Admissions: What Kind of Wheat to Winnow

Rapid Increase in Number of Qualified Applicants Has Made Selection Less Rigid, More Indefinite

A FEW years ago a student appeared at Memorial Hall on fall registration day to enroll in Harvard. Unable to find his folder, officials referred him to the Admissions Office. It took less than a minute there to discover that the would-be freshman had never even applied for admission to the College.

Not so long ago, Harvard might still have accepted this student, provided he could meet the entrance requirements. Selection was simply a matter of weeding out the non-qualified applicants and accepting all the rest. This was not a particularly arduous task, since few students sought admission to the College. In 1941, for instance, 1,092 applicants were accepted from the 1,182 who applied.

But during the past decade the situation has changed completely. Applications have increased threefold and, even worse, a large percentage of candidates are qualified to do the work here--a much larger number than the College could ever accept with existing facilities. Just last month the Admissions Office revealed that more applicants were refused than accepted for the Class of 1959. It was the first time in Harvard's history this has happened.

With such a situation, it is difficult for the Admissions Office to make any definite, concise policy statement. One introductory book for prospective students, for instance, vaguely defines Harvard as "a college for those who feel the need for a broad development of their powers, for a greater understanding of their world, and for an enriched cultural life."

"Testimony of Towardlinesse"


The Dean of the Committee on Admissions and Scholarships, Wilbur J. Bender '27, is greatly concerned with this question of finding some sort of a new selection policy. In the President's Report for 1952-53, he wrote, "the problem is how much weight to attach to Harvard parentage, geographic distribution, athletic ability, creative ability in various fields, on character, personality, and on capacity for leadership."

These considerations never used to concern admissions officials. In 1655, for instance, they could state their policy in one long sentence:

"When any schollar is able to read and understand Tully, Virgil or any such ordinary Classicall Authors, and can readily make and speake or write true Latin in prose and hath skill in making verse, and is Competently grounded in the Greeke language: so as to be able to Construe and Grammatically to resolve ordinary Greeke, as in the Greeke Testament, Isocrates, and the minor poets, or such like, having withall meet Testimony of his towardlinesse, hee shall be capable of his admission into the Colledge."

It would be impossible to make such a clearcut statement of policy today. The resulting selectivity, however, has not only placed a tremendous burden on the Admissions Office, but it has also complicated life for schools, which are no longer sure what type of students stand the best chance for gaining admission to such places as Harvard.

Fortunately the College, realizing its responsibility to the country, is conducting an intensive nationwide campaign to acquaint both students and secondary schools with admissions problems, giving some general idea of what type of student Harvard wants. It is this guidance now offered to most prospective candidates which has become one of the few encouraging developments of the current rapid rise in the number of students who wish to continue their education. In the future those schools offering the most comprehensive college advising programs will be the ones which place the largest number of students in colleges of their first choice, whether Harvard, Yale, UCLA, or St. Olaf's.

Talent in One Area

Statistics for any class in the College illustrate what sort of competition applicants to Harvard must face. In the Class of 1957, for instance, 50 percent of the students scored over 609 on the verbal aptitude section of the College Board examinations; less than ten percent fell under the 500 mark. Only 165 of the some 1900 colleges and junior colleges in the United States expect applicants to take these tests. Since 500 is the median score, students here are among the best who applied to these most selective colleges. Similarly with rank in class, more than half of '57 were in the top 15 percent of their classes at public or private school. Less than ten percent were in the bottom half.

The Acting Director of the Admissions Office, David D. Henry '41, asserts that intellectual capacity is only one factor in considering applicants. His office is constantly looking for the person who stands out in some particular area, whether it be academic, athletic, musical, or some other field. The well-rounded boy, he maintains, will always have a place at Harvard. But the College is more interested in the boy with some special ability.

Many parents consider untrue this talk about a well-balanced, not a brilliant, class. They point to the statistics which illustrate the high average intelligence of the Harvard student.

If they know their children have only average aptitude, these people believe that sending them to a "good" private school is the only way to get them into a "good" college.

But this is no solution. Although Harvard will not release statistics on the records of various schools, an example from Yale can illustrate the point. When the freshman class at New Haven numbered 850, Andover used to send down 85 boys, according to Admissions Director Arthur Howe, Jr. Now the freshman class totals 1,000, and Andover is sending only 53 boys. Howe sadly notes that this cut is occurring at the very time when the "kind of boy Harvard and Yale want is trying to go to private schools so he will stand a better chance for admission."

