4 Lessons from the Harvard Admissions Disclosures… And What it Means for your Ivy League Application
This past July, Harvard was forced to reveal their admissions documents in a lawsuit with an organization called the Students for Fair Admissions. The lawsuit alleges that Harvard discriminates against East Asian students in their admissions process. The resulting documentation paints a fascinating picture. I’ve been assigning this article as reading “homework” to all of my students this year to consider while brainstorming essay topics. Here are some key takeaways that help put the admissions process in context.
1. Admissions decisions are occasionally influenced by donations, but those cases (probably) represent a small percentage of the applicant pool.
It comes as no shock to anyone who has been in this industry for long enough that an impressive donation to the school of your choice gives you a pretty good (if not guaranteed) shot at being admitted. If you look at scatter charts of grades and standardized test scores for admitted students, you can see that there are a small number of students under 3.0 weighted GPAs being admitted to Harvard —students who averaged C+ or lower throughout high school. It’s about 1%, but if you consider that 2,000 students are admitted per year, that still means that 20 students mysteriously slipped through an application process that should have disqualified them before anyone even read the application. And those are only the most extreme examples; there are likely a larger number of students in the B and even A range whose applications were mediocre by Ivy League standards, but were nonetheless admitted. To be fair, it could be that some of these C+ students were so incredibly remarkable that they warranted having their grades overlooked. But I doubt it.
The Harvard Admissions Disclosures show that there’s an entirely separate list for students who are the relatives of big donors—that is, the dean’s interest list. There’s also a “Z-list” for students who wouldn’t otherwise make it, but are somehow of “interest” to the university. It has been an open secret in the admissions industry that these lists exist for time immemorial, but it’s generally not the topic of polite conversation. Yes, it’s unfair. But does that mean that you personally are not going to get an acceptance letter to Harvard because your grandparent wasn’t a multi-million dollar donor? Not at all.
2. Diversity is important, but “diversity” can mean many things.
If anything, the main takeaway from these admissions disclosures is that in the main applicant pool, which makes up the vast majority of applications, Harvard seeks out students who add diversity to the incoming class. That can mean racial or ethnic diversity—which is the crux of the lawsuit. But you can be a student who is not a member of an underrepresented ethnic group and still add “diversity” in other ways.
If you are a member of an underrepresented demographic, you still have to contribute something special to the school’s incoming class, and that “special” aspect may be your unique experience as a person who is a minority in the Ivy League sphere. If you’re not, then you will have to show why you are a “diverse” applicant in other ways. That means that you have to demonstrate that you are going to add something that another student is not. If you speak five languages fluently and have traveled around the world doing charity work and participated in activism against oppressive regimes and you also happen to play banjo in an old time West Virginian bluegrass band that has won awards at several local county fairs, that’s a lot more interesting to them than your standard prep student who is the head of their school’s debate team. That’s because…
3. It’s no longer about the numbers.
Harvard gets more about half as many applicants with perfect GPAs or perfect standardized test scores than they have spots for incoming students. They admit less than 6% of their entire applicant pool. I have heard horror stories about students with 4.7 GPAs and 1600 SAT scores, who ranked #1 in their class, who were ultimately rejected from almost every school they applied to. It is understandably a devastating experience to spend the entirety of your teenage years doing everything to prepare for a future that does not ultimately materialize.
It makes sense once you keep these admissions disclosures in mind. If you look at Harvard’s average GPA and test scores of admitted students from the class of 2022, you’ll see that the incoming class had an average of a 4.17 and scores in the mid 1500s, which is below some schools you’ve probably never even heard of, and yet, we know that there are hundreds of students applying with grades approaching 5.0. If 4.1 is the average and there are students with 4.5+ GPAs being admitted, that means that there must be a number of students admitted under the 4.0 threshold. It used to be that if you were a student with perfect grades in AP classes, perfect test scores, and you were the class president and an athlete, you could reasonably expect an acceptance letter from at least several of the Ivies. That’s just not the case anymore. High grades will get your application seriously considered by a reader, but they won’t get you an acceptance letter.
These days, Ivy League applicants are scrutinized by multiple readers who carefully read and evaluate their essays, screening for unique qualities and interesting writing styles. They’re looking for the applicants that are telling a story that they’ve never heard before in a way that is engaging. You have to show the reader why they should be fascinated by you as a human being, while also being impressed by your studiousness. You can be a student with some Bs here and there if you spent your time outside of school doing something that would make a reader want to know more.
4. Admissions readers are human, with their own beliefs, experiences, and biases.
You may notice that I haven’t addressed the underlying issue that is being debated in the lawsuit. Is the admissions process discriminating against students based on race and ethnicity? That’s a topic for another blog post that would warrant a very long essay. What I do want to flag is the section of this article that discussed the notes that admissions readers had left on the applications of Asian students. I admit that I haven’t seen all of the notes across all applicants, so I would add the caveat that there’s always a possibility that they were presented out of context. That being said, it looks pretty bad for Harvard. The notes they had left on Asian applicants played on tired old stereotypes of Asian students—“looks like many w/ this profile” and “hard worker, but would she have any fun?” If this is in fact exceptionally prevalent among Asian applicants versus non-Asian applicants, it’s extremely disappointing, and hopefully this lawsuit will force those admissions readers to be more aware of their implicit biases.
That being said, biases come in many forms, and we all have them. You have to know your audience when you write your applications. I know of a student who wrote an application that repeatedly gestured toward his religious upbringing and how it impacted his political beliefs—and let’s just say that his political beliefs would have probably been successful if he were a Republican politician running for Congress. You just don’t know who your reader is going to be, what beliefs they bring to the table, and how they’re going to interpret what you say, even if your intentions are good. You may inadvertently offend someone and get your application fast tracked to the trash bin. You know that old adage about keeping religion and politics away from the dinner table?
I cannot emphasize enough that no matter how strong your writing abilities are, you need to consider what you reveal about yourself and how. That being said, it’s impossible to objectively evaluate yourself and be honest about what other people might take away from your writing. That’s why it’s vital that you send your essay around to people who know you, and to some people who might not. If you spend most of your time in one tightly knit community, find someone who comes from a very different perspective—someone who will be honest with you, even if honesty hurts a little bit. It’s better to feel a bit offended by an acquaintance than get a rejection letter from your dream school because your self-expression was misunderstood.