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The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite

reviewed by Fred Jacobs - 2004

coverTitle: The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite
Author(s): Christopher Avery, Andrew Fairbanks & Richard Zeckhauser
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674010558, Pages: 377, Year: 2003
Search for book at Amazon.com

Recently, the state of Maryland increased the minimum age for obtaining a driver's license from sixteen to eighteen. This was advocated as a matter of public safety since a disproportional number of auto accidents and fatalities involved sixteen to twenty year olds. While the overall effect of this change has been positive, with a decline in the number of accidents and deaths, some teens have lamented the lost opportunity to get behind the wheel-and take off. They argue that the change in minimum age adds to the general emotional and psychological pressures they face, and delays their transition to adulthood.


Certainly, teenagers face varied pressures as they move toward independent lives, including uncertainties about professional choices, economic prospects, education beyond secondary school, and rapid social change. For most high school students, the age change from sixteen to eighteen moves the angst associated with that rite of passage (Will I pass the test? Will I have my own car? Will I be able to afford its upkeep and insurance?) from an eleventh to a twelfth grade preoccupation.


This is not insignificant because evidence reveals that high school seniors already deal with enormous stress and anxiety resulting from the pressures of applying to, being accepted at, and choosing to attend, a particular college or university. The recent book, The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite, by Christopher Avery, Andrew Fairbanks, and Richard Zeckhauser examines the early admissions process and "details the advantages and pitfalls [which can] lead students toward hasty oR misinformed decisions" (Introduction). 


Indeed, the authors present a compelling case that the extensive use of the early decision process creates anxiety and tension for many college applicants. Approximately 1700 colleges and universities have early decision/early action programs, and collectively process a million applications each year. Early decision refers to a process in which applicants receive early notification, and commit themselves to enroll, if accepted; early action informs applicants of decisions quickly, but does not obligate them to attend the institution.


The authors undertook extensive research to prepare the book, utilizing statistical analyses of the admissions process and interviews with high school counselors, admissions officers, high school students, and nearly 350 recent graduates of elite colleges. Their findings are well documented, with more than eighty pages of appendices, tables, and figures. Their basic contention is that the early college admissions process gives a significant advantage to those who can manage and manipulate the "game" played by institutions and applicants. Those who "know the rules" can find it "tremendously valuable" to apply early.


The data provided appear to document the authors' assertions about the benefits of early applications. Significant as this point is, however, it is restated far too often, with far too many paraphrases. By book's end, constant repetition makes the idea seem trite and simplistic. In the Introduction, for example, they refer to the early application process as "doubling or tripling the chances of admission"; four pages later, they describe the advantage as the equivalent of "a jump of 100 points or more in SAT score. The point is made in the first statement, and little is gained by its paraphrase. Avery et al. describe the early application process as a "giant game" and use that metaphor throughout the book. At times, the metaphor becomes so elaborate as to distract the reader from the basic point being made, as in the following:


Martian Blackjack is a metaphor for the Early Admissions Game. The players (applicants) do not know the rules (that is, the standards for admission), and the casinos (college admissions offices) do not describe them, at least not fully or accurately. The players' perceptions depend on their own experiences, and perhaps the experiences of others at their high school. And each player participates just once (p. 71).


Rather than enlightening the reader, the constant use of such metaphors obscures meaning for readers.


The Early Admissions Game is, in reality, two separate documents, each with its own distinctive purpose, but merged into a single work. These separate stories are loosely connected to one another, but are intended for different audiences. The first consists of an impressive history, analysis, and interpretation of a critical sorting function in the admissions process. Two of the authors, Professors Avery and Zeckhauser, are faculty members at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The third author, Andrew Fairbanks, is former Associate Dean of Admissions at Wesleyan University. Their research is thorough and clear, with detailed explanations of methodology; their analysis is well argued and illustrated.


Three chapters contain their salient research findings. Chapter 4, for example, is a case study tracking two cohorts of college applicants from different high schools as they undertake the admissions process. In Chapter 5, the authors provide an excellent synthesis of their own research and the available data from institutions. And then, in Chapter 6 they present a cogent analysis of the institutional benefits of maintaining early admissions policies, followed by an assessment of its benefits to applicants.


The second "story" contained in The Early Admissions Game is a "how to" guide, describing ten strategies the authors believe can help students to play-and win-the high stakes game of getting into the "best" college. Chapter 7, for example, is called "Advice to Applicants" and contains guidelines to help applicants play the game "wisely." It includes what has become a formula for "how to" books: be serious, plan your time, be realistic, etc. The authors' efforts to make their research findings accessible and useful to college applicants are commendable but do not work in a book premised on sound research and analysis.


Two problems are evident. First, some of the language and emphasis used in the text appear to "tilt" the reader the point of view that the game can be mastered if the advice proffered is followed by applicants. Second, and more serious, the "how to" and "research analysis" purposes of the book are sometimes intermingled, to the detriment of both. Guideline 4, for example, is: "Be honest with yourself and your qualifications and learn as much as possible about your chances of admission at various colleges." Good advice? Certainly. That guideline is followed by several paragraphs urging readers not to generalize from a single example, and to try to get "honest assessments" from the institutions. So far, so good! Then, in discussing how to find reliable sources of data about college admissions, the authors devote six pages (including two tables) to a discussion of median SAT scores, percentiles, and projected admission rates. The following is an excerpt from the text following Guideline 4:


For example, Claremont McKenna College has a median SAT-1 score of 1390, while Wake Forest University has a median SAT-1 score of 1300. Although Table 7.2 groups these colleges in the 1300-1399 category, Claremont McKenna is probably more selective than Wake Forest (p.235).


Applicants interested in the application process probably want advice, not details.


Combining the two purposes, as occurs in Chapter 7, limits the effectiveness of each. This is unfortunate because the research is excellent, and the advice is sound. The book's final chapter offers recommendations to improve existing early application processes, and identifies where reforms are needed. The authors' suggestions should be taken seriously because so many students submit early applications, and, especially, because the present system creates advantages for some over others. Undoubtedly, the college admissions process would be more equitable if all applicants had the same knowledge about how the system works, or as the authors say, how the game is played.


By providing an analysis of how the present system works, and then recommending reforms, Avery, Fairbanks, and Zeckhauser have contributed to improving the process students use when applying to college.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 2, 2004, p. 280-283
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11181, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 6:45:28 PM

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About the Author
  • Fred Jacobs
    American University
    E-mail Author
    Frederic Jacobs is a professor of education at American University, Washington DC. Professor Jacobs was an administrator and faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY before joining American University as Dean of Faculties in 1985. Since 1993, he has been a full time member of the faculty, and serves as Director of the Ph.D. program. His current research focuses on adult literacy and adult participation in postsecondary education.
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