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Harvard admissions doesn’t appreciate applicants who are too techie or give off an arrogant vibe. It divides its applicant pool into “regular” and “special” groups. It actively scouts athletes, under-resourced students, and students from less-populated areas long before most teens think about their college list. It also admits legacy students at five times the rate of non-legacy students.1

How do we know all this? Because of a lawsuit challenging Harvard’s admissions policies and practices, the university was forced to disclose its sorting and deliberation process in uncomfortable detail. As stated in the Harvard Crimson, “Harvard’s super-secret admissions process is secret no longer.”2

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Now that it’s out in the open, students and parents can gain more behind-the-scenes insight into creating one of the most competitive freshman undergraduate cohorts in the world.

What can we learn?

1. Harvard cares about the humanities

2. Harvard cares about character

3. Harvard sets aside special lists of applicants

4. Harvard often changes its mind last minute

5. Admission to Harvard is harder for upper- and middle-class applicants

Conclusion: Subjective considerations are gaining importance at top schools

One might think that all of this negative attention would deter Harvard and other top schools from relying too much on subjective criteria. The opposite is the case. As admissions expert Jeffrey Selingo notes, in the last 15 years the GPA and standardized test score have “come to mean less and less.”13

Harvard rejects students with perfect GPAs and test scores every year – thousands of them. The applicant pool for the class of 2019, for example, included 3,500 students with perfect SAT math scores, 2,700 with perfect SAT verbal scores, and 8,000 with straight A’s. Harvard accepted a total of 1,990 students that year.14

When grades and scores no longer aid decision-making, by necessity, universities like Harvard resort to subjective metrics. Indeed, the University of Pennsylvania’s staff considers the “relative growth and trajectory” of applicants alongside the “absolute merit” of grades and test scores.15 And the University of Chicago has gone even further, becoming the first top-10 research university to drop its standardized test requirement altogether and join the test optional movement.16 In addition to its infamously quirky and creative essay prompts, the university application now includes a mandatory interview and an optional two-minute video pitch.

Unless they devise some sort of lottery system, top universities will continue to value personality, and more specifically personal development, as a key admissions factor. “One thing we always want is humanists,” Dean Fitzsimmons stated during his testimony in federal court last fall.17 So how can one prepare for applying to Harvard? It starts with thinking about what a “humanist” is and how to become one.

For personal stories about teens who crafted unique admissions profiles with humanist themes, I invite you to read Blue Stars case studies:

If you’d like to find out more about how to help your teen find their authentic path – something we at Blue Stars specialize in – schedule a free introductory conversation now. We’d love to hear more about your teen’s unique situation!

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  1. Delano R. Franklin and Samuel W. Zwickel, “Legacy Admit Rate Five Times That of Non-Legacies, Court Docs Show,” https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2018/6/20/admissions-docs-legacy/, (June 20, 2018).
  2. “The Harvard Admissions Lawsuit, Explained,” The Harvard Crimson, https://youtu.be/iMEEAafNYq0, (October 1, 2018). This summary from the Boston Review is also helpful: “The main disagreement is one of interpretation: what factors a university can legitimately consider when making admissions decisions. Backed by conservative activist Edward Blum (who also spearheaded the Texas challenge), the plaintiff group, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), advocates for a narrow focus on academic achievement. Harvard, on the other hand, has stressed the importance of non-academic factors, including athletics, character, and family connections. The impasse touches on deep statistical and legal questions of discrimination, merit, and the mission of elite universities.”
  3. Deirdre Fernandes, “Harvard Weighs More Than 200 Variables From Applicants. Here’s How You Can Get In,” https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/massachusetts/2018/10/28/harvard-weighs-more-than-variables-from-applicants-here-how-you-can-get/qvhueUVJmDveV5DrxzXM2L/story.html, (October 28, 2018).
  4. Deirdre Fernandes, “As Trial Loomed, Harvard Changed Guidance For Admissions Officers,” https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2018/10/30/trial-loomed-harvard-changed-guidance-for-admissions-officers/OFfaLZvjqdDyQFAAUe3VSN/story.html, (October 30, 2018).
  5. Fernandes, “Harvard Weighs More Than 200 Variables From Applicants. Here’s How You Can Get In.”
  6. Out of 40,000 applicants to Harvard, 2000 students will be admitted, and 1600 will attend.
  7. Fernandes, “Harvard Weighs More Than 200 Variables From Applicants. Here’s How You Can Get In.”
  8. Anemona Hartocollis, Amy Harmon and Mitch Smith, “‘Lopping,’ ‘Tips’ and the ‘Z-List’: Bias Lawsuit Explores Harvard’s Admissions Secrets,” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/29/us/harvard-admissions-asian-americans.html, (July 29, 2018).
  9. Hartocollis, Harmon and Smith, “‘Lopping,’ ‘Tips’ and the ‘Z-List’: Bias Lawsuit Explores Harvard’s Admissions Secrets.”
  10. Delano R. Franklin and Molly C. McCafferty, “Here’s How the Harvard Admissions Process Really Works,” https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2018/10/29/how-to-get-in-to-harvard/, (October 29, 2018).
  11. Fernandes, “Harvard Weighs More Than 200 Variables From Applicants. Here’s How You Can Get In.”
  12. Hartocollis, Harmon and Smith, “‘Lopping,’ ‘Tips’ and the ‘Z-List’: Bias Lawsuit Explores Harvard’s Admissions Secrets.” Indeed, Harvard reviews parental occupation, too, as a way to ensure class diversity: “Harvard also looks at factors like parental occupation, which Mr. Fitzsimmons said offer clues about financial hardship, and intended major, to avoid having too many students with the same educational interests.” (Referenced in Hartocollis, “Harvard’s Admissions Process, Once Secret, Is Unveiled in Affirmative Action Trial,” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/19/us/harvard-admissions-affirmative-action.html, (October 19, 2018).
  13. Jeff Selingo, “The Two Most Important College-Admissions Criteria Now Mean Less,” https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/05/college-admissions-gpa-sat-act/561167/, (May 25, 2018).
  14. Hartocollis, Harmon and Smith, “‘Lopping,’ ‘Tips’ and the ‘Z-List’: Bias Lawsuit Explores Harvard’s Admissions Secrets.”
  15. Selingo, “The Two Most Important College-Admissions Criteria Now Mean Less.”
  16. Nick Anderson, “A Shake-Up in Elite Admissions: U-Chicago Drops SAT/ACT Testing Requirement,” https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/a-shake-up-in-elite-admissions-u-chicago-drops-satact-testing-requirement/2018/06/13/442a5e14-6efd-11e8-bd50-b80389a4e569_story.html?utm_term=.4f3cb6ce804b, (June 14, 2018).
  17. Hartocollis, “Harvard’s Admissions Process, Once Secret, Is Unveiled in Affirmative Action Trial.”
Published On: February 16th, 2019 / By / Categories: College Admissions Tips, Featured /
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