People who say that eliminating early action and early decision--which Harvard and Princeton have done over the past week--fails to improve the college admissions climate, don't think about two important facts: logistics and teenage hormones. To prove this point, let's look at Harvard.
In late 2005, 3,872 students were motivated enough to apply Early Action to Harvard by the November 1st deadline. About 813 of these early birds were admitted on December 15th. That's a success rate of 21 percent to fill almost 40 percent of the freshmen class. Most of the 3,000 who didn't make the cut are rolled into the regular admissions pile--along with 19,000 more students who procrastinated until January 1st to mail in their applications. On April 1st, Harvard chose another 1,311 students from that pile of 22,000 applications. The late-comers faced a much more daunting admissions rate of 6 percent.
The difference in the time and attention that admissions officers could give to individual applications was also considerable. For the early action students, workers reviewed an average of 86 applications a day (3,872 applications / 45 days). For regular decision it doubled to 162 applications a day (22,000 applications / 135 days).
I don't bet money, but I know good odds when I see them. The kids who "slept in" and didn't get their essays and transcripts polished by November 15th, lost 15 percent on their admissions odds, and had their applications read twice as fast. These 19,000 students who waited for January 1st practically lost the race before they began it.
What about the argument that "smarter" kids apply early? It's true, they do. But it's not the right kind of "smart." Either these students, or their ambitious parents and for-hire college advisor were savvy enough to realize that hitting Harvard's early action program is the single, easiest thing you can do to improve their chances to get in. Often it's not the students who realize this. I had many classmates at Harvard whose parents wrote, compiled, and sent in their child's applications without the student even lifting a hand to sign their name. Most teenagers, especially seniors in high school, usually can't be bothered to stay awake for a 9:15am class. How are they going to complete a 20-page application and three 1,000-word essays two months before the real deadline? Only those applicants who know the importance of applying early will make the extra effort to do it. And those applicants usually come from elite backgrounds, high-priced schools, and have siblings or parents who attended these competitive schools. The regular folks are lost in the crowded field of 19,000 applications due January 1st.
But are these early action admits also "academically" smarter than their peers in the regular decision program? I don't think so. Harvard could fill 4 or 5 classes of equally intelligent freshmen each year. What they got with early action, were the kids (38 percent of the incoming freshmen class) who were smart enough to play the game right. What they lost, and will hopefully regain next year, are the best students from the entire pool of applicants.
Ten years ago I applied early action to Harvard. I started my college essays over the summer. I met with my guidance counselor during the first week of school. I requested my transcripts weeks before the deadline. I arranged my college interview with an alumni couple who knew my political work. I took my SATs and visited college campuses during my junior year. I was lucky that I knew how to play the game. But I still don't think arbitrary systems like early action and decision are the right ways to determine who gets to win.