Harvard had changed its policy last year to conform to guidelines adopted by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the nation's largest organization for high-school counselors. Seeking to maximize flexibility for students, the association said colleges could not restrict applicants to filing a single early application. Then, last fall, Yale and Stanford announced they would eliminate binding "early decision" and would instead move to "early action," preserving students' freedom to decide where to enroll until the spring of their senior years. But while moving in this direction, they decided to limit applicants to a single "early" school, the standard to which Harvard now reverts.