Following are excerpts of an interview with Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye the day that Princeton announced plans to offer an early-action admission program.
What’s changed since Princeton decided in 2006 to give up its early-admission program?
We’ve been able to admit the last several classes and see what we were able to achieve, and for many of the goals that we had set out in the process, we were very happy to see progress. We have more students in the class who are on financial aid; the pool has increased from 19,000 to 27,000, so it’s broader and deeper; we have more students on Pell grants, so more low-income students are in the class; we have more high schools represented in the pool and therefore can choose more students from more backgrounds. And one of our big surprises was that we were able to achieve a 50-50 class in terms of gender balance, where with the early-decision program it was running 52-48 … and we had a continuing concern about that. The distinction here is that we think we can continue to achieve all of this and still offer students an early option, by doing early action and not early decision. We are going back to early action that we had from 1977 to 1996. What we had had most recently was early decision which was binding, and we’re not going back to that.
In light of the progress that you cited, why is Princeton changing its process?
Starting last November, the Harvard student newspaper was reporting on the statements from the Harvard admission office about the research they were doing and that they were seriously reconsidering their process. And we were paying attention to that. We’ve always been doing our own research, but we started doing a thorough review of where we were. And we knew that if Harvard were to make that decision, it simply wasn’t practical for us to be the only school left in our peer group without an early option.
What would have been the disadvantages of being the only one?
Every year, there were students and families who came back and said, ‘We want you to know that this is our first choice,’ and there was no formal way for them to indicate that. There are thousands of great students out there, but in the competitive admission world that we live in, having an option for students where they could indicate their interest but not be locked into the decision … seemed to us the very best of all possible worlds. And now that we’ve seen what we can achieve, we are confident we can continue on that path and still offer an early option for students. But it’s different than what we had before, and that was quite deliberate.
Has there been more of a demand for early admission?
I think of it more on a continuum if I look at Princeton’s history – we had early action at Princeton from 1977 to 1996 [and early decision until 2007]– so for 30 years Princeton had an early program, and for the last three, we have had one deadline. And it seemed to us that in paying attention to what was being reported in the Harvard student newspaper, that they’re serious about it, being the last school standing with only one deadline – that again, was not feasible in how competitive this world is.
How about the effect on Princeton’s yield?
Our competive peer group is exactly the same [as in prior years] – that’s no different. Clearly there was a difference in the yield when we went to a regular process, because if you have early decision where it’s binding, you get 100 percent of those candidates. So we did experience a difference in the yield, but we still had incredible classes; in fact better. … With early action, I don’t know what to anticipate in terms of actual numbers, but in terms of students who want to tell us that it’s their first choice, and we admit them and they come, there will be a group that will have a slightly higher yield. But that isn’t necessarily why we’re doing it; it will be one of the effects.
Were you concerned about losing students with multiple acceptances to other schools?
Not necessarily, but I think we would have if we had been the only school without an early program. … I think we would have started seeing some real shifts if we hadn’t been paying attention, and we were paying attention.
Has early admission been a frequent concern on the part of alumni since the 2006 announcement to go to a single admission deadline?
I heard many different responses from our alumni. When you make a decision, some like the decision; some are neutral; some of them disagree with it. I don’t know what to expect in terms of their reaction to this. But our decision to go to early action seemed again to us to be the best possible outcome for the students who are going through the application process – if they’re admitted, they know, and they have a financial-aid package, but they don’t have to tell us until May 1.
Based on past experience, are legacy applicants more likely to apply early action?
We haven’t had early action since 1996; I think early decision was different. I’ll be very interested to see what we get next fall. I don’t know the answer to that. And I think the world has changed considerably since we had early action before. There are a million more students graduating from high school now than there were in 1992; it’s very different, and I don’t know what to expect. It’s like trying to predict the stock market.
Will the new process have an effect on legacy admissions?
I don’t think it will change our commitment at all to looking carefully and giving every consideration to the children of our graduates. That’s been our policy up until now, and we expect that that will continue.
Do you expect that Princeton will admit the same proportion of legacy applicants?
Children of our graduates have ranged anywhere between 12 and 14 percent of the class. We’re offering a new option to apply to Princeton, but our goals in putting the class together and the class that we achieve – nothing has changed there. We will offer full financial aid to everyone who needs it; we want to have a diverse class; we’re building a multicultural community – all the goals that we had for the last several years will continue. We’re just offering a different option for students to apply.
Is Princeton taking steps to ensure that its progress in diversity continues?
What we’ve been doing over the last several years is to continue the momentum we had built up in visiting as many states and cities as we possibly could, given the size of our staff, and to reach out to as many high schools and agencies and student groups and foundations that work with students to try to have the broadest possible base we could have. And that has not changed. We are fully committed to recruiting students from every background. That commitment is exactly the same. We feel like we have a very solid recruitment strategy that we have been implementing and improving on each year, and we are looking forward to being able to start that process. As early as May we’re going to be working with the candidates for the Class of 2016, and we feel like we’re in very good shape.
Do you know how many students Princeton will be accepting early action?
No – I think we’re going to look carefully at the pool. What we would like to do is exercise the same discipline in admitting students in early action as we will admit in regular decision. We’re looking to put together the same class, and so we’re going to be looking at the candidates who apply. Part of the reason I can’t answer the question is I don’t know how many applicants we’re going to have, and so I don’t even know what the pool is going to look like. Clearly we want to put a balance in place in terms of the students who are applying early action and the students who are applying regular decision.
The numbers were a little less than half the class with early decision, weren’t they?
Yes, but that was early decision, and that’s when students had to make a commitment to us. So I’m not expecting the same. My hope is that it can be less than what it was – that we’re able to take some students early, but that we have as many places as possible when we get to regular decision.
Will the move to early action help Princeton do better in competing for the very best students?
This is where it is a totally different world than it was it was 15 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 or 40 years ago. There’s not hundreds of top-tier students; there are thousands of top-tier students. To think that one thing we do is going to change the incredibly high quality we’re already getting – we’re already getting that high quality, and we’re going to continue to get that. In certain cases, will it allow a student to say I want to come to Princeton early, and we get to say to them, we want you to come to Princeton – yes, it will allow us to do that a little bit more. But we’re already getting the very top tier.
When I talk to alums from the ’50s and ’60s, they remember the top 200 kids in the country being sought after by Harvard, Yale, and Princeton; that isn’t the scenario any more.
What led up to the announcement of a return to early action? How did the process unfold?
We had decided earlier this year that we would do the thorough research, and then it was becoming very clear that we would move in the direction of offering another early program. When Harvard made the announcement this morning, we were ready. I don’t think we would necessarily have chosen this week to make this announcement; we would have taken more time to do even a little more research. But we had done a lot of research, and we were very much in tune on campus as to the direction we were going to go in. We were ready.
Would Princeton have made its own announcement if Harvard had not acted?
It was very clear that there was serious consideration being done at one of our colleague schools, and we were doing our own very serious research; this was an independent conclusion. I don’t make this decision by myself; this [involves] the president and the dean of the college and the provost and the trustees.
– Interview conducted and condensed by W. Raymond Ollwerther ’71