The number of applicants for Early Action admission to Harvard College has risen 24 percent above last year’s record 6,128 to a total of 7,615. The academic quality of the pool is impressive. For example, 64 percent of the applicants average 1,400 or more on the combined SAT verbal and math test.

Several factors combined to produce this unprecedented interest in early admission to Harvard. “There was enormous media attention throughout the past year focused on early admission to America’s colleges,” said William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid. “Beginning with a September 2001 essay in The Atlantic Monthly by James Fallows, which proved a catalyst for a national debate on early admission, hardly a week went by without a news article or opinion piece on the subject in a major newspaper or magazine. Clearly students, parents, and high school counselors responded to this information, especially as the nature of Harvard’s nonbinding Early Action became more widely known: admitted students are not obligated to attend and may apply elsewhere, compare other financial aid offers, and take the full senior year to make their college choice.”

Most other Early Action colleges experienced increases as well. Early Decision colleges (which require admitted students to attend) also had increases, but from much smaller bases, typically under 3,000 applicants.

Increased publicity about early admission programs at Harvard and other national institutions often included information about their generous financial aid programs. “Students are often surprised to learn that nearly 50 percent of Harvard students are awarded scholarship assistance and that two-thirds receive some kind of financial aid to attend,” said Sarah C. Donahue, director of financial aid. “Especially in these difficult economic times, Harvard’s financial aid program, enhanced twice over the past few years, is attractive to talented students of modest means who could not otherwise attend.” Students must now earn or borrow only $3,250 during the academic year, compared to over $7,200 before the enhancements. They may also use outside awards such as National Merit scholarships to eliminate that $3,250 completely. Currently there are more than 600 students whose outside awards enable them to graduate with no loan indebtedness at all; and many other students choose to work 10-15 hours per week to reduce or eliminate loans.

Geographical distribution of Harvard’s Early Action applications indicated much more interest from abroad, with a 45 percent increase (not including Canada, which had an 18 percent rise). This rise may be due in part to increased recruiting in recent years as well as a “rebound effect” after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, which discouraged some applicants from applying last year. There were increases of 30 percent from the West and mid-Atlantic, other areas increasing from 13 percent to 19 percent. Proposed academic concentrations remained similar.

Harvard’s record 7,615 Early Action applications have created an enormous amount of work for staff and alumni/ae. “Admissions officers and administrative staff have responded in remarkable fashion to the challenges of processing and evaluating so many applications,” said Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of admissions. “Marcia Morgan, department administrator, and the entire office staff have engineered a smooth and efficient flow of the many documents that comprise each application. In addition, our alumni/ae have conducted the larger numbers of interviews this year with the same care and dedication that are the traditional hallmarks of this critical aspect of the admissions process. We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.”

Recently Yale and Stanford announced their intentions to abandon binding Early Decision next year in favor of the kind of Early Action program Harvard and a small number of other institutions employ. It is still too early to tell whether other institutions will also switch to Early Action or make other changes to their programs. “This new landscape in selective college admissions will no doubt be the subject of discussion and speculation across the country as the year goes on,” said Fitzsimmons.

Harvard’s Early Action applicants will be notified of the Admissions Committee’s decisions on Dec. 13. All will receive a letter, and those who elected to be notified electronically (by e-mail at an address verified as secure by the applicant) will hear on the same day.