From Womb to Tomb
Why They Let You In
Unless your mother framed them, you've probably lost your acceptance letter to Harvard-Radcliffe and the handsome crimson and black emblazoned certificate that came in the mail with it. But lost or not, it is those perfunctory documents that signify that you made it through the annual ritual directed by the admissions office.
And while in mid-April, admissions officials sipped champagne to celebrate the mailing out of replies to the more than 12,500 applicants last year, during the next month, those same more-sobered officials began to grapple with their next project--the Class of 1988.
Admissions personnel have developed an elaborate communications network to inform desirable students about Harvard, to convince them to apply, and then to pick the fortunate few. Most students' first contact with the Harvard admissions office occurs sometime during the summer preceding their senior year in high school, says! Fred Jewett '57, dean of admissions and financial aid, one of several alumni who has come back to his alma mater to attract the creme de la creme of the high school to Harvard.
Early in the process, admissions officials comb the country, recruiting students from different, backgrounds and for various reasons. They write to notable students who have won awards such as Merit Scholarships or talented athletes that Harvard coaches suggest they might like playing for them. Besides those lists, officials also make a special effort to work with high school counselors, alumni organizations, and Harvard students to gather the names of qualified minority students.
Attracting minority students is currently a major priority of the admissions office. Last year, officials revamped their minority recruiting program and have continued this summer to reevaluate and fine-tune the entire operation. As part of that effort, current Harvard undergraduates also have been called into service to travel around the country talking to high Schoolers in inner city school districts and other previously undiscovered areas. These students try to dispel the myth that Harvard is a snooty school restricted to bluebloods, says George Sanchez, an admissions intern, who helps oversee minority recruiting.
However, the bulk of the applicants have to rely on personal initiative, a guidance counselor, or local alumni, for the Harvard old-boy network is used not only to raise money but also to encourage constant alumni contact with possible candidates. Depending on the size and budget of each alumni association, the grads host different events for applicants ranging from fancy luncheons to phone calls in places where the nearest alumnus might be 100 miles away, says William Fitzsimmons '67, director of admissions.
Rather than have students come to the University for personal interviews, Harvard has given that responsibility primarily to alumni. To keep them fresh, admissions officials meet with alumni and go through practice "case" applications. Each applicant is questioned by an old-timer who rates students on a scale from one to five. One is reserved for only those students whose superiority whether academic, extracurricular, or otherwise makes the man unquestionable admit. For the gray area between 2 + and 4--, it gets more difficult.
Of course, admissions officials consider many other factors beside the alumni interview, Jewett stresses, adding the alumni interviews can highlight a certain part of a student's unusual extracurricular interests because school records and recommendations tell more about the student's academic performance.
The admissions office uses a magic formula developed by Dean K. Whitla, director of the Office of Instructional Research, to help them categorize all applicants. Admissions officials plug a student's standardized test scores and high school grades into his formula and place the results on a graph of Harvard students' grades. The position predicts what a potential acceptee's class rank will be when he or she comes to Harvard Whitla says the test is usually 80-90 percent accurate Yet Jewett emphasizes that the formula merely provides just one of many ways of classifying all the students.
Piecing together the fragments of an applicant's record has in the past been a bureaucratic night-more for the admissions office.
Once admissions officers have compiled each applicant's folder, including high school records, standardized tests, and Advanced Placement scores, teacher and alumni recommendations, and the student's own essays, they begin reviewing the applicants in committees.
On some frigid day in February, all the officials closet themselves together to study 20 different piles of folders to "make tentative assessments," Fitzsimmons says, adding that in the first week of April, all 12 groups merge. They then proceed to admit all the students they want, pretending there is no limit to how many they can take Finally, on the frantic Saturday before acceptance letters go out, the number has to be pared down to a skeletal 2000 or so This year, 90 students had to be removed from the accepted list on that last day, Fitzsimmons says During these meetings, Jewett says committee members consider distribution throughout the country, numbers of minorities, alumni children and other factors to break dead-locks.
Even after the die is cast, Jewett is always left with a few applications where the draw could go either way. Once these last delicate decisions are made, the letters are sent out, much to the relief of the harried admissions staff. The process is not completed for those on the waiting list still waiting for a decision sometime during the summer By early July only 15 students remain on a special list, which at least guarantees them a slot the following year if a space does not open during August, so as to keep them from enrolling in another school.
The whole system is based on "an advocacy system." Fitzsimmons says, adding that all through the admissions process applicants were pulled through by difficult advocates, be it an alumni or an admissions official. "Every year we get around 13,000 applications and about 10,000-11,000 are good candidates," Fitzsimmons adds.
One of the toughest parts of the job. Fitzsimmons says, is answering the phones after the letters have gone out and telling be wildered students and parents that they were rejected even though "there was absolutely nothing wrong with them."
Fitzsimmons sighs. "They may have been an excellent candidate and gotten edged out on that last day."