Enter Dudley House at 6 P.M. on a weeknight, and there is barely a murmur. Some students eat quietly in small groups while others pour over 17th century translations of Dutch trading memoirs.
Harvard graduate students are the best of the best of the best.
To be accepted into the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) seems on the surface to be the college application process all over again. There are the test scores. The recommendations. The general application. The personal statement.
Just one thing: it's incredibly difficult to get in. Admissions rates are as low as three percent.
But those who are accepted and choose to spend the better part of more than years in Cambridge are richly rewarded.
They work mostly with world-renowned professors--and then go on to win Nobel Prizes. Tuition for many is fully-funded.
Though every applicant fills out a generic GSAS application, the admissions process itself is extremely individualized, from department to department and from person to person.
"The academic admissions decision is made by a committee of faculty in your field. There is no single admissions committee," said Russ E. Berg, GSAS's dean of financial aid.
"Overall, we admit about 14 percent of the applicant pool," he said.
Liwei Chen, a third year graduate student in Chemistry from China, transferred to Harvard from Washington University. He said admission is rigorous. He applied twice.
"The second year I made it," he said.
The economics department, which earned the number one ranking in a 1997 U.S. News and World Report survey, is among the larger and more prominent of the graduate study programs. They accepted 25 of 500 applicants--a scant 5 percent.
Of the 400 people who applied to the English department, between 12 and 15 were accepted.
Of the 100 people who applied to the Department of East Asian Studies, between 10 and 15 were finally accepted.
In the government department, about 500 people usually apply, and approximately 30 are accepted.
The physics department had 375 applicants. 58 were accepted.
The microbiology department receives around 300 applications each year. They accept between 50 and 70 applicants, with an average of four international students.
Though each department is selective, the smaller departments tend to have a more individualized process. Students who apply to work in East Asian studies, for instance, might request to work with a specific professor instead of with the entire department.
Of the students who are accepted to all the programs, Berg estimated that over 60 percent actually matriculate into the GSAS.
The Winnowing Process
For Loeb Professor of Social Sciences David Cutler, choosing the most qualified graduate students from the already talented applicant pool is akin to choosing just the right house.
"We look at everything: the personal essay, the grades, evidence of research ability, preparation in terms of previous classes, letters of recommendation writers, GRE scores, everything that's in there," Cutler said.
"We spend a large amount of time reviewing application folders," he added.
But, he said, "It's not even so much who's qualified. I describe it as thinking about which house you want to buy. Houses have living rooms, kitchens, bathrooms, but it's rare that one house has is better...on every dimension. You see two or three hundred extremely good houses. We have discussions amongst us. What do we think of this person?"
Barbara Lewalski, director of graduate studies for the English department and chair of graduate admissions, said that she and her staff give all applicants "a careful screening."
"[Applications] are read and sifted down. The finalists get down to about 40. They are read by every member of the admissions committee," she said.
Between nine and ten people sit on the admissions committee.
Pouring over the writing samples and debating which among the many highly qualified applicants to accept can be "complicated and arduous," Lewalski said.
Frankie Hoff, who heads the graduate studies program for East Asian Studies, says her staff rates candidates and then compares notes.
Since each of the department looks for different qualifications, the process can be difficult, she says.
Eaton Professor of the Science of Government Robert H. Bates, who chairs the Government Department's admissions committee, said that his department routinely rejects around 150 candidates they could have easily accepted.
"We're enormously difficult to get into. There are just a lot of people we end up rejecting who I can't believe we didn't accept. It's almost a random process," Bates said.
Rosemary Peters Crick, who is in her eighth year of graduate study in French, said the application process is rather brutal.
"It's hell to put in applications. It makes you very vulnerable," she says.
Some prospective doctors of philosophy are persistent.
"We get a fair number of people who come back and try again. We're desirable," Bates said.
A Molecule's Chance in Hell
In the sciences, scholarly promise is just as difficult to discover. Most applicants have specific interests and many have published earlier research work.
Students' "credentials, publications, and who they've worked with" are all considered in the application process, says Mary Lamprost, who coordinates admissions for the physics department.
She said that graduate students in physics have their Harvard education funded in full by either a teaching fellowship or a paid research position with a professor.
In physics, too, there is a high incidence of re-application.
"I would say I have seen some students apply for up to two years," Lamprost said.
Until this year, two science graduate programs bucked the normal GSAS admissions process, asking candidates to fill out a separate application.
The chemistry and microbiology departments will soon accept the regular GSAS application.
Ed Kleisfen, the associate director for administration and academic affairs in the microbiology department said his department catered to a specific group of life scientists.
"Some people decide to go to Harvard's medical school. Or they decide along the way that they're interests are more sympathetic with clinical environment," he says.
Only 20 to 25 percent of those accepted actually matriculate; the average size of the incoming class is 15 to 20.
Spare Some Change?
Though Harvard's matriculation rates are among the highest in the country, it still must remain financially attractive to prospective students.
Some graduate students who had been admitted elsewhere say that generous financial aid packages convinced them to come to Harvard.
Still, a number of faculty members told The Crimson that Harvard is losing desirable students to other universities with even more lucrative packages.
As of this fall, the GSAS will offer a school-wide financial aid package, providing tuition and a stipend to graduate students in their first two years of study--during the time they take their core classes.
GSAS then guarantees students teaching fellowships for their next three years of study. Students receive another stipend in their final year of study to support them while they write their theses.
Peters Crick said her decision to attend was based on Harvard's offer of tuition, which was far superior to the University of Virginia's, where she had considered studying English.
Of the financial aid offered by GSAS, Berg said it is flexible--and not always to Harvard's advantage.
"It varies from absolutely nothing all the way up to a fellowship that may pay tuition for several years," he says.
"We need to be competitive in terms of financial aid," he says. "There are certainly programs offering financial aid as competitive or more so than ours."
Bates of the government department agreed with the sentiment.
"I think we have a real issue in the financing of our students. Graduate students are poor," he says.
Even though Harvard's offers are generally better than most, Bates said he fears the department is losing students to schools with better aid packages.
"I'm greatly concerned that we may be making financial packages that are not realistic given the competition. The calls I've been getting suggest that it's an issue," he says.
Targeting specific students with sweetened deals is part of his department's recruiting plan.
"We make sure that those we are most excited about get offers. Those that are qualified but that we are less passionate about must decide themselves whether they want to invest [finance their own education]," Bates says.
Oliver Dinius, a seventh year graduate student in Germanic languages, agreed that humanities departments are generally not well funded.
"People did not come [to Harvard] because they did not get funding," he says.
Though most graduate programs in the humanities and social sciences depend on GSAS for their funding, because of research grants, science departments tend to be independently wealthy.
The microbiology department offers complete financial aid, including tuition, associated costs, living costs, and a stipend--all thanks to the National Institute for Health.
Luca Marinelli, fifth year graduate student in physics, said the proposition was simple.
"If they accept you they fund you," she says.