"Admissions is a terribly intangible process, very unscientific. We do it on feel as much as anything else...I have nightmares about people we haven't admitted. I've had nightmares about one girl three nights in a row. I'll have to do something about her."
Mary Anne Schwalbe '55, director of admissions, had difficulty pinning down exactly what she looks for in an application. The admissions officers have no hard and fast rules they use to determine who gets into Harvard. The final decisions are made in committees, where staff members spend long hours debating candidates' qualifications. By April 15, the ordeal is over.
For the applicant however, the process began as early as last September, when, after a few meetings with his guidance counselor, he declared himself a candidate for the Class of 1979 and sent in an application. Then he begins the long wait for the word from Harvard, a wait that is interrupted only by his interview with an alumnus or admissions officer.
"The best kind of interview is one that tends to highlight or focus on what's already in the folder," John P. Reardon, associate dean of admissions, said. If a candidate looks good on paper, but comes across shy and reserved in person, "there's no way we're going to put a lot of concern on a 20-minute talk," Reardon said.
Sometimes, however, the interview can uncover serious personal problems that would end a candidate's chances. Reardon told of a recent applicant "who had a lot of whacky things to say--I don't know what he was high on, just spaced." Reardon followed up on the interview and found that the candidate had "problems the guys in the school were not going to say in writing."
Alumni interviewers have more influence in the process at Harvard than at Radcliffe; they are better organized, have more information on the applicants, and even submit a list ranking all the applicants in the area.
They can also set their own interviewing style. One alumnus who was an executive at U.S. Steel, used to hold interviews in the company's boardroom. At one end of a huge oak table would sit four or five interviewers, at the other the interviewee.
After conducting an interview, an alumnus or staff member rates the candidate on his potential for admission and writes a report, which may range from a few sentences to several pages in length.
A typical interview is one done on Peter Mack (pseudonym), a first-rate football player who had 500 SAT scores. The interviewer wrote, "Peter Mack is perhaps the best motivated athlete we have had apply from this area in a long time" but also noted that he is academically "below the average Harvard standards." The rest of the report is an argument stressing Peter's leadership and athletic qualities ("Peter Mack is a leader. You can tell that when you walk into the locker room") and balancing this against his academic side ("Peter Mack is not a genius but..."). Harvard is Mack's only alternative to life as "a hired gun" for a football squad elsewhere and the interviewer concludes that "Harvard needs young men like Peter Mack and Peter Mack needs Harvard." The committee was dubious, but Peter Mack got in.
Once an application is complete in all respects (i.e. teacher reports, test scores, etc. are in), the folder is removed from the office's "dead file" and released to be read by admissions officials. An application will get two, sometimes three preliminary readings.
Each reader fills out a sheet containing a few comments on the applicant and, perhaps more importantly, gives him a set of one-to-six ratings on his extracurricular, athletic, academic and personal potential that form the candidate's admissions profile. These ratings--the same ones used by the interviewer--provide a handy numerical system that can be used to compare the most diverse candidates.
Reardon described what some of the ratings mean: "A 'one' means you're really super. Bob Portney is a one violinist; a 'two' and you're a student body president or a newspaper editor; a 'three' means you're pretty involved, a 'four' means you go home in the afternoon and watch T.V., a 'five' or a 'six' and you never move."
A 'one' academic rating goes to fewer than one in a hundred candidates and, according the offic's forms, indicates someone with "true creative intellect. Summa potential," as well as "unusual accomplishments, top grades and mid-700 or above test scores." Most students admitted to Harvard receive a "one," "two," or "three" academic rating.
Dean K. Whitla, associate dean of admissions, compiles all the information on each candidate and computer codes it to produce the "docket," a listing of each candidate, his test scores, interview reports, teacher recommendations, etc. Every shred of information, except perhaps the student's essay, has been reduced to a number on the one line he receives on the docket.
