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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


Interesting! I went to high school just after that changed, I guess, because those classes were required. I have to say, I really didn't like them, for the most part, but I was really glad I was required to take them. I think most students don't take difficult courses unless they're required to, and if they don't get exposed to those ideas there, then A: they feel intimidated to change their trajectory and pick it up later, and B: we end up with a citizenry in an age of booming scientific discovery who cannot understand the rudiments of what is happening or what its implications are.
I tend to agree with you for the most part, but as I noted above, there's different ways to teach science. I want my non-scientist citizens to understand the importance of funding science, and I doubt a traditional Physics course will lean them in that direction.
True, but that's a different question: is the subject being taught well. (Frankly, I think the way history was taught when I was in school left much to be desired, and I became a history major!) But I feel about required math and science the way I feel about art and music education: that kids need both if they're going to be well-rounded and think those options are open to them as adults. And it's not just a question of funding, although that's important, it's a question of whether when they grow up they'll be able to understand issues of global warming, bioethics, genetics, aerospace engineering, etc. One of the hot topics of the last presidential campaign was stem cell research, and I doubt most of our citizenry understood enough of the issue to have an informed opinion about the debate instead of just listening to the spin doctors.
I agree that Early Decision is a bad idea; high school students should explore all their options and really aren't ready, by and large, to commit to one school without even talking to the others.

I don't agree about Early Action, though. Applications aren't exclusive and students don't have to commit, so what's the harm in "going for the gold" before you settle into the applications to schools you actually expect to get into? From the school's perspective, spreading out the applications process seems to mean that there's more time to consider every application, as opposed to having 20,000 applications hit in February and ten admissions folks having to make decisions by April. (Or whenever; I'm making up these dates and these numbers.) It's better for the brightest early applicants, of course, but I'm not sure it's any worse for everyone else.

In case you consider it relevant, I should mention that I bypassed the usual college-application processes, so I don't personally know that March angst of waiting for all the answers to come in. (I accepted an early-admission offer from one school before I'd applied to any others.)
According to the articles I read, the problem with Early Action was that most of the students who took advantage of the program were from more affluent families. Students from poorer backgrounds were less likely to apply by Early Action, theoretically hurting their chances of admission.

The Harvard Crimson has an interesting article on the decision at http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=514176. At this point, I think the NY Times article (where I first read about this) is no longer accessible.
Speaking as one of those not-so-affluent students who went to college on scholarships and loans, early decision only works when a college is wiling to foot your bill as much as possible, and will promise it right from the start.

I applied to MIT; if I'd applied under early decision, I would have been excluded from applying anywhere else, and if it turned out that MIT wasn't giving me the financial package I needed, I'd be clean outta luck going to college straight out of high school.

If you don't have enough money on hand to cover a gap left by a financial aid package, you have to play one college against another. That's how I ended up going to NYU instead of Marlboro College in VT. It was a difference of $2500, but it (and the glittering lure of NYC, to be sure) was enough.

There's no way you can do that kind of thing with Early Decision.

Early action doesn't sound so bad--it means that a student has in mind what her favorite institution is, and aims for that first. But if that falls through, then there are all the other places she's applied to that will decide later in the year.

As for requirements: I loved science, and not only did I take all three, but I trumped with AP Chemistry. I had it RIGHT BEFORE Physics. I had Calculus first thing in the morning. [glyph of Brain Hurting]

And now you all know why I'm a writer/proofer/editor. :)
I got into MIT with Early Action, and I was from rural Kentucky in a family well below poverty level. It was great for me, because I didn't really have the money available to apply to ten different schools during regular admission, which is what would have happened had MIT not had the Early Action option. It also meant I had a decision from them on financial aid before I had to apply to those other schools.
Hmmm. I hadn't thought of that. It still seems that Early Decision, on the other hand, would have been a problem (if MIT had had that procedure instead).

Maybe it would be better if instead of eliminating Early Action, all colleges were to switch to it who now have Early Decision.

I don't recall having a financial aid package from Harvard before April or so, though; I just recall getting the early acceptance. But my memory could be faulty.

Here's a follow-up question, though -- I seem to recall that application fees could be waved for families with financial issues. Had you needed to apply to the other ten schools, could you have gotten the fees waves? Or is there something else I'm missing?

admission fees

I'm sure I could have gotten the fees waived if necessary. But I didn't know that at the time, and college was such a foreign concept to my family, and elite private college was such a foreign concept to my high school counsellors, no one ever told me that was an option. I don't recall seeing anything in any of the glossy literature of any of the colleges who contacted me saying that they had fee waivers for low-income students. I suspect that most private colleges run into so few students below the poverty level that they don't think about it.

I believe MIT gave me a tentative fin aid offer in late January or early February. I remember that I was reworking my admission essay to fit the requirements of B.U. and... I don't even remember now.

I would probably not have applied to MIT had they had Early Decision instead of Early Admission, primarily because I was afraid to commit to a college before they gave me a fin aid package.

Re: admission fees

Following up on this discussion a few days later --

There's an Op-Ed in today's New York Times that argues that Early Action is a good thing, while Early Decision is what ought to be eliminated.

The link to it online is http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/27/opinion/27etchemendy.html but it may require registration to read.
According to the articles I read, the problem with Early Action was that most of the students who took advantage of the program were from more affluent families.

