A Breakdown of Harvard's Admissions Lawsuit
Ananth Veluvali @ Stanford University
A few years ago, Harvard University was sued by Asian-American applicants for alleged bias in their affirmative action policies. In the wake of this lawsuit, the storied institution was forced to disclose some of their admissions practices. While I’m not here to pick a side in this matter, I did want to analyze what this lawsuit reveals about how Harvard accepts or denies applicants.
First off, released legal documents show that Harvard numerically rates its applicants on a scale of 1-6.
1 represents the highest score, and it signals some level of exceptional achievement or promise. 6 marks the lowest score, and it’s used by Harvard to classify the true bottom of the barrel: individuals with not only limited academic potential, but detrimental personality traits.
I plan on discussing this a bit later in the article, but getting an overall score of 1 guarantees you admission at Harvard University; a 6, however, guarantees a rejection.
Coming in the middle of the pack are scores from 2-5. Something like a 2, while not as strong as a 1, gives you solid odds of getting into Harvard. If you get a 3, you risk venturing into crapshoot territory.
Finally, these scores also have a +/- system. This means that not all scores of the same number are created equal; pluses improve your chance of acceptance compared to minuses. In other words, a score like a 2+ gives you better odds than a score like a 2- would.
Second off, Harvard categorizes these ratings into several key scores. This includes an academic, extracurricular, athletic, personality, and overall score.
Let’s start with your academic score. As you can see below, Harvard University ranks its applicants as students with anywhere from “no marginal potential” to “Summa potential.”
Achieving Summa potential is very difficult. A perfect ACT / SAT score, or taking many AP tests, isn’t going to do it. Indeed, when you’re applying to a school like Harvard, you are competing for spots against the best of the best. Having high test scores is the norm, not the exception.
To achieve a 1 requires something like truly original research (and no, I’m not talking about being a minor co-author) that was favorably screened by Harvard faculty, or winning some prestigious national or international academic competition, like the USAMO or ISEF. There’s a reason why 1s are so rare; you must truly be in the rarest of company.
Achieving a 2 is still difficult, but more attainable. Less-original or significant, yet nonetheless impressive, research may help you secure a 2. Alternatively, lower (but still high) placements at prestigious academic competitions may help with 2s, as do effusive letters of recommendation that describe you as “one of the best.”
Once you start venturing into 3 territory—that is to say, solid test scores and grades, but not much else—you’re risking rejection. As the chart details below, 3s have significantly lower acceptance rates than 1s and 2s.
Another highly important score is your extracurricular rating.
As you can see below, it takes truly notable achievements—those on a national, or even international scale—to get a 1. Let’s take a look at the table below for more context.
Again, being the captain of your high school debate team or class president usually won’t cut it (unless you did something truly meaningful there and wrote a killer essay about it). The best applicants, the 1s of Harvard University, are the big fish in the big ponds.
I’m talking about people who won massive national or international competitions, started businesses with significant revenue, or created non-profits with a notable presence in the US or abroad. These are truly distinctive extracurriculars because very few, if any, high schoolers have accomplished them.
If you’re a 2, in the spirit of forthrightness, you’re a big fish in a small pond. Still impressive, just not to the same degree.
Looking at the acceptance rates by score, you can see once more just how important it is to get a 1 or a 2. Getting a 3 doesn’t irrevocably damn you to the rejected pile—but it does mean you’re facing an uphill battle.
I’d also be remiss without touching up upon Harvard’s personal rating.
This is by far Harvard’s most controversial criterion for evaluating applicants because it’s the most ill-defined. Look below to the table, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
What does it mean to have a “very strong” personality? What makes Harvard qualified to make those judgements? It’s questions like those that undergird the controversy at the heart of Harvard’s personality score.
In fact, it was precisely this score that led a group of Asian-Americans to sue Harvard, alleging that their admissions practices were discriminatory.
While I’m not here to cast aspersions on any group of people or institutions, I can tell you that the personality score is among the more difficult to navigate. Here’s what we do know: your recommendation letters, essays, interview, and legacy status are just a few of the factors that contribute to your score.
While this does make your personality rating among the most difficult scores to manage—after all, a lot of these factors are out of your control—it also offers a place for seniors to make the most immediate impact. In all likelihood, something like your interview still hasn’t happened yet; meanwhile, you probably can’t change your level of accomplishment in an extracurricular.
Here’s the acceptance rate breakdown by that.
There’s also an athletic rating, but that doesn’t matter for most students. Unless you’re a D1 athlete, or have D1 potential, Harvard will place almost no weight on your athletic standing. Even athletic activities, like being captain of your school's tennis team, aren’t hugely important. Yes, they help round out your character and make you seem multi-dimensional (plus you could write some essays about leadership from your experience as a captain), but no: they will not get you into Harvard. Not even close.
Finally, Harvard’s overall score.
A combination of the four scores helps Harvard create an overall score for you. It’s not the average of the 4, either. That means me getting a 6 in athletics, but a 1 in all other categories, doesn’t suddenly make my highest possible score a 2.25 (which we’ll say is equivalent to a 2+).
Instead, Harvard tries to evaluate its applicants holistically. If you’re truly exceptional in an area, like you have an amazing extracurricular, Harvard places extra weight on that. The result is an acceptance breakdown like this:
Here’s what this all means.
As an applicant, Harvard prefers “spiked” to “well-rounded.” That is to say, Harvard prefers depth over breadth. Find a passion in high school and stick with it, making sure to pursue cool projects in that area.
For me, I had two big passions: entrepreneurship and speech. I tried to pursue each to the fullest of my abilities, and they were the cornerstones of my application.
I also know students who really loved chemistry, and their academic research became the backbone of their college application.
When reading our admissions notes from the AOs who read our essays, they directly mentioned our accomplishments in those fields as things that stood out.
The fact is, colleges want to have a student body where they know they have the best and brightest. Students who are truly pursuing a certain field with all that they’ve got. And in turn, it doesn’t matter (hugely) what that field is.
Take that lesson to heart with college application season, and best of luck!