Stairway to Harvard

The Keys to the Castle

Unnamed photo
Vilsa E. Curto

Byerly Hall is the home of the undergraduate admissions office, where admissions officers determine who will be allowed to enter Harvard College.

This is the final article in a four part series.
Part 1: For Harvard, Luring Students Is All in the Brand
Part 2: Recruiting a New Elite
Part 3: Byerly's Eye On the Yard


After investing hundreds of hours of studying, thousands of dollars in tutors and counselors, and months of meticulous preparation, many of the world’s most talented high school seniors resign their fate to the judgments of an anonymous group of graders sitting on the first floor of Byerly Hall, home to Harvard College’s admissions office.

A group of around 40 admissions officers, ranging from veterans to recent college graduates, regularly decides the futures of tens of thousands of Harvard hopefuls each year. These gatekeepers decide who will gain a coveted admission slot to the College in a time-honored but secretive process.

During the process, every member of the admissions committee reviews each applicant at least once in a committee meeting. The evaluation begins with the regional admissions officer, who is responsible for reading and presenting the applicants under their jurisdiction and evaluating the academic, extracurricular, and personal qualities of each to create a composite score. The application is then reviewed by another officer and in two committees, but the regional officer remains the expert on the region and school from which an applicant hails.

With so much on the line in an admittedly subjective process, the staff Harvard hires to pick its undergraduates—and how that staff is trained—has a major impact on the makeup of the College’s student body.

Admissions officers stress that it is important not to focus too much on any one officer, because all decisions are made by the full committee. But one officer—especially a senior one—can be persuasive in committee meetings.

With over 20,000 applicants and the lowest admissions rate in the country—about 10 percent—Harvard’s admissions officers face nearly impossible choices.

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 says that many more than the 2,000 applicants Harvard accepts each year could be successful at Harvard, a fact that makes the College’s admissions decisions all the more challenging—and makes them sometimes appear all the more arbitrary to those on the outside.

But the process at Harvard is not dissimilar from the practices of other elite schools, and it’s a formula colleges say has served them well over the years. The admissions procedure may be subjective, but it has survived the test of time.

“There’s nothing casual about this. It is serious business—it’s someone’s life,” says Fitzsimmons. “The stakes are very high.”

‘CHECKS AND BALANCES’

When an application arrives at Byerly Hall, it is directed to a regional subcommittee, a group of admissions officers each responsible for a broader geographic region. Each officer spends much of the year familiarizing themselves with a specific area in their region by visiting schools, talking to guidance counselors, and chatting with local alumni.

This process allows each officer to become an expert on his or her region and to understand students in the context of their school and surroundings. “Obviously when you’ve been doing a particular area for 25 years you’re able to spot the students who just pop out,” says officer Melanie Brennand Mueller ’01.

The regional admissions officer reads and comments on each application from their area, then passes it up to the chair of the subcommittee, a more senior officer who reads a wider range of applications. The chair returns the application for the regional officer to sort, and then the subcommittee meets to discuss which applicants to recommend to the full committee. Both readers score the applicant using a 1-to-6 scale on academics, extracurriculars, athletics, personal qualities, and an overall composite rating; the subcommittee and committee refer to these scores in their deliberations.

“I use my chair’s comments to help me judge” applicants, says officer Meggie Crnic ’01. “The subcommittee presents its strongest cases. Even the files you don’t pass on get checked. Sometimes the chair will ask why you didn’t pass that on.”

“On the full committee, everyone is getting looked at again, including those who were not passed on,” Crnic adds. “There are all of these checks and double checks and balances to make sure you’re not overlooking someone.”

In each subcommittee and committee meeting, the officers consider each application by reviewing a lengthy book coded with the essential details of every prospective student. “It’s hundreds of pages,” Crnic says.

Fitzsimmons says that only the “really clear-cut” cases are easy.

“You’re always asking the question, is this person strong enough to stay in the intergalactic competition, and if the answer is no, [you] stop and have a full discussion,” he says. “You get to know these cases very, very well.”

These extensive discussions of applicants can often cause an officer to reconsider files they have read. “When I hear about a case from California and I’m thinking about my own, I’ll go back and say I think we need to really compare this student,” says Brennand Mueller.

Fitzsimmons notes that officers “have the job of trying to get [their] own people in.”

“You don’t want it to be easier to get in on one subcommittee than another,” he says.

But Fitzsimmons stresses that the uniqueness of individual applicants means the process cannot be formulaic.

“Until you start to read cases, you tend to think of admissions as something fairly mechanical,” he says. “And that is, okay, you’re going to take so many people who are like this, or you’re going to take so many from this kind of school, or from this part of the country, or with this kind of an academic interest... [but] real people are not like that.”

PICKING THE COMMITTEE

Given the subjective nature of the process, the composition of the admissions committee—with nearly 40 members ranging from recent college graduates to longtime admissions veterans—can have a significant impact on the composition of the incoming class.

Many of the officers, especially the younger ones, are themselves Harvard graduates, and a number of undergraduates are hired for jobs around the admissions office as well. Fitzsimmons calls these ties to the College a “reality check.”

