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Admissions: 'Personal' Rating Is Crucial

Interviews and Hunches Can Make the Difference

By Joel R. Kramer

In the 600-page computer compilation of the applicants to a Harvard College class, there are a dozen numbers listed under each applicant's name. One of these is the "personal" rating-a number from one to six based on an evaluation of the essay the student writes, the report of his alumni interviewer, the report of his staff interviewer if he visited Harvard, and the reports of his principal and teachers.

That number has become by far the most important factor in Harvard's admissions process.

This does not mean that the 24-man admissions committee-composed of staff and a varying number of Faculty-has only to rate its 7000 applicants on "personality," and then simply accept the 1400 or so with the highest ratings; for example, no student will be accepted unless the committee believes he can at least get C's here. But it does mean that an outsider, given only the computer data and asked to guess which applicants the committee will accept, will come close if he chooses those with the highest personal ratings, tossing in about 100 students who are extraordinarily superior academically or athletically, and paying some attention to geographical distribution.

If this outsider relies instead primarily on the "academic" rating, he is likely to make a lot more wrong guesses than right ones. Dean K. Whitla of the Office of Tests shows in a recently published essay that for the Class of 1968, there is just about no correlation between admission to Harvard and such factors as SAT scores, rank-in-class, and predicted rank list. The correlation between admissions and the personal factor is better than 90 per cent.

Ten years ago, for the Class of 1958, admission to Harvard correlated equally with academic and personal factors-that is, a student with a high academic rating and a low personal rating was about as well off as a student with a high personal rating and a low academic rating.

The change, admissions officials explain, is the result of better applicants. The median SAT score has increased from 560 to 654 over the ten-year period. Now only about 100 applicants are rejected annually for fear they cannot handle the work.

Statistics like these suggest that getting into Harvard may depend on what your alumni interviewer had for lunch. Which is not too far from the truth. Dr. Chase N. Peterson, now Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, says, "We are justified and obligated to trust a hunch."

The admissions process consists of sifting tens of thousands of these hunches-some made by admissions personnel and others by New Mexico high school teachers and emerging with 1400 students. (Only 1150 generally accept their places, and some 50 more are added from a waiting list.)

Hunch material can be found almost anywhere. One applicant in the early sixties, for example, concluded his autobiographical essay with the sentence, "I aspire to become a student at Harvard so that I may live and work with the creme de la creme. " That young man from Illinois had an academic rating of 2, and achievement scores over 780 in both American History and Chemistry. But his personal rating was 4, and he was rejected. "That kind of phrase can ruin you," Peterson says.

In the same class, a boy from a suburban Boston school with low 500's on achievement tests, who spelled three words wrong in his essay, was accepted. He was not a "Harvard son," and he was not a great athlete. But his alumni interviewer called him "one of the nicest I've seen this year" and the admissions staff rated his personality 1.

Evaluations made by staff and alumni are used more than the reports of teachers and principals, because the admissions committee knows who its interviewers are, and can take their tastes and idiosyncrasies into account. But secondary school reports may provide the crucial fodder for a hunch, Peterson says, "especially if the writer avoids cliches."

An applicant from a Southern high school, for example, solicited reports from two teachers. "I believe he is a deserving student," one wrote. The admissions committee reads that 10,000 times a year, Peterson says, and "it's hard to keep listening." The other teacher wrote, "Despite his humble and low-class origin, it is clear that he has somehow developed the manners and behavior of a young gentleman." The boy was admitted, despite an academic rating of 5.

This reliance on the instantaneous reaction of interviewers, the wording of autobiographies, and the readability of reports appears subjective enough, but is only the beginning. Perhaps the pivotal factor is how all this already subjective data is assessed by the applicant's advocate-the man who must present a student's case to the admissions board.

Every applicant is assigned an advocate according to the geographical location of his secondary school. The advocate is one of three men who read and evaluate an applicant's folder, after which a preliminary decision is made in a small sub-committee responsible for a geographical area. If a student is rejected at this level, he is probably through. His case will not even be presented before the full admissions committee unless new evidence becomes available or, as Whitla puts it, "the advocate decides after sleeping on it that he didn't argue a certain case effectively in the area committee."

But if the student is accepted by the area committee, his case must come up again before the full committee, since far too many students are accepted on the first run-through. Here the advocate must not only argue his man's case, but convince a majority of those present that his is a better applicant than some others whose cases are being argued.

