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.