Tens of thousands of American students who have only just begun their final year of high school have already sent off their applications for college. By the middle of December, they will know whether or not they have been accepted for 2003 admission.
This wave of hopefuls is part of a growing trend in university admission called "early decision", which has laid bare the competitiveness of American higher education and is throwing into chaos the already stressful process of applying.
Early decision, which is now in place at about 400 US universities, lets students reduce the amount of time they have to wait for a decision from a school by at least four months. In exchange, students must agree to apply early to only one university and, if they are admitted, they must enrol.
The restrictions do not stop record numbers of students from applying early. Last year, Duke University received 1,590 early applications, up 22 per cent. At Yale, the increase was 17 per cent, and at the University of Pennsylvania, 7 per cent. Many top schools now accept as many as 40 per cent of their students under early decision.
The programme also benefits the universities, which can secure the best students and avoid the dance of offers and counter-offers of financial aid and other perquisites used to attract such students in the spring.
As a result, the odds of being accepted are much higher for applicants in the autumn. Yale, for instance, took 37 per cent of its early applicants in the autumn of 2000, compared with only 16 per cent of those who applied through the traditional process.
Harvard University admits 26 per cent of its early-decision applicants, versus only 6 per cent of those who apply under the usual deadlines; Stanford, 24 per cent, versus 14 per cent of regular-admission applicants. A Harvard study found that a student who applied early was just as likely to be accepted as a regular-admission student with considerably higher university entrance examination scores.
The system relies on a gentleman's agreement among top schools that if a student is accepted early to one, none of the others will admit him or her.
But that agreement is threatening to unravel. In December, Yale president Richard Levin said that early admission pressured students to choose a university before they were ready. He called for the early option to be eliminated.
In June, Harvard suggested that it might break ranks and admit students even after other universities had accepted them under early-decision restrictions.
Barely a month later, under pressure from rival schools, Harvard backed down. But its president, Lawrence Summers, has said he plans to raise the issue in meetings with his counterparts at other Ivy League institutions.