Early Admissions Edge is Real
Note: This is being re-published for Ivy Bound students and parents. The content is still valid in 2012.
Published on Friday, February 14, 2003, in the Harvard Crimson
Written by DIVYA A. MANI, Crimson Staff Writer
What does half of every Harvard class have in common?
Besides high test scores and near-perfect grades, they also applied early - and got in - according to "The Early Admissions Game," a new book co-authored by two Harvard economists and and a former admissions officer from Wesleyan University.
Selective colleges have long argued that there is no formula or "big secret" in the quest for the coveted letter of acceptance. But Kennedy School of Government economists Christopher N. Avery ’88 and Richard J. Zeckhauser ’62 and former Wesleyan admissions officer Andrew Fairbanks conclude in their new book that applying early can give an applicant an admissions edge equivalent to an increase of 100 points on the SAT.
In the context of an increasingly cutthroat admissions climate, this conclusion is creating ripples among admission officers and high school college counselors.
"Even in draft form, the findings of the book - distilled in broad form - have had an effect on the debate," says Zeckhauser, who is Frank P. Ramsey professor of political economy. "They will even appear in this year's version of some college guides."
Though he and his co-writers had originally hypothesized that applying early did somehow benefit an applicant, Avery, a professor of public policy, says that they were "surprised by the magnitude of the advantage."
"We didn't have any grand plan at the beginning," he says. "We kept deciding to become more ambitious because the answers [to our initial questions] were so interesting."
Avery says he became interested in studying early admissions in 1996, when Princeton, Stanford and Yale switched from a nonbinding Early Action (E.A.) policy to Early Decision (E.D.), in which students promise to attend a school in exchange for a December admissions decision.
"All of a sudden, applicants had to be strategic about where to apply," says Avery, who characterizes the book as answering two main questions about the early admissions process. He and his co-writers say they wanted to determine the size of the advantage conferred upon early applicants; they also hoped to determine how much, if anything, potential applicants knew about this advantage.
Applying E.A. boosts an applicant's chances by 18.9 percent - the same amount that a 100-point jump on the SATs would - according to the book's statistical analysis of more than 500,000 actual admissions decisions. The effects of applying E.D. are even more drastic, giving an applicant a 34.8 percent boost, which corresponds to a 190-point SAT advantage.
These numbers acquire increased significance in light of the authors' finding that "there was considerable misunderstanding about how the system works," Zeckhauser says.
This is particularly true among students from less prominent schools or lower-income families, as the authors' interviews with hundreds of current and former applicants demonstrated.
"It was startling to me to hear how different students from different backgrounds were in sophistication," Avery says. "Students from public schools . . . really didn't seem to know much about the process, even after getting into Harvard."
Furthermore, the study reveals that colleges play a significant part in the students' confusion about early admissions.
"A number of colleges dissembled about the way they chose students," Zeckhauser says. "For example, a number that offered a significant edge to early applicants denied that fact."
In their book, the authors survey college guidebooks, guidance counselors and anecdotes picked up within social networks, and find that such sources are often contradictory and generally unhelpful. "The Early Admissions Game" attempts to fill an informational void, detailing the true state of early admissions policy and then dispensing advice to potential applicants. Avery and Zeckhauser explain their numerical evidence using principles of game theory. They go on to make recommendations as to how students can understand and succeed in the game.
"We did want to raise the level of sophistication and particularly to make it clear to all the participants that colleges are adopting this policy of favoring early applicants," Avery says.
Thus, the book includes an advice chapter which consists of ten guidelines for early applicants to assess their chances. The books also includes a "technical appendix" which uses the data gathered for the book to create an "admissions calculator."
"We wanted the book to be rigorous, yet we wanted it to be accessible to a broad audience," Zeckhauser says. That audience includes college admissions professionals. In the final chapter, the authors assess the likelihood of various changes in the early admissions system.
"I think there is a good chance for moderate change," says Zeckhauser, who predicts, for example, that more colleges will mimic Yale and Stanford's recent switch to E.A.
Another moderate change discussed in the book involves U.S. News and World Report's influential college rankings, which favor colleges with early admissions programs by giving significant weight to yield and selectivity.
An early admissions program contributes to an increased volume of applicants to the college, thus increasing the college's selectivity (the percentage of applicants who are accepted). Early decision ensures that candidates accepted to a college go on to matriculate, thus increasing the college's yield (the percentage of accepted applicants who then attend). Thus, some observers have suggested that U.S. News could mitigate the early admissions frenzy by reducing the importance of these two measures or by omitting them entirely.
More radically, others, such as Richard R. Beeman, dean of the college of arts and sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, have urged U.S. News to drop the ranking system altogether.
But Avery says this is unlikely. "It is so popular and so influential that, at least in the short term, you'd think that everyone has to make their decisions with the rankings system in mind," he says, adding that U.S. News has little financial incentive to make any kind of change, given the popularity of its college issue.
"There is little chance for wholesale change," Zeckhauser says. "Many colleges would get rid of binding early decision if others would do so as well, but each prefers to keep binding decision for itself, whatever the other does," he says.
Collective action is not only unlikely, but also legally problematic. "Given past antitrust rulings, it would be hard for the colleges to get together and agree to adhere to a common, less binding style," Zeckhauser says.
In spite of their hope that "The Early Admissions Game" will lead to some kind of reform, they say that they do not expect any significant changes in the current upward trend of early applications.
"For better or worse, this knowledge about how the system is really working will lead to more people applying early," Avery says. "There's some possibility that there will be a major change, but I don't know how."