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New policies help applicants

Claire Heininger | Friday, January 23, 2004

While controversy swirled throughout 2003 over the early decision admissions option offered by many of the nation’s most prestigious universities, Notre Dame’s nonbinding early-action alternative flourished. The University received 2,983 early action applications for the class of 2008, a slight decrease from last year’s total of almost 3,100, but a much higher total than that of previous years, director of admissions operations Robert Mundy said Thursday. “Last year, we had a huge jump,” Mundy said. “As the applicant pool goes, so goes our decision-making. We’ve offered admission to about 1,300.”Notre Dame’s sustained commitment to early action, which gives exceptional students the opportunity to apply in October and receive a decision by December, has paid off in an era when colleges who use binding early decision have come under critical attack. Unlike early action, which allows students to apply to more than one school and to make their college choices up until May, early decision forces applicants to apply to only one school, and, if admitted, obligates them to immediate enrollment. Colleges that practice binding early decision have been accused of using the process to increase their own rankings, rather than for student benefit. Early decision has also been said to favor students from more elite high schools and to discriminate against financial aid applicants who can’t afford to commit to one school before comparing all scholarship offers. These criticisms – coming from students, parents, guidance counselors, and publications alike – prompted Yale, Stanford, the University of North Carolina, and several other institutions to change this year to early action instead.Mundy said that early action is preferable because it is “more student-friendly.” Because there is no binding commitment signed in October, students admitted to Notre Dame still have the chance to visit campus, examine financial aid and consider other schools before making a final decision, he said. Marilyn McGrath Lewis, director of admissions at Harvard University, agreed that a nonbinding system provides the best early admissions opportunity because it doesn’t accelerate the anxiety of students who are unprepared to make a final decision.”With early action, students don’t feel stampeded or institutionally pressured,” McGrath Lewis said. “We still think of early action as a somewhat exceptional choice – regular action is still a great option for most people.”Harvard, like Notre Dame, has consistently opted for early action over early decision. However, after a one-year trial period of allowing its early applicants to apply to an unlimited number of other schools – an experiment that McGrath Lewis called “an extreme example in our history of flexibility” – Harvard reverted to its old “single choice” system this year.The flood of early applications “overwhelmed us,” she said. “We’ve returned to the system we liked for many years that is designed for those who are sure of their first choice.”A timely answer from the applicant’s first-choice school still stands as the chief advantage of early admissions at Notre Dame, despite popular misconceptions that applying early will increase a borderline student’s chances.”We always tell students it’s a little more competitive,” Mundy said. While the admit rate may appear significantly higher for early decision than for regular decision, he said, it is a consequence of a pool of early applicants that is “much more qualified.””Students don’t get any bump for applying early,” he said. “If anything, we’re more conservative … if a student out there is thinking ‘I’m not a slam-dunk,’ they should wait for regular decision.”Kathy Utz, director of guidance at St. Joseph’s High School in South Bend, which sends more students to Notre Dame than any other high school in the country, said that she recommends early action to students who prove their qualification.”It is a real plus for many of them, especially those with honors and AP courses,” Utz said. Hearing a decision in December instead of March enables them to “concentrate on the rest of their lives,” she said.She strongly supported early action over early decision. “If they can’t consider another place, they’re obviously limiting themselves,” she said. “Financial aid is a big factor.”From high schools to Harvard, despite its flaws, the early admissions option only continues to grow in popularity. Mundy said that he anticipates interest among Notre Dame applicants to remain on the rise, as well as a strong return rate from students accepted under early action in this year’s class.”We have 122 confirmations, only about 5 percent of the class, but we have a long way to go,” Mundy said. “There are plenty waiting for aid packages to come through.”