College Reports 4,245 Early-Action Applicants

First admissions season since early action reinstated

Harvard College reported today that 4,245 students have applied for admission under the “early-action” option reinstated for this year. Early action gives applicants the option of applying by November 1 (this year extended to November 4 because of late-October storms in the Northeast), with notification of admissions decisions on December 15; offers of acceptance are not binding on admitted applicants, but they are not permitted to apply early to other institutions.


Harvard announced in 2006 that it was eliminating early action, and moving to a single January 1 deadline. The decision then, according to interim Harvard president Derek Bok, was motivated by concern that early admissions tend to advantage the advantaged: applicants from more affluent communities and schools with more resources, like savvy guidance counselors. Conversely, students from less well-off families and communities were considered more likely to need to compare financial-aid offers from different institutions, and were perhaps less likely to be well advised on applying for admission early. Princeton and the University of Virginia followed suit.

But no other institutions did, putting the three outlying schools at somewhat of a disadvantage in an increasingly competitive, even frenzied, applications environment. In November 2010, Virginia reversed course, reinstating an early-application option.

Last February, President Drew Faust announced that the College would reinstate early admissions, noting “Over the past several years…interest in early admissions has increased, as students and families from across the economic spectrum seek certainty about college choices and financing. Our goal now is to reinstitute an early-action program consistent with our bedrock commitment to access, affordability, and excellence.” She said then that Harvard would step up its recruiting, and that more diverse students were in fact seeking early options. According to Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean Michael D. Smith, “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. We have decided that the College and our students will be best served by restoring an early option.”

Princeton reinstated early admissions the same day Harvard did. President Shirley M. Tilghman said then, “In eliminating our early program four years ago, we hoped other colleges and universities would do the same and they haven’t. One consequence is that some students who really want to make their college decision as early as possible in their senior year apply to other schools early, even if their first choice is Princeton.”

In a 2003 book review, dean of admissions and financial aid William R. Fitzsimmons examined the factors that motivate schools to adopt nonbinding early-action and binding early-decision policies. Harvard has never had a binding early-decision policy, he wrote then, “because we want applicants to have their entire senior year not only to compare financial-aid offers, but to consider carefully whether Harvard provides the best ‘fit’ for them at this point in their lives.” Accordingly, the newly restored early-action program remains nonbinding; students who apply by November 1 will receive a response by December 15; students who apply by the regular deadline of January 1 are notified on March 29 next spring. The deadline for all students to declare their intent to attend is May 1.

Class of 2016 Early Action

According to the Harvard news release, “this year’s applicant pool is considerably more diverse ethnically and socioeconomically than that of any previous early-action cycle. Compared with the class of 2011, when 4,010 applied early, African Americans now comprise 9.1 percent of the pool, a 61 percent increase [approximately 385 applicants this year, versus 240 in the prior period]; Latinos comprise 9.1 percent, a 31 percent increase [approximately 385 versus 295]; Native Americans make up 1.1 percent, a 29 percent increase [approximately 47 versus 36]; and financial-aid applicants are nearly 72 percent of the pool, a 9.4 percent increase [approximately 3,056 versus 2,793]."

According to Fitzsimmons, as quoted in the Harvard release, “One of our major concerns about early action in the past was a lack of diversity. The additional travel we conducted in nearly 20 cities with Princeton and the University of Virginia may have played a part in changing that. We look forward to sustaining that outreach in the future even though all three of us have returned to early admission. All three institutions have also emphasized the public-policy benefits of inclusionary admissions and financial-aid policies in other recruitment, particularly important in these challenging economic times.” (In its report on the announcement, the Crimson quoted Fitzsimmons as saying that the current early-action pool would remain less diverse than the overall pool of applicants: “It is certainly true that if you look at students from most ethnic backgrounds and certainly true for students who need financial aid, they are much less likely to have access to counseling that other students would have. It’s certainly far [more diverse] than it was in the past. I still believe that differential opportunities will continue to produce the kind of results we’ve seen in early admission.”)

At Other Institutions

Yale reported an 18 percent drop in early applications, a result it attributed to the renewed Harvard and Princeton programs, according to the Yale Daily News.

The New York Times’s blog, The Choice, on college admissions, is toting up early applications at schools across the country. For example, Duke, with binding early-decision admissions, had 23 percent more applicants this year. Stanford’s results were essentially flat.

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