How the Harvard Admissions Process Really Works

A lawsuit against Harvard University provided a glimpse into little-known aspects of the school’s undergraduate selection process. Harvard, like other extremely-selective schools, is known for turning down well-qualified applicants with stellar academic and extracurricular achievements, including valedictorians and students with perfect entrance exam scores.

Documents made public as part of a lawsuit reveal how Harvard uses the admissions process to advance its institutional goals. Aspiring applicants to Harvard and other highly-selective schools can glean insights from Harvard’s practices for their personal advantage. That might include scratching Harvard off the list and focusing elsewhere.

In addition to rating students on academics and other credentials, Harvard looks for ‘Distinguishing Excellences’ which could include “unusual intelligence” or creative ability as evidenced by recordings of a musical or dance performance. They also look for recommendations, essays and interview reports that testify to an applicant’s “unusual effervescence, charity, maturity, or strength of character.” ‘Distinguishing Excellences’ are also known as DEs, hooks and wow factors.

Application review starts with a back-office compilation of materials to streamline the process through which admissions officers to read, assess, discuss, and render decisions. Harvard creates geographic “dockets,” to which a sub-committee of admissions officers are assigned, so they can develop knowledge of the region and its high schools through in-person visits and high school profiles. Profiles provide context and accompany an applicant’s transcript and school report. Students and parents can frequently obtain the profile through the guidance office or on the school’s website.

Typically the back office or the first reader will record a specified set of data points and notate of any missing materials. This typically includes the applicants’ citizenship, race, legacy status, recruited athlete status, socioeconomic background, financial need, and standardized test scores.

At Harvard, generally two or three admissions officers, or readers, rate applications in five categories: academic achievements, extracurricular accomplishments, athletic prospects, personal qualities and “overall.” They also rate the strength of the student’s “school support” which refers to teachers’ and guidance counselors’ recommendations. Alumni interviewers also rate the candidates. There is a numerical scale for each category, with 1 typically being the highest-ranking across all scales. Scoring rubrics vary by institution.

The documents revealed that at Harvard, in order to score an Academic 1, an applicant must be a “potential major academic contributor” with “summa potential” and “near-perfect scores and grades.” Many of these students also have earned “national or international level recognition in academic competitions.”

Those who earn an Academic 2 typically score in the mid-700s or higher on the SAT — or 33 or higher on the ACT. An Academic 3 denotes an applicant with “mid-600 through low-700 scores” on the SAT or a 29 through 32 on the ACT. The evidence revealed that an Academic 4 typically corresponds to an ACT score between 26 and 29 which Harvard admissions officers consider “adequate preparation.”

In the extracurricular category, Harvard awards an Extracurricular 1 for “possible national-level achievement or professional experience.” Applicants typically earn a 2 if they serve as “class president, newspaper editor, or concertmaster.”

An Athletic 1 at Harvard indicates the student could compete in his or her sport “at the national, international or Olympic level.” Documents released as part of the lawsuit show that recruited athletes receive a significant boost in Harvard’s admissions process. The New York Times reported that the Ivy League conference sponsors 35 varsity sports and Harvard offers 42 varsity sports — the most of any university in the NCAA. Documents revealed that Harvard scored applicants’ athletic accomplishments on a scale of 1 to 6; athletes and those with impressive scores were 1,000 times more likely to win admittance to the College than non-athletes. According to the 2013 alumni interviewer guidelines, staffers sometimes recruit “prospects” as early as the first day of high school.

Details regarding Harvard’s personal scoring category were particularly revealing. While a Personal score of 1 used to denote “outstanding” — Harvard’s Class of 2023 scoring booklet devoted a whole paragraph to the topic. “Truly outstanding qualities of character; display of enormous courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles; demonstrate a singular ability to lead or inspire those around them; extraordinary concern or compassion for others; unqualified and unwavering support from recommenders.”

Alumni interviewers are directed to rate applicants on similar dimensions. Disclosed documents reveal that interviewers assign candidates numerical ratings for their personal, extracurricular, academic, and overall accomplishments. These scores typically range from 1 to 4 — 1 being the highest and 4 being the lowest — with added plus and minus signs that enhance or diminish the ranking. According to released documents interviewers are advised to start with easy-to-answer factual questions and slowly shift to a line of inquiry meant to unearth “motivation, commitment, and level and quality of contribution.” A suggested sample question is to ask the applicant to describe their “school community” and speak about which classes they enjoy and do not enjoy. Since Harvard values intellectual curiosity, knowledge, and worldliness, applicants may be asked: “Do you have a favorite book? Or, which book have you recently read? Do you prefer reading online? What blogs or sites do you read regularly?” Interviewers are urged to ponder an applicant’s “potential,” “maximum growth,” and “direction” while also considering the student’s intellectual and personal “capacity.” according to the handbook. “Does the candidate have a direction yet? What is it? If not, is the applicant exploring many things or just letting things happen? Imagining forward, “will the candidate contribute something, somewhere, somehow?” After the interview, alumni write up short blurbs detailing their interviewee’s strengths and shortcomings. Interviewers summarize the “special contribution” promising candidates could make on campus and how the students would benefit from a Harvard education.

Harvard, like other top schools, invests in outreach to boost applications and diversity by strategically targeting students with impressive entrance exam scores especially those from low-income families, underrepresented minorities, and from less represented areas. Through the Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program, College officials and undergraduates make a personal appeal to targeted candidates by telephone and email to consider Harvard.

For the “School Support” area admissions officers evaluate recommendations from teachers and guidance counselors. If a letter writer describes the student as “the best of a career” or “one of the best in many years,” that student is likely to earn a 1. If the applicant is rated “one of the best” or “the best this year,” they are more likely to score a 2.

According to Inside Higher Ed, Peter Arcidiacono, an expert witness in the Students For Fair Admission v. Harvard case, and an economics professor at Duke University, who testified on behalf of the plaintiffs, joined with and two other economics professors, Josh Kinsler from the University of Georgia and Tyler Ransom from the University of Oklahoma, to collaborate on working papers for the National Bureau of Economic Research, based on the data Arcidiacono reviewed and analyzed for the Harvard case.

Arcidiacono’s research examined preferences given to legacies and athletes by Harvard. Their research shows that 43 percent of white admits at Harvard are “ALDCs,” a designation that includes athletes, legacies, “dean’s list” (donors) and children of faculty members.

Those who fall into the ALDC designation were found to be “disproportionately white and come from higher-income households.” The research found LDC applicants (excluding athletes) to be stronger on average than non-ALDC applicants, but weaker than the average non-ALDC admit.

Arcidiacono and co-authors concluded that only 25 percent of white applicants admitted in the ALDC groups would have been admitted without the benefit of membership in that category. Their analysis suggested that a 10 percent chance of admission rises to 50 percent for a legacy, 70 percent for children of donors on the dean’s list, and “near certainty” for a recruited athlete.

With more varsity sports (42) than any other Division I program, Harvard values athletes and prioritizes them in the admissions process. Arcidiacono’s paper found that in the six admission cycles between 2014 and 2019, recruited athletes made up more than 10 percent of those admitted despite being less than 1 percent of the applicant pool. The research stated that recruited athletes had an admit rate of 86 percent, far higher than the overall 5 percent rate, making being a recruited athlete a top “hook” at Harvard.

The generous admissions preferences given to ALDCs and other groups at Harvard make the process tougher for other strongly qualified candidates. According to Inside Higher Ed, “selective admission is a zero-sum game, with good news for one applicant removing opportunity for another applicant.”