Navigating An Altered Admissions Landscape

Leslie Brody

September 24, 2006

Now that Harvard and Princeton have announced they will stop early admissions, the frantic chess game of applying to top colleges seems to require some new strategies.

So what’s an ambitious kid – or parent — to do?

For the moment, anyway, vying for a seat at the nation’s elite colleges will be just as stressful as ever, and might get even worse, some college admissions counselors say, despite Harvard’s claim that its latest move aims to ease anxiety for students.

Several private college consultants predicted last week that confusion will rise as some high-achieving kids shift their tactics in wooing the Ivies next year, when the new policies take effect. Some say the pool of students chasing spots with the rest of the applicant pool will likely get even more competitive, since those who would have gotten into Harvard or Princeton early will still be in the running.

So, in an effort to calm the nerves of the driven, those in the know offer some advice (sometimes conflicting, alas) to families looking ahead to the college process in the coming years.

Hurry up and get ready for college admissions.

“We’re telling kids to be prepared early,” says Robert Shaw, a partner in Ivy Success, which charges $28,500 to help kids shoot for their dream schools. He encourages kids to start focusing on this challenge during sophomore year.

“Our fear is that kids will get relaxed and think there’s no need to prepare for testing early if they’re not going to apply early. It’s a false mirage to think competition will lessen and everyone will be evaluated fairly in the regular cycle. In reality, the numbers of applicants will be driven up and the pool of competitors will be deeper.”

Shaw argues that if more kids apply in the regular cycle, which often means January deadlines, they will have three additional autumn dates to take standardized tests and raise their test scores. That means the average SAT scores of the pool will likely rise and be harder to beat. Some kids who would otherwise have gotten in early will be unclear where they stand and so will apply to more safety schools, and it might be harder to stand out among so many extra applications inundating admissions officers.

“We all know how exhausted they are,” Shaw said. “They might not have the time and attention to allocate to your folder.”

On second thought, take your time.

Robin Abramowitz, an independent college counselor in Montclair, says it’s premature to come up with theories now about how to deal with the new early admissions landscape; it’s unclear whether other colleges will follow Harvard’s lead.

In general, she won’t even meet with students until winter of their junior year. She thinks it’s not worth visiting colleges until after PSAT scores come out in January and help shape juniors’ options. Try to have fun on those trips, she says; treat them like an adventure. Browse for ideas from college books, such as “The Insider’s Guide to Colleges” by the Yale Daily News and “Best 361 Colleges” by The Princeton Review.

“Try to have fun this year before you have to get stressed,” Abramowitz tells juniors.”High school has become just prep for college, and that’s sad. … Kids come in here almost crying because they’ve heard this one is applying here or there and they think they won’t get in.”

Her rule: When you decide where to apply, don’t talk about your choices.

“The less you talk about it, the less you feed into the frenzy, and the better off you’ll be,” she says.

Get some perspective.

At this point, the new policy at Harvard and Princeton directly affects only a small fraction of the 2 million Americans who apply to college in a year. Last year, about 22,700 students shot for Harvard and 17,500 for Princeton – including many overlapping entries from kids applying to both.

Brandon Jones, national director of SAT and ACT programs at Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions, said the landscape will truly change only if other desirable colleges eliminate early admissions. “The short story for what parents should do is stay tuned,” Jones said. “If this becomes a larger trend at top-flight schools, it will impact the admissions process overall.”

Know the background.

Early admissions — in which students typically apply in the fall and hear back by mid-December — has become enormously popular in recent years as students used the option to demonstrate their enthusiasm to their first-choice schools, in hopes that such loyalty would give them an edge.

That often worked; Brown, for example, admitted 23 percent of its early applicants to the Class of 2010, almost double the 12 percent rate of those admitted in the regular cycle. University of Pennsylvania and Columbia filled almost half of this year’s freshman class with early applicants. Students often worry they hurt their odds if they don’t apply early. Besides, many hate sweating it out until spring to hear if they’ve been accepted.

