Bill Menke's BLOG Page: The Timely Death of Early Admissions

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I am embarassed to say that I cannot bring myself to encourage even the brightest high school students that I meet to apply to Columbia. Yet I teach in a Columbia department, Earth and Environmental Sciences, that has a great international reputation, an excellent undergraduate program, and an explicit desire to expand its enrollment. But what's the point? Columbia has an acceptance rate of only about 8%. I just don't want to dissappoint 11 out of the 12 high school students that I succeed in convincing to apply!

Of course, you might think that the brightest students - the ones that I might want to encourage - would have a better chance. We faculty are kept almost completely out of the admissions process, so I can't speak on this subject with much authority. But I have the impression that, actually, a very large fraction of Columbia applicants are extremely bright. Maybe the brightest have a better chance, but only marginly so. Then again, my idea of brightness, as a physical scientist, is probably not shared by very many admission officers, so maybe not.

That brings me to Early Admissions. The rate for Early Admissions - where students get an early decision at the cost of locking themselves into attending the institution - is quite a bit better, around 25%. That's still only odds of 1 in 4, but it's sure better than 1 in 12. Maybe I should be encouraging high school students to apply that way?

The problem is that I believe that students deserve to be offered choice. I want them to be able to weigh their options on a choice that will likely have a profound impact on their future. And when you're seventeen, a few months more of weighing can make a big difference. Furthermore, most of the high school students that I know don't have a strong preference for a specific college, but many do have a real fear that they will not get into anything decent. I don't want to prey upon that fear!

Then too, Columbia is not all that obvious a first choice for a science student, who probably would be more inclined to apply early admission to Caltech or MIT. Convincing a science student that we should be the school in which they invest their single early admission opportunity is a hard sell. It's only upon more thorough examination that our real strengths in science come through.

Harvard and Princeton Universities recently (September 2006) have announced that they are ending their Early Admissions programs. I think that they have made the right choice, and hope other schools follow their lead. It will have the effect of increasing the success rate in regular admissions, and of reducing - though maybe not eliminating - some of the quirks in the college admissions process that work against students making well-informed and deliberative choices about the college that they would like to attend.