“We hire a lot of students who actually work here,” he says. “A fair number of people live in the dorms, sit on the ad board—we’re getting a lot of information back.”

Crnic says she worked in the office as an undergraduate and “had a lot of familiarity” with the process as a result. And Brennand Mueller says she worked for Byerly one summer. Both worked jobs elsewhere before returning to Harvard as officers.

Both recent graduates say the application and selection process is rigorous and includes several interviews, including meetings with Fitzsimmons and Director of Undergraduate Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-’73.

“Fit is important, as it is in any workplace,” Brennand Mueller says. “You’re going to be working long hours for many, many weeks and months.”

She adds that it is important to have a diversity of perspectives on the committee, including alumni and non-alumni as well as officers who play different roles, from her work on publications to Crnic’s work on internet issues.

There are no defined qualifications other than a bachelor’s degree for junior admissions officers at most universities, according to David Hawkins, the director of public policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC).

“Many officers at the entry level are fresh out of college,” he says. “Often times they have been undergrads in the institution and have worked in the admissions office during their undergraduate years.”

He adds that “nobody plans a career in admissions,” which leads to a lot of turnover. “People fall into it and lots of people fall out,” he says.

The NACAC’s 2005 State of College Admission Report found that schools say the most important qualification for admissions officers is marketing and public relations skill, with an understanding of personnel and resource management and the ability to perform statistical analysis as the next most relevant prerequisites. The report says that about half of schools view an advanced degree as a very important qualification.

Yale’s dean of undergraduate admissions, Jeff Brenzel, writes in an e-mail that like Harvard, Yale hires a mix of senior and junior officers who make admissions decisions together in committee. He notes that the junior officers tend to work for two to four years before moving on and are mostly Yale graduates.

“These individuals have typically interned in our office as students, sometimes for two or three years before they graduated,” he writes. “We think it is great to have a mix of very experienced officers along with officers who have a very recent experience of the college.”

TRAINING THE GATEKEEPERS

While there is no standardized training across schools for admissions officers, Harvard has developed its own system. Training begins as soon as new officers are hired, Crnic says, when they are given a binder “with all of the information you could possibly want or ask,” and then discuss the process with current officers. New hires then read cases and review them with a more senior officer as well as participate in a mock subcommittee.

“It is informative both because you get practice presenting and reading the cases and feedback from a senior admissions officer who has been around for a while,” Crnic says. “You get feedback on nuances of cases—you really start to get a feel for what are the things you should be paying attention to when reading.”

Crnic adds that all officers also give information sessions and travel to recruit for Harvard, and new officers must sit in on a variety of different information sessions given by existing officers to get a feel for the range of ways to give presentations to prospective students.

“Sitting in on the info sessions [helps] because you hear some of the questions that are asked—to anticipate the things that are asked [on] the road or when you’re giving an info session,” Brennand Mueller says.

Even after a few years of experience, both Crnic and Brennand Mueller say they continue to learn from the process.

“In committee, there are people who will ask leading questions to help you make your case,” she says. “I still feel like I’m learning better ways of doing things and more effective ways of doing things, whether it’s preparing to go into committee or reading folders.”

‘TRYING TO ANSWER THE UNANSWERABLE’

The college admissions process has long been scrutinized for its validity and fairness, given that it relies on humans making subjective judgments on subjective criteria. Crnic says that officers field a lot of questions about the legitimacy of the process.

“But within the committee we all made this decision together and we all believe it’s the right decision,” she says. “The vast majority of the time there’s nothing we can point to...there’s no formula.”

Brennand Mueller notes many applicants find it disquieting that the criteria changes from year to year. “What we admit one year from a given school, you could do almost the same exact things and we might not taken you the next year given the strength of the pool and how that class is coming together,” she says. “It’s not an ideal answer to people. People always want absolutes.”

Both assert their confidence in the process given that decisions reflect the committee’s judgment rather than that of a single individual.

“The people who are involved in the admissions process put a significant amount of faith in the process as a trade or an art, rather than a science, because each institution has its own admissions standards,” admissions expert Hawkins says. He notes that while institutions tend to be good at applying their own standards, officers at many institutions bombarded with applications “are not assessing academic information as much as they’re performing triage. They look at the application pool and say this segment seems to clearly not meet it, [while] this meets it.”

And Fitzsimmons points out that with nearly 90 percent of applicants likely able to do the work at Harvard, it is hard to define what a bad decision is.

“How do you measure success?” he asks. “Part of what it is is self-definition of success later on—you can ask whether Harvard made the critical difference in their lives.”

He notes that one way in which an admit can have a negative effect and potentially be a “mistake” is if they destabilize students around them. “If you’ve ever seen rooming groups disintegrate, that can really affect a number of people, it can affect a whole entryway,” he says.

In the end, he says officers are “trying to answer the unanswerable, and that is, will this person really make a positive difference in the world 25, 50 years later, and you do your best. Who knows?”

—Michael M. Grynbaum contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Stephen M. Marks can be reached at steve.marks@post.harvard.edu.