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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 01/20/2011

Harvard’s unofficial early admissions process

By Valerie Strauss

Harvard University doesn’t have an official early admissions process, but some students still learn before everybody else whether they are being looked on with favor by the admissions folks.

Select students around the country are quietly receiving word from Harvard about how their application will be greeted during the regular process. That's a boost at a time when it is harder than ever.

The unofficial Harvard nods are called indicators of admissions, according to Harvard College Admissions Dean William Fitzsimmons, and, he said, the practice has been in place a long time at Harvard, as well as at other Ivy League institutions. (The difference is that all of the others -- Columbia University, Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, Dartmouth College and Brown University -- except one, Princeton University, have some official form of early admissions process.)

The schools in the Ivy League, he said, can unofficially let specific students know of their interest from Oct. 1 of any year through the following March 15.

Harvard ended its early action process -- which admits students early but doesn’t bind them to the decision -- in 2007 and moved to a single application date, but recently said it was reconsidering.

The lack of a formal program has not, however, kept Harvard from letting certain students slip away to schools that do have formal early admissions processes. Many of the students are athletes who, Fitzsimmons said, are “being squeezed” by other school schools to accept an offer by a specific date.

But not all of them are athletes. Harvard officials sometimes “see individual applicants at schools here and there around the country who are particularly outstanding” and alert them that their application would be welcome, he said.

Sometimes students will approach Harvard and ask for some indication of whether they will be accepted. They are given one of three responses, he said: likely, possible or unlikely to be admitted. Likely responses essentially means a student will be admitted, assuming they don’t flunk out of senior year in high school.

Last year, he said, Harvard issued about 300 “likely” notifications. By way of contrast, Dartmouth College, for example, this year offered admission to 444 early decision applicants for this coming fall, 17 fewer than last year. Yale admitted 14.5 percent of its early action applicants for the class of 2015; of 5,257 early applicants, 761 were notified of their acceptances last month.

Meanwhile, this year’s early decision process has been especially tough for students applying to the country’s most elite colleges and universities. In some places, the competition has been tougher than ever.

Some college admission test-prep companies said they received a big bump in students in late December and early January -- kids who thought they would get into a college early decision but didn’t and decided to try to take the SAT or ACT one more time to lift their scores.

And some high schools have raised the number of colleges and universities to which they will allow students to apply because so many students didn’t get in during early decision.

Early-decision applications were up at many schools. The University of Michigan, for example, saw a spike of about 18% in applications; Bucknell University is up 30 percent; Lehigh University, 14 percent; Northwestern University, 26 percent; and Davidson College, a whopping 40 percent.

Part of the spike in applications is attributed to the Common Application, which makes it relatively easier to apply to many schools. And that makes it harder for admissions offices --- and for the high school seniors waiting to see where they will be going to college in the fall.


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By Valerie Strauss  | January 20, 2011; 8:00 AM ET
Tags:  college admissions, college admissions process, dartmouth university, early action, early admissions, getting into ivy league, harvard admissions, harvard university, how to get into college, ivy league, ivy league admissions, university of michigan, yale university  
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What did you mean when you wrote, "And some high schools have raised the number of colleges and universities to which they will allow students to apply because so many students didn’t get in during early decision"?

At the high school where I work we have been struggling to figure out a way to limit the number of recommendation letters we send out. The eleventh grade history and English teachers are regularly frustrated having to send 5-10 recommendation letters (and the associated additional forms) out for 80+ students each November and December. When people have attempted to limit their numbers they have been told that they must then write a recommendation for the first however many people ask and no more (even if the limit is 10 and #10 was a lazy bum who barely got a C+, while #11 was your star A student). This is because if a teacher does write the letter for #11, he/she has unfairly given one student special treatment. I'm curious how these other schools handle the logistics of this because maybe there is a best practice out there that we all could employ.

Posted by: Rob63 | January 20, 2011 9:46 PM | Report abuse

As a college consultant, I feel as though the college admissions process keeps getting more and more convoluted. How could we ever question why families find this process so confusing and overwhelming? It is!

Posted by: collegedirection | January 20, 2011 10:46 PM | Report abuse

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