The headmaster of one small Connecticut prep school is particularly aware of this problem. Formerly his school used to specialize in giving individual attention to students, offering a well-balanced program of academic work and extra-curricular activities. Now he finds this is impossible, if not undesirable. A few years ago, he had trouble filling the school; now he has too many applicants. With the resulting selection, he has found that the curriculum of the school has become progressively harder. The well-balanced program and the individual attention are vanishing. In short, the school is no longer any good for a broad range of abilities; it is "specializing to the danger point."

This fall the headmaster had to tell one mother that he could not accept her son because his aptitude was not high enough. After hearing his decision, she asked him, "What's the matter with you people nowadays? Won't you accept a challenge any more? This is the fourth school which has rejected my child."

The headmaster had no reply. Emphasis in the school has shifted toward intellectually challenging the top half of the class. The others have to follow along the best they can--and must have a certain IQ not to flunk out. This situation disturbs the headmaster. His graduates have a very successful record in gaining admittance to college, but he has no idea where the school itself is heading. He fears that if the current emphasis on intellectual capabilities continues, the institution cannot survive in competition with large schools which can attract more easily first-rate students with their better facilities and faculties.

The plight of this school stems from its inability to cope successfully with the increased demand for entrance to it. Without any set purpose, the headmaster does not really know how to choose students. Nor does he know what qualities the colleges want in applicants. Many schools and colleges, including Harvard, have this same type of problem.

Mens . . . In Corpore

The Admission's Office solution--if it may be called that--is to treat each case individually without any set formula for selecting applicants. It is this policy which College officials and alumni are trying to distribute throughout the country. The results have been gratifying. More applicants are applying each year, to be sure, but more and more of these are qualified applicants--students who have received good guidance and know that Harvard would be a good college for them. Significantly, the school mentioned above has lost almost all contact with Harvard and sends few applicants up here. Many of those who do apply are turned down.

Another small prep school--Groton--has met the challenge of selection more successfully, largely because the headmaster, the Rev. John Crocker '22 has maintained the traditional purpose of the school. He does not believe in selecting students solely on their intellect. 'Groton's purpose, according to him, is "to develop boys in body, mind, and spirit." Many average boys are "awfully happy here," he notes. The large number of boys who regularly gain admission to Harvard--usually about 15 from a class of 40--would seem to indicate that he has discovered a satisfactory way to run a school and to get boys into their first-choice colleges.

If better guidance leads to a more intelligent choice of colleges, however, the work of such Admissions offices as Harvard's will become increasingly more difficult. Dean Bender estimates that in another ten years about 5,000 students will be seeking admission to Harvard--and most of these will know just why they want to come here and will have certain qualities with which to contribute to the community.

Justifiers Are Fools

Better guidance, then may lead to an almost impossible task of selection. Amherst's Eugene S. Wilson, one of the most colorful admissions directors in New England, definitely thinks so. The one fact which saves admissions officers their jobs, he maintains, is that no one checks up on what happens to those candidates who are turned down. Wilson had to refuse admission to twice as many applicants as he accepted for the class of 1959, and almost all those who applied were good scholastically. The selection was based on the "past achievement and future promise of the individual." But in the final analysis he admits that "any man who tries to justify his selections today is a fool."

One of the problems facing admissions officers, Wilson notes, is the accurate evaluation of the academic standards of various schools. This, of course, is closely connected with the grading system. In last year's freshman class at Amherst he says there were 40 students who received C in English, although all of these had maintained a straight A average through high school. Likewise, 19 got D and one, E.

Wilson once wrote a story about the way in which a mythical college selected its students. Each candidate was ushered into a room with a portrait of the University's first president on the wall and a ten-dollar bill on the floor. The admissions director, stationed behind the portrait, could observe the candidate's actions through the hollow eyes of the first president. If the applicant pocketed the bill, he was refused admission. If, on the other hand, he gave it over when the admissions director finally entered, he was accepted.

Thumbs Down on Confidential

A slight variation of this procedure, Wilson suggests, would be to have the same set-up, but instead of a ten-dollar bill a table with all sorts of magazines on it. If the candidate picked up Harper's or the N. Y. Times Book Review, he was accepted. A choice of Playboy or Confidential would reject him, however.

These methods, ridiculous as they sound, are only slightly more arbitrary than the selection process used at many colleges. Judging from scholastic record will be futile in the future, Wilson believes, because all candidates will be so nearly equal. The solution lies in better distribution of secondary school students. "Men in the past have proved that it is possible to be successful without going to such colleges as Harvard or Amherst," Wilson claims. "No place gives away an education; the student has to earn it."

Better diversification of students particularly concerns some of the big-5Dean Bender