Admissions Office Faces Dilemmas; Continuing Search for Excellence Clashes With Concern for Feelings

Future historians may decide that the Modern Era in Harvard admissions began on 23 Nov., in the year 1957 A.D., when the Yale football team downed Harvard by a staggering 54-0 count. From that time forward, loyal graduates--like Walter W. Birge, Jr. '35, who now says, "I got kind of discouraged watching us get walloped"--began a determined effort to give their alma mater a well-rounded student body. And if "well-rounded" turned out to mean "more athletic," that was all right too.

Of course, the number of applicants to Harvard has been on the rise for generations. In 1933, out of 1,297 applicants for the Class of 1937, 1,059 were accepted; by 1955, the number of candidates had grown to 3,816. The total dropped to 3,470 by 1957, but in 1958, the first spring after that awful football game, 4,030 high school seniors applied for admission. Then things really got out of hand; in 1959, a total of 4,155 applicants had to be screened, and in 1960, admissions became a permanent major headache as more than 5,200 students sought entrance into the Class of 1964.

Some blame the 1957 game, which stimulated the recruiting activities of banner-waving alumni all over the country, for the deluge that swelled to monstrous proportions in the ensuing years. Others cite the wartime birth rate, changing social values, increased gross national product, the enlarged importance of education, the atomic bomb, and the weather. What-ever the cause--and most likely it is a combination of all the above--the Admissions Office views each coming spring with dread, and finds itself in a situation where it is damned whether it does or it doesn't.

An outsider would think the admissions officers could scarcely have controlled their joy when the number of applicants this spring, expected to reach 5,500-5,700, stuck at 5,200. But this was not the case; admissions workers worried that too many boys had been scared out of applying.

Fred L. Glimp '50, Dean of Admissions, explains that the 1960 total represented a sudden climb of almost 1,000, and that meanwhile the rate of acceptance jumped four or five per cent. (The rate of acceptance is the percentage of successful applicants who actually enroll at Harvard. In 1952, the College could admit 1,940 applicants to get a class of 1,222; now the rate of acceptance is more than 80 per cent, compared to 63 in 1952.) Thus Harvard was forced to send out at least 1,000 more rejections than ever before in 1960, and the shock had a deep effect in the secondary schools.


The national press and radio "have been full of discouraging chit-chat," Glimp says, and high school guidance counselors have become more careful about Harvard. Moreover, many students and parents may decide that applying to Harvard is not worth the effort. "This rigorous self-selection worries us," Glimp says. Although he sees "no great problem as long as we handle our contacts and the press correctly," Glimp admits, "this could result in less breadth in our applicants."

Less breadth, obviously, would mean that the whole design of the Harvard admissions program had failed. The outline was suggested by Wilbur J. Bender, '27, former Dean of Admissions, in a letter to unsuccessful applicants in the spring of 1955: "We have proceeded on the belief that in our student body a mixture of diverse talents and interests and personalities and backgrounds, a mixture based on a variety of particular excellences as we found them in individual applicants, will produce the most fruitful and healthy educational environment in which students of widely varying sorts will live and work together and educate one another."

On the other hand, Glimp and his staff have nightmares about a never-ending flow of applications. "We now get applications from more than 2,000 schools," he points out. "But there are 25,000 secondary schools in the country. If we got just one applicant from one-third of them ..."

So Harvard, in its quest for excellence, is caught between two contradictory impulses. The College would like to avoid the pain, for the school and the applicant, that comes from rejecting a well-qualified boy; and the present system cannot handle many more candidates in a single year. But at the same time, Harvard is committed, to itself and to its tradition, to leave no place unvisited in its search for the unusual and talented applicant.

1961 Signs Encouraging

Still, there were some encouraging signs this spring. The number of applicants from what Glimp calls "unheard-of towns" went up, a heartening development for a college that values variety of outlook and back-ground. And applications from Boston's Catholic parochial schools nearly doubled, a fact which Glimp attributes to President Kennedy.

In all, the College admitted 1,385 of its 5,200 applicants this spring, about 27 per cent. Of these, 81 per cent, or 1,110, accepted admission. The College will need to admit 90 off the waiting list to add another 80 members to the Class of 1965, and 10 late applicants will fill out the group of 1,200.

Recently, the Ivy League colleges and about 200 other institutions agreed to make the date for notification of admission almost a month earlier next year. The new April 16 date may eliminate competition from small colleges that have required their applicants to accept or reject admission before the Ivy schools mail their notifications, and may help Harvard counteract the attraction of early scholarship offers from other schools. Glimp is in favor of the change, but he warns against pushing the date back any further. With the new Jan. 1 deadline for applications, candidates will be able to record less than half the achievements of their senior years, and Glimp is worried about provisions for "late bloomers."

Problems Still Remain

The 1961 spring, as usual, probably yielded the smartest, highest-scoring, best-endowed, most highly-scrubbed class ever, and the admissions problem was not as severe as it might have been. But difficulties remain to be solved in several areas. It is unlikely that applications next year will increase by 1,000, the way they did in 1960; but if they do, the present system may collapse. The only immediate solution for this eventuality is to hope that it doesn't happen. But two other problems deserve attention: the lingering emphasis on athletics and the dangers of the alumni-interview system.

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