A letter from a reader about Ending early decision: It's time

October 25, 2006

Princeton’s wise decision to end early admission (Notebook, Oct. 11) must have been difficult. Changing the endlessly cycling, competitive admission process is like overhauling a boat under full sail in unpredictable currents. Yet, in my 32 years as an Alumni Schools Committee volunteer, Princeton admissions changed whenever the circumstances warranted. Princeton’s tradition of leadership and innovation in this field continues under Dean Janet Rapelye in the face of daunting annual increases in the number of applications.

Dean Rapelye has, among other things, introduced improved technology, adopted the common application form with the counterintuitive result of increasing the quality as well as the number of applicants, and she involves alumni volunteers more than ever before. Last year more than 6,000 alumni interviewed an astounding 92 percent of 17,564 applicants worldwide. Demonstrating a commitment to excellence and fairness that fits hand in glove with Princeton’s “no loan” financial aid program, the University thoughtfully weighed the options and correctly, in my judgment, decided to announce all admission decisions at the same time in the spring of each year. Applicants for the Class of 2011 will be the first to benefit from the change.

Princeton’s early-admission option was an experiment that evolved over time. Early action started in 1977 and switched to early decision in 1996. The original purpose, if you can believe this, given the present frenzied state of college admission mania, was to remove some pressure from the senior year of high school by allowing exceptionally qualified students who were sure about their first-choice school to get an early decision from the University. That simply is not the world we live in today. The whole process has become so angst driven, so über-competitive, that increasingly, large numbers of candidates (and parents and counselors) seek to game applications in many ways that distort the system. Today, early admission puts lots of unnecessary and unproductive pressure on students, their counselors and teachers, and on admission officers and faculties. Students now frequently apply early because they feel they must, not because they are certain about which school they prefer. Students who do not get their act together in time and who do not have help in preparing their applications, or those who genuinely want to wait to make their choice, face tough odds.

In recent years, after the early selections are made, an enormous pool of talented students must compete for remaining spaces available for only about half the class. Students who need financial aid often feel they cannot afford to apply early because they only get to compare different aid packages if they wait for the spring round of decisions. How much of a disadvantage that amounts to can be debated.

I am not convinced that the parentally pressured, professionally packaged, privileged progeny who increasingly seek an edge through early admission do themselves any favors. I trust the ability of our admission staff to evaluate candidates fairly. Nevertheless, the results seemed unfair, and appearance is important to a community’s sense of fairness. In addition, the overwhelming number of early applicants are not successful. This is a difficult experience for a young person to absorb without receiving offsetting good news from other colleges.

Moreover, with early admission there is a push, exacerbated by the ever-increasing number of candidates, to review applications with artificially truncated records and transcripts that lack any senior year grades, while the admission staff is stretched to visit schools, do fall recruiting, and also conduct a fall selection process. As an alumni interviewer, I will not miss scrambling to complete my assignments received in mid-October by the end of that month. Taking longer to read and announce admission decisions could benefit applicants and the University alike by giving candidates more time to put their best foot forward and the University more information to evaluate.

Early admission was a good, sensible program when the University adopted it. Paraphrasing legendary Admission Dean Fred Hargadon, it sometimes looked like it might be the most rational part of the process. There was the hope that students admitted early would decide not to submit or would withdraw other applications to spare other schools from having to act on candidates who had already decided where they were going. Early decision insured the latter by requiring early-decision applicants to make only one application and to accept Princeton’s offer if admitted. Early decision also gave the University a greater ability to shape the class because of the certainty that those admitted early would be in the class. However, early admission was only meant to be part of a continuous process, not – for half or more of the class – the only process.

And it was never intended to burden students, reduce their choices, or make them feel left out of a rat race they could not win. Our capable admission office will be challenged to recruit top athletes who have many other opportunities early in the admission season, and also to calculate yield when many top applicants now remaining in the April pool will be accepted elsewhere as well. My bet is that Dean Rapelye is up to the task. (Look on the bright side – Princeton may have to offer admission to more students.) And it is obvious to me that alumni will be important in helping to persuade admitted students who have choices to attend Princeton. On balance, the advantages of ending early admission outweigh the disadvantages.

Recently, I came across the 1930 freshman handbook. I marveled at how much had changed by the time I had arrived 40 years later, in 1970. Alumni from ’30 must have felt as though the new Princeton was on a different planet. Then I realized that the marvelous Class of 2010 might feel the same way about what Princeton was like for my class, 1974, which entered 40 years before their graduation. What we all have in common, though, is that the greatest resource the University has to offer to its students, year in and year out, is their classmates and other fellow students. The end of early admission will not weaken the pool of applicants or the quality of future classes. To the contrary, I suspect it will enhance future classes, if that is possible.

Princeton icon Bill Bradley ’65 famously possessed a “sense of where you are.” By ending early admission, Dean Rapelye, Dean Nancy Weiss Malkiel, President Shirley Tighlman, and the Board of Trustees, who all carefully considered the decision, once again demonstrate they have a “sense of where they are going.”

Washington, D.C.

Editor’s note: Allard served as chairman of the Alumni Council National Committee on Schools now known as the Princeton Committee on Schools, from 2003 to 2005.

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