What Harvard reveals about applying Early Action

Oct 2023

15 Minute Read

Tagged as: Applying to Elite Universities, Ivy League

Discusses early action, Harvard admissions (from 2017), and how EA applicants have a better likelihood of being admitted, discussion of "a hook" and how EA can help in general

The numbers are in. Harvard has admitted approximately 5.2% of applicants for the class of 2021. This number is not much different from last year, nor from the most selective universities in the US. Yet when we look at the students who applied early action compared to those who applied in the regular decision round, the numbers tell a different story. On every level, Harvard is still one of the most difficult universities to get into. However, understanding how many students are admitted in early action and how they prepare can provide insight into your own student’s future. Are you in the process of applying for college or starting your college preparation? Vitae.me (get it here for iOS or Android), the only app you'll need to help you keep track of your application to-dos and tasks, is here to help (whether you are applying to Harvard or any other US-based university).

Out of the 2,056 students accepted to Harvard for the 2017-2018 academic year, 938 of those were early action admits. Keep in mind, though, that early action means a lot more than simply applying early. To fully understand what this means, we will break down the terms, the numbers, and the qualities the admissions committee looks for in their applicants. We will also discuss what this means for international students.

What is "early action?"

Harvard College’s Early Action option means two major things:

  1. You will submit your application two months before regular decision applicants. The early action deadline is November 1, and applicants usually hear about an admissions decision in mid- to late December, even before the regular decision deadline on January 1.
  2. You may not apply early action (or anything similar) to any other schools. This ban includes all schools public, private, and outside the US. If an early action applicant is accepted to Harvard, they may still apply to and consider other schools under regular decision deadlines only. They may even accept another school’s offer over Harvard. This is common to all schools that offer early action admission programs. However, they may not apply early action or early decision to any other schools.

Harvard’s early action option is not a binding contract. Early decision, on the other hand, is binding, but Harvard does not offer early decision as an option. We will go over the differences between early action and early decision in an upcoming post.

How many early action applicants get into Harvard compared to regular admission?

Out of Harvard’s 39,506 total applicants, 2,056 were admitted. However, when we look more closely at those numbers, they get much more interesting. It turns out that the number of early action applicants offered admission to Harvard is, proportionally, just over four times higher than regular decision.

A bar graph titled "Harvard College class of 2021" shows the total number of applicants admitted to Harvard for the fall of 2017.

It is not known what percentage of international students were admitted early action. However, we do know that 234 international students were accepted, which is 11.4% of the total.

Does early action give people an unfair advantage?

The short answer is no. In and of itself, early action is not an advantage. While it is clear that, proportionally, more applicants were admitted in the early action round, those who apply early action have been preparing for years to get accepted to Harvard.

There are three things that early action applicants to Harvard have in common:

  1. They are certain that Harvard College is their top choice. According to William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid, the admissions committee works hard to ensure that applicants who would without a doubt be accepted in regular decision are admitted in the early action round.
  2. They do not need more time to polish their application. Early action applicants spend most of their time on their first choice school. Generally, this means counselors, teachers, parents and other mentors have helped them fine-tune their application and test scores for months, if not years, before it is due. This hard work is what really gives early action applicants an advantage.
  3. They have a hook. All schools are looking to fulfill specific institutional needs with new students. If an applicant could meet a need, this is called a hook.

But what is the result of all this hard work if you don’t get immediately accepted in early action? The good news is that vast majority of early action applications that are not immediately accepted are deferred. Deferral means that their applications are automatically considered in the regular decision round as well. However, considering that far fewer students are accepted after the early action round is over, it is critical to have a stellar application to begin with.

Because early action applicants are prepared well before others, they have a better chance of getting accepted to Harvard.

What is a hook and why is it important for getting accepted to Harvard?

In short, a hook is a quality that makes a student attractive to a particular university, Hooks come in many forms; while some can be developed, some are demographic.

Four examples of hooks are:

  • Athletic talent. Colleges and universities in the US often "scout" for talent while people are still in high school. Top athletes recruited for college teams are often awarded major scholarships.
  • Artistic, scientific, or other academic talents. This one is usually only considered a hook (according to most sources) if a student has won a major award or is recognized as being in the top of their field in some way. Some sources also call this being a "high-profile candidate."
  • Underrepresented students. Historically, non-white students and those whose families are low-income have not been well-represented in American higher education. Admissions committees are working to change this, and as a result, student bodies are becoming more diverse, and schools like Harvard are offering more financial aid.
  • Legacy students. These applicants have a parent or (sometimes) a grandparent who attended Harvard.

If a student has some combination of these hooks (for example: artistically talented and underrepresented), even better. Prestigious universities are constantly searching for these students.

Here are two things that hooks are not:

  1. Having high test scores. High test scores are considered to be a given by admissions committees. Most regular and early applicants to Harvard will have high scores. According to an admissions representative at Harvard, "just over 29,000 high school graduates earn an 800 on Math 2, annually." This means that, in the future, scores will be broken down further when considering an applicant.
  2. Being an international student. Being an international student gives students perspectives that American universities need and value. However, this in itself is only_part of_ a hook. International students need to demonstrate their value to a particular school in similar ways to American students.

Even though being from outside the US is only part of a hook, the numbers tell us that international applicants to Harvard do benefit from applying early action. The following numbers on the graph reflect only those accepted, not the total number of applicants.

The above-average numbers for early action is good news for those who know that Harvard is their first choice. However, keep in mind that to get into Harvard, a lot of hard work has to happen, starting as early as possible.

If a student is dreaming of attending Harvard College, they need to plan for it starting freshman year. Test-wise, Harvard requires either the ACT or the SAT with writing, and at least two SAT subject tests. To have the scores they need will require at least three exam sittings.

Students also need to make sure they are active in extracurricular activities all throughout high school. This will help build their resume, which will make developing and presenting their hook in their application much easier.

Regardless of if you are applying to Harvard or not, college applications and the application process is a long and complex one. We're here to help take some of the stess out of it with Vitae.Me (download here for iOS or Android). Keep track of your deadlines, tasks and applications all in one place! Harvard, here you come!

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