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
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.
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: