Admission To Harvard Is Not Merit-Based

— Post by Jennifer Stephan

q3I sat in an auditorium last spring with my teenage daughter and husband and a hundred or so other people.  We were attending an admissions information session run by a blue-suited admissions representative and Harvard alumnus.  As he sat in a formal wing chair on the stage, he said to the room, “Admission to Harvard is not merit based.”

It was refreshing to hear Harvard tell its potential applicants this reality so clearly.  I’ve been on many college tours and information sessions, and it was the first (and only) time that I’ve heard such a statement made about admission to the nation’s most elite undergraduate institutions.

According to a recent article in the Harvard Crimson, last year Harvard accepted a record-low 5.3% of applicants to its class of 2019 – about 2000 students. For Harvard, or any institution, the challenge of admissions officers is to “build a class.”   Admissions officers seek a class with a balance of students in terms of gender, ethnicity, family income level, origin/geography (country, state, school), potential major and specific talents (athletics, art, music, academics etc.).  They also seek to attract students from families of potential donors and to support loyal alumni by considering applicants who have legacy status.

When the applicant pool is extremely large – in Harvard’s case, last year 37,305 students applied – many students who end up being admitted have a “hook” – something that clearly distinguishes them from other applicants and helps Harvard build a unique class.  An analogy might be casting a play, where specific actors are selected because they match specific roles well.  When an applicant does not have a “hook” that shows how they fit into the class that Harvard wants to build, the chances of admission from the huge pool of talented applicants plummets.  At this point, the better analogy might be that there’s a bit of a lottery aspect to the process, because there is a lot of luck involved.  Applicants should hope that the admissions representative reading their application connects with their story – a highly subjective process given that you don’t know the reader or their interests/experience – and then can convince the other admissions representatives to select them over other compelling applicants.  (And remember, the other admissions representatives will have identified their own “favorites” too!)

When I work with students, I like to help them understand this process by telling them that their academic record – their GPA and their standardized test scores – does no more than simply gets them “a seat at the table.”  In a sense, it is not fair to say that admission is not merit based, because without the academic “goods,” no applicant has a chance of admission.  However, having the “goods” guarantees nothing.  This is why everyone knows someone who they can’t believe didn’t get in to “x” elite university.  To stick with the lottery analogy, having the “goods” simply gives you a lottery ticket.  And some applicants get more tickets than others – those who help in a very clear way to build the class.

Jennifer Stephan headshot - Magellan College CounselingThis blog entry entitled “Applying Sideways” by MIT Admissions gives good advice for how to think about getting into MIT in light of these realities.  Essentially, don’t think about what you should do to get into MIT, because “there is nothing, literally nothing, that in and of itself will get you into MIT.”   Rather, “you should study hard, be nice, and pursue your passion.”  This will lead you to be happier and more successful and in fact “you’ll be cast in the best light possible for competitive college admissions.”

On the one hand, this is frustrating.  On the other hand, once you understand the rules, it’s easier to make sense of a process that can seem arbitrary – because in a very real sense it is.

Jennifer Stephan is a Class Dean at Wellesley College, and consults for selected Magellan College Counseling clients and families.

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