Critics of early admission, however, argue that it is unfair to low-income and minority candidates who need time to compare financial aid offers from different schools. Many schools, like Princeton, have “early decision,” which requires a binding commitment that anyone admitted early has to enroll. A few, like Harvard and Yale, offer “early action,” which is non-binding. Even the non-binding version is unfair, some say, to students without savvy parents or sophisticated guidance counselors prodding them to apply early.

This month, Harvard officials announced an end to early admission for students applying next year to enter in fall 2008, saying they wanted to stop a practice that exacerbated stress and tended to “advantage the advantaged.” A week later, Princeton followed suit.

Some cynics speculate that Harvard’s move was a public-relations ploy more than anything, since the brand-name institution had little to lose; it will likely continue to have its pick of the best and brightest. Some consultants now predict Yale and Stanford will be big beneficiaries if they keep the early option because students who crave quick answers might rush to apply in record numbers.

Elizabeth Wissner-Gross, a counselor and author of “What Colleges Don’t Tell You (and Other Parents Don’t Want You to Know),” doesn’t buy Harvard’s claim that stopping early admissions will reduce pressure or open opportunities for deserving students. “If they really want to eliminate stress, they should open up more spaces for students,” she said. “The stress is coming from the fact that there is so much demand and so little supply at the most selective colleges.”

Shaw, at Ivy Success, suspects Harvard and Princeton will return to early admissions if other schools fail to join them – especially if they lose their ability to recruit star athletes or raise money from alumni who counted on getting in their offspring early.

He doubts other schools will stop early admissions, too. Many schools admit almost half their freshman class via early decision. When a huge group of admitted students commit that way, it boosts a school’s overall percentage of accepted students who matriculate, and that rate is a key statistic in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Shaw said colleges would be reluctant to tinker with any system that helps them stay high in that list. “If these schools get rid of early decision, they’ll see their matriculation yields plummet,” he said.

If you apply early, make sure you absolutely love the school.

Karen Steele, guidance counselor at the Bergen County Technical Schools, says seniors often change their minds about where they want to go after they hear about other possibilities from friends. Often their tastes change between September and April, or they wish they had more leverage for negotiating financial aid.

“We’ve had kids get in early decision and then they say, ‘Maybe I should see what I can get from other schools,’ but they’re locked in,” she said.

She told one student in that dilemma that he’d have to send in unofficial transcripts on his own because she believed it was unethical for him to break his commitment. She also notes that an early application doesn’t always bring relief: “A lot of kids are deferred to the general pool, and they have to sit around and wait anyway.”

Don’t forget safety schools.

Bev Taylor, founder of Ivy Coach, hopes early applications will remain an option. She thinks rejection or deferral early serves as a crucial reality check for kids who presume they’ll get into highly selective schools. “Rejection is a wake-up call for these students so they know they need some safeties,” she said. “It’s necessary to find this out in December when they still have opportunity to apply to more schools in January.”

Taylor says that alarm bell is especially important for kids who aren’t getting wise attention from advisers. “Guidance counselors at some schools have caseloads of 500 students,’ she said. “Are they going to take the time to ask the student where else he’s applying?”

Perspective, again.

As Time Magazine asked in a recent cover story, “Who needs Harvard?”

According to a study in the “Quarterly Journal of Economics” in 2002, students who got into the most selective colleges but chose other ones for various reasons were earning just as much 20 years later as their peers from the more elite schools. Only seven CEOs from the current top 50 of the Fortune 500 companies graduated from the Ivy League.

“Parents should continue seeking the best possible match for their kids according to what their kids’ passions are,” says Wissner-Gross.

Use the fall of senior year to build your resume further.

Students who no longer feel compelled to rush to meet Nov. 1 deadlines for early applications can spend the whole autumn boosting their grades and portfolio, says Wissner-Gross.

“This gives me more time to encourage kids to take more lessons, do more volunteer work, do more nice things during senior year,” she says. “My package includes improving the child, not just putting glitzy wrapping paper on the child.”