But before the committees consider the cases, admissions officials draw up "target figures" for each section of the country. Some regions cover several states while others include only a few private schools like Andover and Exeter. The officials use the preliminary ratings of the applicants to judge the quality of the pool from each region and, together with precedent of "admits" from there over the past few years, set the number of students they would like to take from that region. The full committee of about 20 meets to approve the targets, then breaks down into regional subcommittees.
A group of maybe seven faculty and administrators will meet to consider every case in a region, trying to come in "on target." For the first time, the folders are marked "admit" or "reject" and a picture of the class begins to emerge.
After the initial round of subcommittee meetings, the entire staff meets for the second rung of the process: the targets are thrown out and each case is presented by the chairman of the applicant's regional group. The committee may spend anywhere from a few seconds on an applicant with a six profile to an hour and forty-five minutes on a really tough one.
When a case is presented in committee, everyone has the docket in front of him. The area man presents a summary, reading from the school and teacher reports, the student's essay and the interview report.
The essay is usually a neutral factor in admission, written carefully on a safe subject, like the applicant's hometown or extracurricular activities. "But in about 10 per cent of the cases it's really interesting and well done," Reardon said. "It brings to life what may not have come out in the application itself and in about 10 per cent of the cases it's a disaster."
The SAT and achievement scores are one of the first things an official looks for in a candidate. If they're over 700, then the SATs are pretty important for a candidate; they're probably his primary asset, though as Reardon says, only about 10 per cent are admitted as a straight "scholar group." The median SAT scores for the last class was 674 verbal and 713 math. For scores below that, however, a candidate must have something else going for him--maybe he's a musician, or an athlete or has a "one" personality.
The candidate could also come from one of the special groups that get a little extra consideration in the process. All things being equal, for example, the son or daughter of an alumnus has a better chance of getting into Harvard or Radcliffe than another candidate. The child of a Faculty member has an even better chance. And admissions officials don't deny these preferences--they are University policy.
The figures show that while 19 per cent of all applicants are admitted, 34 per cent of alumni children get in. Most alumni sons and daughters are strong candidates, but for 35-40 applicants this year, the fact of being a Harvard son helped," Reardon said.
Schwalbe also said that some students enter each year as "political admits." These are candidates who come from a strong Harvard-Radcliffe family; strong in that they support the school by working in alumni organizations or help with the interviewing, no necessarily financially."
Minority students are also treated a little differently, though they don't get the same kind of outright preference that an alumnus' child receives. There are no quotas or target figures, though officials keep a close count on the number of minority students in the class.
Reardon says Harvard "tries to come to grips" with a minority student's background. If a candidate has what he calls "a lot of drive and energy" and gone to a tough school the committee will look at him, even though his board scores are in the 500s. If a minority student has gone to a prep school all his life, he'll get no special consideration.
In the committee, everyone--from the dean of admissions to the newest junior faculty member--has an equal vote and voice in the deliberations. Admission to the college requires a simple majority vote of the full committee, and a student who didn't get in when the regional vote was take might get accepted this time around if someone in the group present his case strongly enough.
The full committee generally meets for about ten days, from March 20 to April 1, holding sessions that start at 9 in the morning and last until 10:30 p.m. Reardon described the meetings as a careful balancing of viewpoints on what will make the best class: "One thinks there aren't enough all-round kids, and another thinks musicians really get the shaft."
And sometimes that "careful balancing" gets out of hand. "I've even seen one person take a poke at another...when you're dealing with that kind of stress over a number of days, there are some disagreements that get sort of personalized."
The work of the admissions officers doesn't end however, when the decisions are made and the letter go out. "the toughest part of the business," according to Reardon, "is dealing with people who are disappointed. For some, rejection is water off the back, for others it is the end of the world."
The office receives phone calls, letters and visits from parents and students who want their case reconsidered, but the policy of the admissions office is not to give then a second look unless some information in the file is proved false. To parents who want to know why their child was rejected, Reardon says, "It is is a fallible committee. We're not like the pope. It could be wrong but that is the decision of the committee.