"It gets heated," Whitla says. "A guy gets disgusted because someone else can't see his point. By the time the whole thing is over, you know everyone on the committee and where his psyche is."

Twelve or more hours a day, seven days a week in March and early April, advocates argue and re-argue their cases, votes are called, applicants are disposed of. As an advocate argues, the Dean pencils notes into his seven-inch thick loose-leaf filled with computer forms. In the notebook used by former admissions dean Fred L. Glimp two years ago, there are notes like "Yale son" in a circle, or "soccer" followed by two exclamation points. Next to each name is a red "A" for accept or a blue "R" for reject-or a red "A" crossed out and replaced by a blue "R."

It is an agonizing, seemingly irrational process, which only works if the men on the admissions committee have faith in it. And they do. "If you turn this many people away, you've got to believe you have a reason for it," Peterson says. "I think this is a very effective system."

Other members of the staff echo his faith in the selection process, which has remained essentially the same since World War II. Peterson's concept of how to improve the quality of Harvard classes is not to change the basic process, but to recruit better applicants, particularly in areas where few students feel impelled to apply to Harvard. As more recruiting has been done in the South over the past ten years, the dockets have been adjusted and more Southerners admitted.

While the selection process now approaches the ultimate in meritocracy, with each man considered as an individual who might or might not profit from four years at Harvard, there is nonetheless an incredible statistical consistency to the Harvard classes. The number of students admitted from California never doubles from one year to the next, and Exeter is never shut out completely. The number of Harvard sons admitted stays rather constant (although the number rejected is increasing rapidly), and the ratio of public school students to private school students changes at a slow and smooth rate, in the direction of the former.

Why does each class appear statistically like the one ahead of it, if "quotas" are not used? There seem to be two answers. First, each man on the admissions committee feels in his own mind that a "good mix" is a necessary thing for Harvard College. If the admissions committee has just okayed nine consecutive students from a small town in Oregon, it will become wary of admitting more. Perhaps, as Whitla suggests, the advocate himself will not be able to find it in him to argue a tenth case enthusiastically. More important, there is something of a quota built into the admissions process. This is the docket system. Applicants are divided into 22 dockets, according to the secondary school the student attended. Far from Harvard, the docket divisions are large geographical units; Docket B, for example, is The Rockies, and G is Ohio and Kentucky. But further East, Docket K is Cambridge, Docket I is entitled Andover and Exeter, Docket P is Boston Public Latin, and New York City's public schools have a docket of their own, separate from the metropolitan area's private schools. Peterson calls it "a New Englander's map of the United States."

After all the numerical parameters are available, a computer examines the evidence and announces an approximate quota for each docket, based on how many were admitted from this docket last year and how the numerical evaluations of this year's students in the docket compare with this year's applicants overall. Thus, if California's applicants suddenly become twice as good as last year (by the numbers) relative to the whole group, the computer will allot more places to California-but not twice as many.

Though these quotas are not adhered to strictly, "if you go over the quota in one docket, it's painful when you have to undercut another," Peterson says.

Humphrey Doermann, a member of the admissions committee and former admissions director, explains that the docket system avoids the possibility of admitting so many, say, from the West Coast-which the committee considers first-that there will be no room left in the class when the committee gets further east, in which case the members might get progressively stricter. This could, of course also be avoided by not classifying the students geographically at all. But that, officials say, would be administratively inconvenient. The advocate system depends on having applicants grouped by area so the advocates can visit their schools.

Peterson calls the docket system "a kind of quota based on the excellence of the boys involved." While it no doubt favors such places as Exeter and Andover, Peterson believes that "Harvard should maintain a Yankee flavor, and besides, schools like these were themselves selective in choosing their students." Dana M. Cotton, the senior member of the admissions committee with 23 years under his belt, points out that Exeter and Andover are not supplying as many Harvard students as they used to, "which the headmasters there understand but which is difficult to explain to a parent who sent his son to Andover so he could get into the college of his choice."

Admissions officials begin to squirm when the word "quota" turns up in conversation. "The only quota is the quota of common sense," says Cotton. Doermann doesn't think the docket system imposes any quota at all, "but I can see why someone wouldn't believe me."

Talk about quotas irks admissions staffers because they don't like to think of the admissions process as a mechanical one. And despite the statistical consistency of the class from year to year, admissions staffers work long and hard precisely because they refuse to rely on the numbers. Sandy Koufax's earned-run average always hovered around 2.0, but he sweated for every strikeout.

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