The Tip Factor

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

"We have a real bias against those who have sat in their high school libraries grinding out their A's," Young adds.

The majority of successful candidates combine academic competence with outstanding personal endorsements. For some, like the successful female applicant from suburban Washington, D.C., it is one special talent--in her case the ability to play the cello on a professional level--that saw her through. In admissions jargon this is known as "the special dimension."

In other cases, overall excellence tips the student onto the admit list and in still other cases the tip factor consists of evidence that the student has produced outstanding results when considered in the light of disadvantaged circumstances.

The student with the 410 verbal score currently attends an inner-city high school in a tough neighborhood. He has no father and has helped raise two younger brothers. He is president of his student body and has a straight A record. "The only thing this kid has not done is score high," Calvin N. Mosely, associate director of admissions, points out.

The "Fit" between the student and Harvard is not considered a major factor by admissions officers, but Archie C. Epps III, dean of students and a member of the admissions committee, says, "Given that a student has achieved a general level of overall excellence, we are concerned with whether there is a place at Harvard to hang his or her hat."


The admissions committee is concerned with a student's maturity and ability to handle life in Cambridge. Schwalbe notes the committee's particular interest in women scientists and engineering students which she says is due to the University's wish to improve in those areas.

"Being the child of an alumnus can heal the sick but it cannot raise the dead," Evans says. This year about 900 alumni children applied and about 350 were admitted, Jewett says, adding that the figure should be evaluated in light of the fact that alumni children tend to come from advantaged backgrounds.

Both Jewett and Evans say the admissions committee is interested in alumni children because continuity is an important factor in the survival of tradition and economic support at Harvard.

Students are not favored when they are clearly inadmissible, yet admissions officers do keep politics and public relations in mind. As Malin puts it, "When we make a decision we are telling something to a school." He adds there is an attempt "to break through the mythology surrounding Harvard" and to further contacts with high schools in an effort to draw more applicants.

Young says being a school's favorite applicant can be a tip factor for that student.

Mosely says some students are placed on the waiting list, not because the committee would like to make an honorable mention directed either at the students or his secondary school.

When the telephone rings in Byerly Hall a typical conversation could run like this:

"Oh, hello, Marcia, it's you...and are you still pushing for that girl from Cincinnati?"

"I sure am; she may not be the brightest person we ever admitted but she is such a gifted pianist and I was so impressed with her when I interviewed her. I won't let her go without a struggle..." And on and on. Admissions officers say they find themselves taking an interest in particular candidates and plugging for them all the way through.

"No qualified theater person gets by me without a good reason," Schwalbe, who has an interest in drama, says. She adds that students in other activities receive support from other admissions officers with similar interests.