Rebecca and Sarah Zeidel are not identical twins, but looking at their grades and scores, it would be hard to tell them apart.
Both girls attend Phillips Exeter Academy, where their rooms are one floor apart and their phone numbers differ by only the last digit.
The Zeidel sisters both nearly applied to Yale early decision this fall.
At the last minute, however, Rebecca decided that she would instead turn in her application to Harvard through its nonbinding early action program.
The Zeidel family offers a small-scale example of the national debate over early action versus early decision.
When Yale President Richard Levin said in December that he would like to eliminate early-decision programs, he offered as one possible solution a return to the nonbinding early action program Yale had had until 1995. But he recently conceded that changing to a nonbinding early policy would not solve all the problems of the early-application process.
“My feeling is that if there were many schools doing early action instead of early decision, that would be an improvement, but it wouldn’t really address some of the important issues,” Levin said.
Rebecca Zeidel said there were other reasons besides Harvard’s nonbinding application process that led her to apply to Harvard instead of Yale this fall, but she agreed that a nonbinding policy is desirable from her perspective.
“Early action allows you a lot more leeway in terms of your choices,” Rebecca said. “Even though I believe a lot of people who get in early action end up [going to the school], you don’t have that binding commitment hanging over [you].”
Looking at her two daughters’ experiences, Susan Freedman ’75 said she also believes early action has some advantages over early decision.
“[Rebecca] applied early action to Harvard and was accepted, and of course that gives her the option of applying elsewhere,” Freedman said. “It gives her another six months of growth and development to make that decision.”
Nonetheless, Freedman said she thinks it would be ideal if all early application programs were abolished.
“I think [early application] increases stress because you’re asking kids to make a decision in their junior year,” Freedman said. “If all of the Ivies got together and made a decision to just not do it, I think that would take a huge pressure off all parties.”
Sarah said that she had initially wanted to apply at the later regular-decision deadline because she thought it was important to have those extra months to decide.
“At first I didn’t want to apply early because I’ll be a different person in April and I [didn’t] want to make a binding commitment,” Sarah said.
But Sarah’s college counselor suggested that she consider early application in order to reduce stress.
“[She said], ‘If you can find a place you really want to be, why fill out eight applications if you really only want to go to one school?'” Sarah said. Following her counselor’s advice, Sarah went on numerous colleges visits, conducted extensive research, and decided to cast her lot with Yale.
While Sarah and Rebecca, as members of the same family, come from the same financial background, one of the chief arguments against early decision is that it puts less affluent students at a disadvantage by denying them the opportunity to compare financial aid packages.
Pema McGuinness, a classmate of the Zeidel sisters at Exeter, decided to apply early action to Harvard rather than through a binding early-decision program at another college, citing her desire to compare aid packages and scholarships from various schools.
“I definitely wouldn’t have applied anywhere early decision because — I’m interested in a merit scholarship that’s offered at Duke,” McGuinness said. “Not being able to compare aid packages is a big downside to early decision as compared to early action.”
Rebecca Zeidel said competition between her and Sarah had never been an issue in their family.
“To be honest, I was more sure that Sarah was going to get in than I was going to get in,” Rebecca said. “I just thought it would be so crazy if they didn’t accept my sister.”
Luckily, any latent competitive tendencies the girls may hold were not awakened by a difference in admissions outcomes.
Within hours of one another on the afternoon of Dec. 14, Rebecca and Sarah learned they had been accepted to their respective schools. Rebecca got the good news in the form of an e-mail from Harvard; Sarah discovered her acceptance via Yale’s online notification site.
“I was really glad we had both found out at the same time,” Rebecca said.
Although Sarah and Rebecca were excited and relieved that they were both admitted, Sarah admitted that one of the hardest things about applying early was the dynamic among her classmates when school resumed after winter break.
“I go to Exeter, and it’s really hard because there are a lot of my friends who applied early to Yale, and even in general, most people who applied early were deferred or even rejected,” Sarah said. “Certainly, I’m really excited that I’m in, but it’s really hard for the other people in my English class. They know and I know, and coming back from the new year, it was a little awkward.”
Freedman, Sarah and Rebecca’s mother, said that feelings of inferiority can arise not only after a student is deferred or rejected but even before the admissions offices ever send out their decisions.
“The kids who don’t apply early in some sense feel like they must be second-rate,” Freedman said, “and that’s not psychologically good for them either. [It] doesn’t mean that they’re at all second-rate because they couldn’t make a decision — it means they’re normal 17-year-olds.”