September 18th, 2006


Thoughts on Harvard and Early Admission

Last week, Harvard University announced that it was eliminating its Early Action application program. I took a more than passing interest in this announcement, because years ago I myself applied for and was accepted under Harvard's Early Action program. And although I was glad to have that decision out of the way so early, I still recall wondering how fair the early application process was in general. Because I remember being told that applying early increased your chances of acceptance, and it seemed unfair for students who needed more time to make their final decision on colleges.

A little background. Back in the 1980s, there were two different early application programs in existence: Early Action and Early Decision. Under Early Action, students could get their application materials in by the beginning of November and have a decision from the college, usually an acceptance or a deferral, by mid-December. (In rare cases, a student might be rejected outright.) Early Decision worked almost exactly the same way, except that a student applying via Early Decision had to agree to a firm commitment to attend that school in the fall. Under Early Action, a student could send applications to other institutions, but under Early Decision, a student was expected to end the application process. In either case, though, a student could only apply to one institution via their early application program.

(Of course, any sort of early acceptance was usually predicated on the student maintaining a reasonable record throughout the rest of senior year. But most people tended not to notice that fine print in the acceptance package.)

Each college that offered an early admission program decided for itself which kind to offer. In my case, the two colleges I was most interested in were Harvard and Columbia. And Columbia only offered Early Decision, not Early Action. Had they offered Early Action, I might have applied early there instead, and perhaps my life might have taken a different turn. But that's a subject for another time.

For now, I have to say that I'm glad that Harvard has chosen to eliminate its Early Action program, and I have a feeling that this will lead to many other institutions revising their own application procedures. Because the fact is that for better or worse, Harvard University carries a tremendous amount of influence in the world of high school admissions. Let me give an example.

Back in the mid-1990s, when I was starting to work full-time as a high-school teacher, Harvard published a booklet about their admissions process. Being a science teacher, I was particularly interested in what Harvard had to say about science courses. I was gratified to see that Harvard's admissions office felt very strongly about science -- so strongly, in fact, that they expected all applicants to have at least three years of science, and those three years had to include Biology, Chemistry, and Physics.

Now, I attended an exam school, Hunter College High School in New York City, and I still remember that the only high school science course that was required was Biology in 9th grade. Chemistry was offered in 10th grade as an elective, as was Physics in 11th grade. Now, it is true that the school strongly recommended that all 10th graders take Chemistry and that most 11th graders take Physics. But not everyone did; if you could explain to your college counselor why those courses weren't necessary for what you wanted to accomplish, you could enroll in any of the other electives being offered. I knew students who chose instead to study another foreign language or to take creative writing, and none of them had difficulty getting into college with their transcript.

But in the 1990s, as soon as Harvard announced that it expected three years of science, many high schools took this as a cue to require a full course of Biology, Chemistry, and Physics for all their students. Never mind the fact that most students weren't planning on applying to Harvard College, let alone attending it; if Harvard said that three years of science were required for its applicants, then all students would be required to take three years of science, no matter what.

I had, and still have, mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, being a science booster, I feel very strongly that all students should have an excellent science education. Citizens need to understand the importance of science and technology to function productively in our modern world. But on the other hand, not everyone is interested in science, and, to be frank, not everyone can handle a Physics course. I remember one student I taught who had essentially found herself required to take Physics under "bait and switch"; the school hadn't required the course when she entered in 9th grade, and she was distraught when the rules changed on her by 11th grade and she found herself forced to study Physics. She hated the course, did badly in it, and would have been far better served by a survey course on Science and Society than on trying to solve momentum equations.

But instead, a decision by the admissions office at Harvard College -- an institution to which she never would have applied -- ended up with her being required to study Physics.

Based on this history, I reiterate my belief that Harvard's decision will lead to other institutions abandoning their Early Admission or Early Decision programs. And I think that in the end, high school seniors will be much better off for it.

Copyright © Michael Burstein

Political Endorsements - Tomorrow's Massachusetts Primary

In my role as an elected Library Trustee and Town Meeting Member in Brookline, Massachusetts, I am sometimes asked for my endorsement in political races. For those of you who are interested in what I have to say, my official endorsements in the Democratic Primary's contested races are as follows:

Governor: Deval L. Patrick
Lt. Governor: Deborah B. Goldberg
Secretary of State: Wiliam Francis Galvin

Remember: "It is your civic duty to vote." (Pat Ward, Town Clerk, Brookline)