Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Restricted Early Action

This edition of Ethical College Admissions will tackle two issues that are unrelated except for a tenuous connection to the November 1 Early Decision/Early Action deadline. WARNING: This post may serve as evidence that I am suffering from PNSD (Post-November 1 Stress Disorder) after surviving the two most hectic, stressful two weeks of my entire career.

Topic #1:  Is it time to rethink the counselor recommendation letter as a meaningful part of the college admissions process?

I’ve been thinking about that question on a daily basis through October as I tried to find time and energy to write the largest number of recommendations for Early Decision and Early Action applications of any year in my entire career.  This time of year is always a challenge, and I can remember Halloween nights when my children were little when I would take them trick-or-treating and then return home to write last minute recs, but this is the first time I’ve had the sense that this deadline might get the best of me mentally and physically.

So what’s different?  Clearly I’m older, and the three hours it takes me to write a good letter drains me, even as I still feel great satisfaction in capturing the essence of a student and telling their story.  Part of the additional burden is having the largest class in school history, twice as big as my first class 25 years ago, and yet I know my colleagues in public schools with absurd counseling loads won’t and shouldn’t feel any sympathy.

The other changes are more global and subtle. One is that the application process has become compressed.  When I started in this profession, the application process lasted from mid-October until the end of January.  My son was born nearly thirty years ago at the beginning of February, and I have clear memories of spending the previous weekend working on rec letters for the last major deadline.  The workload used to be fairly evenly distributed throughout the process, with a wave every two weeks.  Now the November wave has become a tsunami as colleges move deadlines earlier and earlier. 

For students the message is that the early applicant gets the worm, that applying ED or EA is advantageous.  With the most selective colleges having admit rates of 5-10% and committed to crafting a class, the best (and maybe only) strategy for the unhooked student is to apply early. That coerces too many students to make application decisions before they are developmentally ready.   

The college recommendation letter is an art form, perhaps even an example of “neo-realistic American fiction.”  Its role in the college admissions process dates back to the 1920s, when colleges became more interested in producing good graduates (defined in a narrow way that resembled country club membership), than good students.  At independent schools “the letter” takes on mythic proportions, such that when I was first hired as a college counselor writing “the letter” seemed to be the entire job description. 

Is it time to rethink the rec letter?  I have talked to colleagues the past couple of weeks who are convinced that it’s time to replace the narrative letter with a paragraph or series of bullet points.  I’m not ready to go that far, or to follow in the footsteps of a predecessor whose recommendation letters consisted of either “Recommended” or “Highly Recommended,” but I worry that the quality of my letters will suffer as the quantity increases.

At a time when there is discussion about designing a new admissions process, I hope that “reform” will not mean a new application platform alone.  I hope we’ll think carefully about what we’re trying to measure, which parts of the application process provide useful information, and how the timing of the admissions process impacts not just the colleges asking for the info, but also the students, teachers and counselors that have to provide the info. 


Topic #2:  Is it time to rethink Restricted Early Action?

“How many kids do we have applying early?” is a question I commonly receive at this time of year.  It’s a question I no longer know how to answer.  “Early” now includes Early Decision, Early Action, Restricted Early Action, “priority” deadlines, and rolling admission, so any attempt to answer ends up being an essay answer to what is intended to be a short-answer question.

In a landscape full of confusing options, the one that takes the cake is Restricted Early Action.  Restricted EA might be described as a compromise between Early Decision and Early Action, with a student restricted from applying other places (with exceptions) but having until May 1 to commit, and like most legislative compromises it is deeply unsatisfying.

Restricted EA came about because several high profile institutions threatened to withdraw from NACAC if not allowed to prohibit their EA applicants from applying EA to other institutions, as allowed by the commonly agreed upon definition of Early Action.  This was one of the early skirmishes in what has become the ongoing war within college admissions between institutional autonomy and common professional standards, and the vote to allow Restrictive EA was seen by many in the profession as another victory for the privileged few.

Restricted Early Action raises some interesting ethical issues. Restricted EA came about after some highly-selective colleges saw an insane increase in applications after making the change from Early Decision to Early Action, a change made in response to criticisms that Early Decision advantages students who are already advantaged.  I understand the desire to keep EA numbers from getting out of control, but how can a college interfere with a student’s freedom to apply to other institutions? I am surprised that someone hasn’t filed a lawsuit alleging restraint of trade.  The same argument could be made about Early Decision, but I think that Early Decision is different.  ED is a contract, a moral contract to be sure, where the student agrees to declare a first choice and limit applications in exchange for an early decision from the institution.

I would argue that Restricted Early Action is really a form of Early Decision, only Early Decision that is non-binding.  When the NACAC Admission Practices Committee and Assembly developed definitions for Early Decision and Early Action back in the 1990s, they drew the line between the two as being binding vs. non-binding, defining Early Decision as binding.  That is certainly defensible, but I would argue that the line is better drawn as single-choice vs. multiple-choice, with students restricted to a single choice in ED.  Colleges with Early Decision programs should then have the option of being binding or giving students until May 1 to deposit.

I don’t know that my “modest proposal” is any less confusing, but it is more consistent philosophically.  It doesn’t address more fundamental questions about early applications, such as whether Early Decision should exist at all or whether colleges should admit more than half their classes early.  Those will have to wait for another day.


ECA is off to the nation’s capital for the College Board National Forum, looking forward to discussions about the Coalition and prior-prior along with infomercials for College Board products.

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