Secret Tips for Getting into Harvard – Would My High School ID Have Helped?

Arguments began last month in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, a lawsuit that claims Harvard University is discriminating against Asian-American applicants. Many are watching the federal trial examining how Harvard uses race to shape its student body as a landmark test of civil rights laws.

During the trial, information about Harvard’s admission practices have been revealed, and Melissa Korn and Nicole Hong recently wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal that offers 13 “tips” about how to get into Harvard.

Here are the 13 secrets, along with my thoughts about each one:

  1. Move to “sparse country”: Harvard’s admissions office pays special attention to recruits from 20 U.S. states labeled internally as “sparse country” because students from those places, such as Alabama and Montana, are relatively underrepresented on campus. Oh well, I’m sure Pennsylvania is not in “sparse country”.
  2. In almost a direct contradiction to the first tip, move to Boston or New York: Applicants from these two geographic regions had admit rates of 11.3% and 12.8%, respectively, for the class of 2018. That’s roughly double the rates for the other 18 geographic regions. So what is it, move to the city, or move out into the country? What’s wrong with the Philly area?
  3. Have parents who work diverse jobs: Harvard says the campus benefits when its students have parents working diverse jobs. As William Fitzsimmons, the school’s director of admissions and financial aid, said during the trial earlier this month. “It’s one thing to talk about migrant workers and immigration in the abstract. It’s another thing to live with someone for four years who has lived that experience.” My mom was born in Ireland, but she was never a migrant worker. I guess this means I could blame my parents if I didn’t get in.
  4. Mark “classics” as your intended concentration: For the class of 2018, 7.4% of applicants who said they planned to study humanities were admitted, compared with 4.6% of aspiring engineers and computer scientists. Mr. Fitzsimmons said Harvard wants to woo more “humanists,” with the hope that they can educate engineering and science majors “so they’ll have a human basis for deciding how to use this powerful technology they’re studying.” One commenter noted that such a statement seems like an insult to engineers and scientists, and I would have to agree.  But if it helped me get into Harvard, I would stay quiet about my moral indignation.
  5. Show how much you love learning: Mr. Fitzsimmons testified that he looks for applicants who engage in academic opportunities “joyfully” and would “talk to you for hours about their love of physics.” I don’t know what I could talk about “for hours” – bowling maybe?
  6. Tell your teachers to call you the best student ever: Not just the best this year—the best ever. Harvard instructs admissions officers to give top marks to recommendation letters if they are “truly over the top,” with phrases like “the best ever” or “one of the best in X years.” I don’t think my high school teachers knew who I was.
  7. Tell a compelling story: You want the admissions officers to think, as Mr. Fitzsimmons put it, “How could your heart not go out for this person?” All I would have needed to do was include a copy of my high school photo ID – who wouldn’t feel sorry for me then? I’d have the sympathy vote locked up.
  8. Don’t come off as arrogant, aggressive, unhappy, or boring: Harvard’s interviewer handbook said applicants who were “bland” should get low marks on the personal rating, which measures their personal qualities through their essays, recommendations, and interviews. So much for my high school ID helping me; one look at it, and “bland” is probably one of the first words that would come to mind. Well maybe not one of the first…
  9. Do come off as mature, effervescent, kind and focused. Harvard repeatedly emphasized its desire for mature students at trial. The school also told interviewers to look for signs of “unusual effervescence” in applicants. Mature and effervescent – that would have been two strikes against me.
  10. Be an all-star athlete: Roughly 86% of recruited varsity athletes who apply to Harvard were admitted, according to trial testimony. I have heard stories of Harvard recruiting lacrosse players as early as ninth grade. Being on the high school bowling team would probably not have helped me.
  11. Schedule your alumni interview at a coffee shop and instruct friends to casually stop by. This may indicate great roommate potential, which is something Harvard says it seeks in applicants. An alumni interview? You mean as a high school student I would have to sit and chat with an adult in a social setting? That would have been enough for me to withdraw my application.
  12. Be very rich. Or very poor. Or the child of an alum: The admit rate among students with at least one parent who graduated from Harvard was 33.6%, more than five times the rate for everyone else, according to the plaintiffs’ analysis of Harvard’s data. This leaves out the great middle-class, which I have always been a part of.
  13. Apply early admission: Harvard admitted 14.5% of early-action applicants for the class of 2022, and about 2.9% of regular-decision applicants. I had trouble getting homework assignments in on time; how would I be expected to get something this big done ahead of time?

So as you can see, even if I had been aware of these tips 45 years ago, I still would have had no shot of getting into Harvard.

But that’s OK, because if I had gone to Harvard I would have never met my wife and some of my best friends.

It’s funny how life has a way of working out…

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