The Tip Factor

Or, Why Harvard Admissions Chose You And Not the Cellist From lowa

L. Fred Jewett '57 was a man with a problem. As dean of Harvard admissions and with only four days until final decisions were to be mailed out, he found himself with a surplus of 25 admitted students.

Down the hall in Byerly 105, more than ten thousand letters of rejection were field in alphabetical order and neatly arranged in rows of boxes. By midnight tomorrow, the names of 25 more high school seniors will be crossed off the admit list to join the rejected ten thousand plus.

Thus ends the brutal, rigorous, devastating and painstaking process known as selecting the Class of '82. Tomorrow at mid night a mailman will pick up 2195 letters of acceptance and almost five times as many letters of rejection, addressed to breathless high school seniors all over the world.

The Chosen 2195, who are expected to dwindle to a group of about 1600 by next fall, are not necessarily those with the highest grades or test scores. One student with a verbal Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) score of 410 will find himself accepted to Harvard next week while countless others with scores in the supersonic 700s will be turned away. The admissions committee obviously considers academic credentials and extracurricular activities, but beyond these lie even more subtle elements of the process including intangibles such as the applicant's personal qualities, Harvard's relationship with particular high schools, and the University's assessment of what type of student "fits in" at Harvard.

The annual cycle in Byerly Hall begins with the browning of the leaves in September, as applications to the freshman class begin trickling in. By the time of the first snow they are arriving in torrents and the process of sorting, filing, evaluating and ultimately deciding begins to evolve into a painful reality.


The current system, which admits about onethird of the class under the Early Action Program in December, uses the same criteria for early and regular admissions.

Every folder is guaranteed two readings and unless the candidate is a clear 'Reject' it will get at least three. Applicants are grouped according to geographical distribution and are evaluated by a subcommittee in charge of that particular region.

Before the regional subcommittees meet to discuss each case, Jewett sets a target number of acceptances for each area based on the quality and number of applicants from that region. The target is flexible and can be adjusted during a week-long rerun in late March when the admitted class as a whole is reviewed and a number of decisions--this year about 200--are reversed.

Students in boarding schools fall under the area in which their school is located. Because Harvard draws large numbers of applicants from Phillips Academy at Andover and Phillips Exeter, the two schools are combined to from a docket of their own, Jewett says.

He added that Harvard usually draws the largest numbers of applicants from Massachusetts, New York and California in that order.

Seamus P. Malin '62, assistant dean of admissions, describes the applicant pool as a self-selected one. Most admissions officers say at least 80 per cent of all candidates are capable of surviving academically here. The number of acceptable candidates only diminishes as one begins to assess who would make a positive contribution--academic or otherwise--to the University. Jewett says 60 per cent of the pool is composed of students he would readily admit; David L. Evans, senior admissions officer, sets that figure at 40 per cent. Either way, the actual 17-per-cent acceptance rate represents but a small portion of an all-too-talented group which has been forcibly pared down to size.

"Once you're assured of a minimal level of competence then tip factor becomes important," Robert P. Young Jr. '74, administrative intern on admissions, says. Tip factor refers to any advantage ranging from high-powered intellectual achievement to being the son or daughter of alumni.

One tip factor is academics. "In terms of the true scholar there are very few," Mary Ann Schwalbe '55, director of admissions, says. Malin says only about 150 students will be admitted to the Class of '82 as pure academic superstars. "We've seen enough high-scoring people do abysmally here," he explains.

For students presenting themselves as scholars, grades and test scores are important, but the admissions committee takes care to avoid the "old grind syndrome" and searches for evidence of a creative and expansive mind.

One aspiring biochemist with SAT scores in the mid-700s who is applying from a secondary school which claims he is one of the best students it has ever graduated, will be rejected because "the only thing he has to show for his intellectual ambitions is high test scores," Malin says.