How Admissions Decisions Are Made
We are often asked how we make our admissions decisions. Harvard’s admissions process has evolved over many years and its structure dates from the first systematic efforts in the 1930s under President Conant to make Harvard a truly national institution by establishing generous financial aid programs and reaching out to students from all backgrounds by vigorous outreach efforts conducted by admissions officers and alumni/ae. While the numbers of students applying to Harvard today are much greater than in the past, the fundamental principle of the admissions process remains the same: careful, individual attention to each applicant.
We fully realize that no admissions process will ever make the right decision in every case. Over the years, we have seen many students who were not admitted succeed in every possible way – and even with a 97-98% graduation rate, Harvard did not turn out to be the right place for everyone we admitted. But we work hard to make the best admissions decisions we can – and we leave no stone unturned to make our admissions process as good as it can be.
An article we did for the New York Times offers an overview of our admissions process: http://thechoice.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/10/harvarddean-part1/.
Ultimately the Admissions Committee seeks to identify students who will be the best educators of one another and their professors – individuals who will inspire those around them during their college years and beyond. We are always happy to hear from Harvard alumni/ae who say that one of the best aspects of their college experience was the education they received from fellow classmates. Equally rewarding to observe are the life-long friendships that develop among classmates, faculty, and all the members of the Harvard Community.
As admissions officers read applications and discuss them in the admissions selection meetings, many questions are on their minds:
- Has the candidate reached her maximum growth?
- Has the candidate been stretching himself?
- Has the candidate been working to capacity? In his academic pursuits? In her full-time or part-time employment? In other areas?
- Does the candidate have reserve power to do more?
- How has the candidate used her time?
- Does the candidate have initiative? Is he a self-starter? What motivates her?
- Does the candidate care deeply about anything—intellectual? Personal?
- What has the candidate learned from his interests? What has she done with her interests? How has he achieved results? With what success or failure? What has she learned as a result?
- Will the candidate be able to stand up to the pressures and freedoms of Harvard?
- What choices has the candidate made for himself? Why?
- Is the candidate a late bloomer?
- What is the quality of the candidate’s activities?
- Does the candidate have a direction yet? What is it? If not, is she exploring many things? Or is he just letting everything happen to him? Where will the candidate be in one year? Five years? Twenty-five years? Will she contribute something, somewhere, somehow?
- What sort of human being is the candidate now? What sort of human being will she be in the future?
- Will the candidate contribute something to Harvard and to his classmates? Will she benefit from her Harvard experience?
- Would you or other students want to room with this applicant, share a meal, be in a seminar together, be teammates, or collaborate in a closely knit extracurricular group?
- In terms of extracurricular, athletic, community, or family commitments, has the applicant taken full advantage of opportunities?
- Does the person appear to have a genuine commitment and leadership role or does the participation appear to be perfunctory?
- If a candidate has not had much time in high school for extracurricular pursuits due to familial, work, or other obligations, what does she hope to explore at Harvard with her additional free time?
- How open is the student to new ideas and people?
- What about the applicant’s apparent maturity, character, leadership, self-confidence, warmth of personality, sense of humor, energy, concern for others and grace under pressure?
This rigorous comparative process strives to be deliberate, meticulous, and fair. It is also labor intensive. But it permits extraordinary flexibility and the possibility of changing decisions virtually until the day the Admissions Committee mails them. This is especially important since the Committee is always receiving new information on candidates. Perhaps one reason for Harvard’s high graduation rate, at 97- 98% usually the highest in the nation, is the individual attention applicants receive in the admissions process.
Helen Vendler, a beloved professor of English at Harvard, kindly wrote an essay for us: (http://www.admissions.college.harvard.edu/apply/tips/vendler.html). As a former member of the Faculty Standing Committee on Admissions, she wrote it to inspire us, and to help us be particularly alert to those candidates whose creative sensibilities would be valuable assets to a Harvard class, and would help them support the cultural life of our communities in decades to come. We hope you will find it as enlightening as our Committee does.