Deans warn about drawbacks of overshooting early application process

Jonathan Seymour

Upper school deans Beth Slattery and Kyle Graham gave a presentation to seniors and their parents entitled “The Opportunity Cost of Aiming Too High in the Early Application Process” at Senior College Night Sept. 15. The talk was one of nine special interest sessions available at the event, and it addressed the possible cons of applying early to unrealistically challenging schools.

“It was kind of depressing,” Jonah Ullendorff ’16 said. “The whole idea was that students need to be realistic. Early decision is very important and students need to take advantage of it and apply to the types of schools that they have at least a chance of getting in to.”

In the speech, Slattery and Graham laid out what they called GPA bands and said that all students fit into one of these bands based on their grade point averages. They explained that students in different bands should apply to schools of appropriate selectivity during the early decision period to have the best chance of securing an acceptance when the chances of successful admission are highest.

“When a student at Harvard-Westlake thinks, ‘I’ll just take a shot and apply Restrictive Early Action to Stanford because you never know, right?’ – [he] thinks the process is a lottery,” Graham said. “It’s not a lottery. It’s not a meritocracy. It’s a game with rules and players and incentives – just like chess.”

Slattery and Graham explained their message using an example of a student overreaching during the early admissions period by applying to Stanford and thereby ruining his chances of getting in to Washington University in St. Louis in the process.

“It’s not a lottery. It’s not a meritocracy. It’s a game with rules and players and incentives – just like chess.” — Upper School Dean Kyle Graham

“The opportunity cost in this instance is the offer of admission from a school you like a lot that you might be giving up because you applied early to a highly selective school at which you were not competitive,” Slattery said. “The example we used was the unhooked student at a 4.0 GPA who applies early to Stanford instead of Washington.

“That student is almost certain to be denied early at Stanford early and runs the risk of not being admitted regular decision to Washington because of the large volume of strong students in the regular pool at Washington,” Slattery said. “Had that student applied early to Washington instead of Stanford, he or she would have had a very good shot of getting in, but by taking a shot at Stanford, they may have been giving up acceptance to Washington.”

According to upper school dean Vanna Cairns, contrary to the message of this presentation, many Harvard-Westlake families see the early period as a chance to aim high and are overly optimistic about their chances at these very selective schools.

“Our families see an early decision application as a ‘discount coupon’ on the selectivity of a given college, and it is,” Cairns said. “But the tendency among our families is to assume that this discount is much greater than it really is. An early decision application to a given college will make an already competitive student at that college more likely to be admitted. An early decision application will not make a non-competitive student more likely to be admitted. It doesn’t work that way.”

According to Cairns, deans have been giving the same advice for years about thinking rationally about the early applications period and using it strategically to increase the chance of admissions at schools where students are already competitive. This year, they are just emphasizing it more strongly.

“Increasingly, we see students who shoot too high for their early decision school,” Cairns said. “Despite what we say, the “you-never-know” philosophy prevails. We are seen as the dream-crushers. This scenario plays itself out year after year in the offices of nine deans. This year, thanks to Mr. Graham’s and Ms. Slattery’s data analysis and candid explanations, we are hoping to avoid these disappointments.”

The idea of ‘opportunity cost,’ a term that refers to what a student gives up by shooting too high, originated in Graham’s graduate research at New York University on the economics of higher education. Having majored in economics in college, he focused his research on the financial incentives motivating college behavior.

“Essentially, I’ve always been fascinated by how colleges actually make their decisions, and I look at the college admissions process through the lens of an economist,” Graham said. “When I switched from the college admissions side of the desk at NYU and Hamilton to college counseling, I wanted to explain to my students that the college admission process is not a lottery. Colleges have very real financial incentives motivating their behavior and, in many ways, much of the college admissions process is fairly predictable when you know how it works.”

Graham said that the purpose of his and Slattery’s presentation is to mitigate the stress associated with the college process and to help students optimize their choices.

“Ms. Slattery did a great job giving historical perspective of students from HW and how they’ve fared in selective admission pools,” Graham said.

Graham and Slattery presented the information to faculty Sept. 29 to help them better understand the pressures of college applications given the increasing level of competitiveness.

“Even though this information can be difficult to hear, we got a lot of really positive feedback from families who said they appreciated receiving the statistics so they could decide what made sense in their circumstances.” — Upper School Dean Beth Slattery

“Every several years, we present the college admissions landscape to our faculty,” Cairns said. “They find it interesting. And perhaps it helps them to better understand what our seniors are facing in the process. Also, many of our faculty are parents themselves. We see this as valuable information and we want to share all we know with our colleagues.”

Though the deans are further emphasizing the value of using the early admissions process strategically this year, they want students to know that they are only giving advice and are not changing or creating any new rules or restrictions about applications.

“We only want to provide as much information as possible so families can make good decisions,” Slattery said. “Even though this information can be difficult to hear, we got a lot of really positive feedback from families who said they appreciated receiving the statistics so they could decide what made sense in their circumstances.”

Though the deans put a lot of research into their presentation and made it as factual and unbiased as possible, Ullendorff thinks that the general ambition of Harvard-Westlake students prevent students from actually limiting their college ambitions and changing their decisions.

“I think the one college that I wanted to apply early decision to fit into my GPA band, so it reinforced my choice,” Ullendorff said. “I can imagine though that it changed the decisions of a lot of people, but I was more realistic to begin with. I think that a bunch of people after the speech will consider changing their decisions, but the Harvard-Westlake culture says to shoot for the stars, so I think that a lot of people will remain optimistic. People should change their decisions, but I don’t think they will.”