Harvard, Princeton and Early Admissions

We examine the effects of Harvard and Princeton restoring to their early admission deadline, and advocate for the return of the single deadline.

So Harvard and Princeton have restored early admission after a four-year experiment with one deadline and one notification date. Alas, only one other high-ranking college--The University of Virginia--followed the lead of the Ivy League's erstwhile pioneers, which had hoped to set a laudable example for other colleges to emulate. But a funny thing happened on the way to admissions reform. Colleges like Yale, Columbia, and the University of North Carolina, which compete with Harvard, Princeton, and UVA for accomplished students, were happy to see more of the best talent enter their institutions through the door marked Early Admission.

It's a shame that the single-round approach to college admissions never caught on among the nation's more prestigious colleges. (It was, however, a predictable shame; some of our more experienced tutors told our clients back in 2006 that Harvard and Princeton were overestimating their influence on the policies of other schools.) Still, this short-lived reform is worthy of comment, albeit post mortem, for what it reveals about current trends in elite college admissions, as well as opportunities for more successful future reforms.

Over the past few years, those of us who keep a close eye on the decisions of high school students and their families as they prepare and apply for admission to top-ranked colleges have noticed a distinct, and not always beneficial, trend. In short, kids are doing everything a little bit earlier. Whereas students used to take the SAT in March of junior year, now they sit for it in January or even December. Just the other night, a mother asked me if her son, a tenth grader, should start SAT and ACT prep now or wait until the summer. I told her that I'd be happy to start tutoring now if that's what she and her son want because I'd hate to lose her as a customer, but that there was no urgency to her son's preparation. Now, every case is different, and for many students earlier test prep makes a lot of sense. But most students do not need to take, nor would they benefit from taking, the SAT or ACT in fall or winter of junior year.

I or another Noodle blogger will discuss the issue of when to prep in more detail in a future blog entry. For now, what interests me is what I see as the counterintuitive inverse effect that Harvard and Princeton's failed but noble experiment had on the current admissions scene. Paradoxically, by getting rid of early action in hopes of reducing student stress, the H-P-VA axis accelerated the process. Here's how: without early admission, Harvard and Princeton found themselves needing to secure commitments from certain high value applicants--athletes--before the deadline for students to submit early applications at competitor institutions. That is, they needed to lock in that all-state linebacker with high SAT scores and an A average before he could apply to Yale or Dartmouth. So their coaches were seeking solid promises from recruits earlier than ever before. This change, in turn, caused those athletes to try to put all their scores in order before the summer between junior and senior years. Other students, observing this trend, pushed up their own testing schedules.

To be sure, some of this change can be attributed to the long-term arms race among potential college applicants, all looking for that little edge in the process. And as I said, the earlier timetable can be better for some students, particularly those scoring very high on the PSAT or PLAN in tenth grade or early eleventh grade. The change is certainly better for tutors who charge by the hour.

But it's not necessarily better for the kids. For many students, a few extra months of school can make a substantial difference in test scores. Taking tests too early can backfire when a student scores low enough that his confidence is hurt. Moreover, an inappropriately early testing schedule means more months spent worrying about SAT or ACT scores, sometimes at the expense of time better spent working on grades or extracurricular interests.

This is not a diatribe against early testing per se. In fact, for very high scorers, I say the earlier the better when it comes to the SAT or ACT. And for anyone who does quite well in ninth-grade biology or tenth-grade chemistry or history, the SAT Subject Tests in spring of those years can be a great idea. Every student's plan should be tailored to his or her individual needs. But overall, at least from what I see in New York City independent schools, too many kids are now taking the SAT or ACT too early, partly as an indirect consequence of Harvard and Princeton's attempt to end early admissions. Now that the laudable experiment has failed, and top colleges are even harder to get into than ever before, and more students are taking the SAT and ACT earlier than ever, something has got to give.

It is long past time for the top one hundred or so ranked colleges and universities to get together and agree on a single application deadline and a single notification date. One common round of admissions would, like the successful Common Application, simplify and rationalize a system that for years has fostered unnecessary gamesmanship, caused too many students to choose colleges in haste, and conferred excess advantage on applicants who can afford to visit many colleges and who do not need to compare financial aid offers. All stakeholders in the college admissions system should advocate for this overdue and necessary reform.

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