That doesn't mean there's something wrong with the program. The article you linked said they had until May 1 to decide (well after financial-aid packages would all be on the table). It appears to be that part of the problem is students not receiving good guidance about these programs. That's probably part of a broader "bad guidance for poor students" problem, not something specific about these kinds of programs. We need to fix that, not kill one more option for bright students. (The point someone else raised about application fees is significant; I've watched people struggle with that, balancing the cost of application against the perceived chance of admission. If those fees can be waived, it's often not at all obvious how.)

all three of those were required for me, and i graduated in 1986. guess it depended on the school district. ::shrug::

tho i know if i'd gotten to late 11th grade and wanted to enroll at Harvard (yeah, right) only to discover too late that i didn't have the requirements, i'd be pretty ticked. so it's not a bad thing for high schools to want to keep students from shooting themselves in the foot so to speak.
On the other hand, requiring all students to take the Harvard-recommended high school curriculum simply because Harvard recommends it... It would make much more sense to advise students from the start as to an appropriate schedule of classes for their post-high school goals. But sadly, most schools can't offer that level of guidance.

FWIW, my high school considered itself "college prep." we had that early guidance. i recognize that many high schools (unfortunately) do not.
I went to a small rural midwestern public high school. It was so backwards, Biology was offered in 10th grade, Chemistry in 11th, and Physics in 12th (Earth Science in 9th, and you don't want to know about the math classes). But there were survey science courses for people not going to college, which was 2/3rds of the students. We had about 4 sections of Chemistry but only 1 section of Physics, because so few students were interested and capable. Of course, the school only required the bare minimum required by the state. So few people went to college that requiring more was futile. But I'm still astonished that I was able to get into, and complete, MIT.

I wanted to apply Early Decision (or Early Action, I can't remember which it was) to MIT. But I didn't find out about the program until it was too late. Just as well in the long run; it forced me to look at my other options. Not that I was thrilled - I would have ended up at the local public university if MIT's financial aid hadn't come through. Which I suppose reinforces your point about Early Action/Decision favoring the well-connected and well-heeled.
Actually, a lot of schools offered the big three science courses in 10th-12th grade, as opposed to 9th-11th. Backwards is how one might classify the decision a lot of schools made in the 1990s, to offer Physics first, then Chemistry, and then Biology.

I believe MIT had Early Action, not Early Decision. So you wouldn't have been locked in.
Yeah...I had Bio first (9), then Chem (10), then Physics and AP Chem (12). I switched high schools between sophomore and junior years. I had Meteorology in there somewhere, too. Took it on a lark, and it was super fun. I can't remember what I did for junior year, aside from AP US History. I did something...
Putting Physics first just seems wrong. You need Algebra to learn physics properly, and I don't think most kids would be ready for the math.

It seems like everyone I know had the big three sciences in 9th-11th. At least of the people who got degrees in science and engineering. That's why I felt unprepared, having a year less of math and sciences than the majority of MIT freshmen.

Oh, I wanted to go to MIT, no question. But my guidance counselor had to convince my parents to let me go - they wanted to go the cheap and mediocre route.
I went to a small rural midwestern public high school. It was so backwards, Biology was offered in 10th grade, Chemistry in 11th, and Physics in 12th (Earth Science in 9th, and you don't want to know about the math classes). But there were survey science courses for people not going to college, which was 2/3rds of the students.

Almost ditto here (s/rural/suburban). And no options to accelerate any of that (jumping into sciences or higher math earlier). Did you go to high school in western PA by any chance?
Did you go to high school in western PA by any chance?

Close. Northeast Ohio, about 20 years ago. No options to accelerate at my school either. By the time I realized my school was behind the curve, it was too late to double up on classes, and there were no options to take advanced classes at the local universities back then. I did my catching up at MIT.
About 25 years ago for me, so comparable vintage. I had no clue for most of my time in high school that I was so under-served; I didn't have a lot of contact with peers in other parts of the country, so I was clueless. I mean, I knew that I wasn't challenged and that was frustrating, but that got written off (by the school and by me) as "you're smart; of course things are going to be calibrated lower". Only a quarter of my graduating class declared an intention to go to college; it just wasn't that kind of town, I guess.

I was fortunate to find out about a summer program at CMU aimed at high-school students. I got in after my sophomore year and took two courses. The next summer I took two more, and then they offered me early admission and I saw absolutely no reason to go back for my senior year of high school. The funny thing is that while yeah, I was kind of bright, I was far from the brightest student in my college class, and in fact didn't even make a 3.0 at CMU. I crashed pretty badly in my first semester (but then recovered); I wasn't ready for academic rigor, even after the summer courses.

I wish they would move science up, and start teaching it earlier. Starting with basic arithmetic in kindergarten. By high school, it's almost too late to give students a good science background if they haven't been developing those skills already.

I don't think I'm a science-y person because it's in my genes*...I think it's because my parents were giving me math problems to quiet me down in restaurants. I was taking an abstract algebra class this summer and at one point I thought 'I bet an elementary schooler could understand some of this stuff.' We need to start teaching science and math more aggressively, because it's very hard to learn it well in high school, when (really) your best learning years are already behind you.

* you could argue that it is, in fact, 'in my genes' based on my family history, but I definitely fall on the 'nurture' side of this one.
When I was in pre-algebra in eighth grade, and we started off with problems like "4 + x = 8," I remember thinking, "dude, I was doing this in first grade, only my teacher put a box in place of the 'x'." I had a friend in elementary school who did horribly in math because it was all about memorizing the multplication tables, and he just couldn't do it. so he hated math, and thought he just didn't have the aptitude. He went from remedial math in eighth grade to pre-algebra in ninth, because his eighth-grade teach didn't care about memorization and found that he could easily understand math concepts.
I bet an elementary schooler could understand some of this stuff

The school I was at for 4th grade (it closed at the end of the year or I would have stayed longer) did its best to teach each kid at his/her own rate. So in 4th grade I got a bit of algebra (4+x=8), bio (simplified cell diagrams), chem (H2O, C6H12O6), etc. And a kid in my brother's 6th grade class was learning beginner calc (with his teacher teaching herself just fast enough to stay ahead of him).

When I got to 5th grade I was rather bored...

December 2016

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