While the upcoming Nov. 1 deadline for early decision candidates may no longer be relevant to most of us personally, it is still worth continuing to discuss Penn’s application process. Although the trend of admitting over 50 percent of each freshman class in Early Decision has its drawbacks, it is ultimately the best system for admitting the most committed Penn class.
A bit of history helps put things in perspective. Originally launched in the 1970s, the Common Application revolutionized the college application process when it went online in 2007. In the 1970s, 1980s and even 1990s, when applications were often handwritten, our parents usually applied to a maximum of five colleges. Applying to even 10 schools was still considered rather excessive in the early 2000s.
However, this all suddenly changed with the advent of the electronic Common App, when it became possible to apply to multiple schools with just a few keystrokes. As a result, the volume of applications admissions departments were expected to weed through skyrocketed. Penn, which had “enjoyed a record number of students applying — 12,800” in 1985, had 40,413 applicants for 2,457 places for the Class of 2021.
Given this huge and ever-increasing volume of applications for the same limited number of spots, a high early decision rate is not only necessary but also desirable. Just ask yourself how Penn should make informed decisions when choosing from 40,000-plus applicants when these candidates generally have similar superb credentials and are often applying to 20-plus other institutions, with some students even applying to 30 or more schools.
Most importantly, a university must plan ahead and fill an incoming class, so how exactly does Dean of Admissions Eric Furda and his team make any sort of educated guess as to which admitted candidates will matriculate?
Many of us either conveyed or were prepared to convey the same “love” to other schools besides Penn. Personally, I was poised to apply to several additional colleges had I not been accepted ED. And how can even the most dedicated and experienced of Penn’s volunteers tease out the keenest applicants during their interviews, especially when it is hard to enforce consistency across tens of thousands of alumni interviews?
Supplemental application essays aimed to demonstrate knowledge of a college’s courses and extracurricular opportunities do not successfully predict a student’s ultimate college choice. Similarly, measures that attempt to evaluate “demonstrated interest” are disingenuous and unproductive. These tactics, such as tracking visits to campus, actively discriminate against prospective students who can’t afford the trip or live too far away to manage the time for an expensive college tour.
Of course, Penn is not unique. Universities across America have the same challenges choosing the best students and likely matriculates among ever-growing numbers of applicants. But the United States seems to stand alone; worldwide, universities systemically whittle down their applicant pools. In most European countries, secondary school is a long process of forced academic-ranking, which is first used to eliminate many students from the running and then to assign one university spot or, if you’re lucky, a small number of choices.
In the United Kingdom, UCAS — the University and Colleges Admissions Service — restricts the number of total applications per student to five, while also prohibiting simultaneous application to elite Oxford and Cambridge. Without an overhaul of the entire United States application process, Penn’s most logical and only infallible approach to test a student’s dedication and honesty turns out to be requiring commitment via a binding application. It is ultimately profoundly comforting for Penn students to know that over 50 percent of our peers were willing to commit to being here above any number of other schools.
Of course, the benefits of Early Decision do not come without costs, including potentially biasing the Penn undergrad profile towards more privileged students who can “commit to enroll if they get in" while "shutting out those who want the chance to compare offers of grants and scholarships.”
Undeniably, more privileged high schoolers who benefit from earlier and better college coaching are better prepared to apply early, essentially discriminating against the less fortunate. Furthermore, wealthier students often do not need to wait for information on financial aid. But with nearly 10 percent of admitted ED students being “the first in their family to attend college” and 47.9 percent self-identifying as minorities, Penn is demonstrating its commitment to diversity and “bringing students of the highest promise to campus without regard to their families’ ability to pay.”
The current American college application system produces an insurmountable volume of applications. Coupled with the increasing propensity of nervous high school seniors to apply to dozens, if not more, colleges, admitting 50 percent or more of each Penn class through ED is necessary and ultimately works the best.
SPENCER SWANSON is a College freshman from London, studying philosophy, politics and economics. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Spencer’s Space” usually appears every other Tuesday.
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.