Early programs not created equal

For top universities, early admissions programs have changed the game.

Since the reintroduction of early programs at Harvard and Princeton in 2011, Yale and its highly ranked peers all boast either binding or non-binding early programs that attract thousands of qualified applicants. But college admissions experts interviewed said that each school wields its early programs differently often in pursuit of different goals.

David Petersam, president of Virginia-based higher education consulting group AdmissionsConsultants, said early action programs are inherently contentious because they tend to benefit applicants who are better prepared and more knowledgeable about the college process.

“But some schools practice more equitable early action programs than others,” he added.

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan said that although students accepted to Yale through the early action program remained less diverse on average than students accepted from the regular pool, the University was making progress in reversing this gap by encouraging high-achieving low-income students to apply early action.


All nine independent college counselors interviewed by the News said that the most obvious distinction between the early programs of America’s elite universities is between early decision and early action programs. While Yale, Princeton and Harvard practice single-choice early action programs, in which applicants may apply to only one school by the Nov. 1 deadline but are not obligated to attend if they are accepted in December, the other five members of the Ivy League —Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania — exercise early decision programs, which require accepted students to attend upon acceptance.

Chuck Hughes, president of college admissions consulting service Road to College and a former admissions officer at Harvard, said this distinction exists partly because of the differing reputations of the schools.

“The nature of college admissions is such that students who are accepted to both Dartmouth and a school like Harvard or Yale will overwhelmingly turn down Dartmouth,” Hughes said. He added that having an early decision program not only attracts students who see the school as their first choice, but also keeps the school’s yield rate high — both of which contribute to school spirit and morale.

Bev Taylor, the founder of Ivy Coach, a New York-based college consulting firm, said there are only a handful of schools — MIT, Stanford, Princeton, Harvard and Yale — that do not have to worry about their yield rates. These schools know that students who apply early will likely matriculate even though they are not obligated to, she said. Taylor added that she rarely sees students who are accepted early by any of the aforementioned schools submit applications to other schools outside that list.

“How many students get into Yale and then apply to Cornell? Not many, I’m guessing,” she said.

Jon Reider, a college counselor at San Francisco University High School, said he thinks early decision programs are unfair because they are risky for students who need substantive financial aid. Reider said he advises students who need significant financial aid to not apply to schools early decision because they will lose the ability to compare and negotiate financial aid packages with a number of schools before choosing where to matriculate.

In order to boost their yield rates, schools with early decision programs actively encourage students to apply early rather than regular, said William Morse ’64 GRD ’74, a former Yale admissions officer and a private education consultant.

Although colleges do not publicly admit to this fact, Taylor said it is obvious to both students and outside experts that it is easier to get into a school early decision than during the regular round. By filling nearly half the spots in their freshman class with early decision applicants, schools such as UPenn and Dartmouth send a signal that applicants get a boost for applying early, Morse said. But he added that it is counterproductive to these institutions’ overall mission of attracting students from all economic backgrounds to accept so many students in a round that is inaccessible to low-income students.

“How can you say you’re committed to fair admissions when half your class is automatically filled with students who don’t need major help in paying these hefty tuitions?” Morse said.

But other counselors, such as Hughes and Michael Goran, the director of California-based private education consulting firm IvySelect, said that early decision was still an option for low-income students when applying to Ivy League schools because of their robust financial aid programs.


Though Stanford, Princeton, Harvard and Yale all offer single-choice early action programs, great discrepancies exist below the surface.

All four schools received thousands of early applications this November — ranging from Princeton’s 3,831 to Stanford’s 6,948 — and all four schools reported higher acceptance rates for early action than their regular acceptance rates announced last year. Stanford was the most selective school this early action round, accepting 748 students for an acceptance rate of 10.8 percent. Yale and Princeton followed with a 15.5 percent and 18.5 percent acceptance rate respectively, while Harvard accepted 21.1 percent of its early applicants — the school’s highest early acceptance rate since it reinstated early action in 2011.

Quinlan said Yale’s higher acceptance rate for early action in comparison to the regular acceptance rate was a testament to the strength of the University’s early action pool.

Though Morse echoed that early action pools tend to be stronger than the regular pool, he said he doubts whether that is the sole explanation for the vast discrepancy between early and regular acceptance rates at Harvard and Princeton in particular.

“I find it unlikely that Harvard’s early action pool is seven times stronger than its regular pool,” he said. “But that’s what they’re suggesting when they have a 21 percent early rate compared to the 3 or 4 percent regular acceptance rate they’ll have in the spring.”

Although it remains unclear what percentage of the Class of 2018 at Princeton and Harvard will be early admits because students can choose to matriculate elsewhere, Richard Avitabile, a former admissions officer at New York University and a college counselor at Steinbrecher and Partners, said it is likely both schools have already filled nearly half their class before beginning to read regular applications.

Quinlan said although universities can artificially increase their yield rate by admitting students who are slightly less strong but show definite interest by applying early, he does not believe this would be a good admissions practice for Yale. He added that his predecessor, Jeff Brenzel, was “very adamant in not allowing concerns about the yield rate to affect our admissions decisions.”

While numbers year to year may fluctuate, Quinlan said Yale has made a gradual move toward reducing the number of students the University accepts early in order to make room for equally deserving candidates in the larger, more diverse, regular pool.


The largest disparity between Stanford, Princeton, Harvard and Yale existed with regards to the percentage of students deferred and rejected. Early applicants to Harvard, Princeton and Yale were significantly more likely to be deferred than rejected, with deferral rates of 68.1 percent, 78.9 percent, and 57.6 percent respectively. Stanford, however, only deferred 8.5 percent of early applicants. While Princeton and Harvard rejected 1.3 and 7.8 percent of early applicants, respectively, and Yale rejected 25.8 percent of applicants, Stanford rejected 80.7 percent of their applicants.

Taylor said these differences are likely reflective of the volume of applications received by each of these schools.

“In the early rounds, Stanford just likes to get kids off the hook,” she said. “They know in the regular round, they’re going to have so many applications that they just won’t want to go back to see anyone who doesn’t have an absolutely stellar application.”

Hughes said he tells students deferred by Stanford that a deferral is a very good sign, because the school is signifying its willingness to closely reexamine the applicant in the spring. He added that at a school such as Princeton, deferred applicants could not infer anything from their decision. But a rejection from Princeton as an early applicant, on the other hand, is a strong indicator that the student is likely aiming too high with his or her college choices, Hughes said.

“The [Yale admissions] committee faces a similarly challenging balancing act when deciding whether to deny or defer an application,” Quinlan said, adding that the University strives to use the early action process as an opportunity to provide candidates and schools with realistic feedback about who should apply early and the students’ chances in the regular round.

Quinlan said that many college counselors encourage the admissions office to deny admissions to more students so that the applicant can recalibrate his college list before the Jan. 1 regular decision deadline. But he said he worries that a rejection from Yale could signal to high-achieving students that they should not be applying to selective universities even when they are “the type of applicant whom we are trying to encourage.”

Although it was a difficult line to draw, Quinlan said that the University’s admissions office believes an early rejection rate of about 25 percent is appropriate for now.

The admissions offices of all other schools declined to comment, citing a policy of not speaking to student publications from other institutions.

Students who were accepted to early action programs have until May 1 to decide where they matriculate.


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