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
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
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
With over 20,000 applicants and the lowest admissions rate in
the country—about 10 percent—Harvard’s admissions officers face nearly
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
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
“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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
“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
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
—Michael M. Grynbaum contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Stephen M. Marks can be reached at email@example.com.