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.

"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.

Judgment is not limited to the 15 or so fulltime employees of the admissions office, nor to the 2,000 alumni interviewers across the country and in many parts of the world. It also extends to about 20 members of the Faculty and administration who are official members of the committee with voting powers. Each year, depending on how much time the parttime members have to spare, up to 1,000 folders are distributed to faculty and administration members who use their individual expertise to evalute a student's work, Marcia M. Connolly '58, associate director of admissions, says. David G. Mitten, Loeb Professor of Art and Archaeology, says, "I've put in strong pleas for persons who were statistically marginal."

Mosely says he remembers an example of a few years ago when the initial decision to reject a female applicant was reversed when a professor in the Astronomy Department evaluated samples of her work in that field and pronounced them "incredible."

And how important is the alumni interview, shuddering applicants query as they emerge from a half-hour session they are convinced will decide their life. Actually, "the vast majority of interviews more of less support what we already know," Malin says, adding they become important in marginal cases.

Usually the interviewer is "trying to find out whether the alleged strength is a real strength," he says.

And has Harvard ever sent out the wrong decisions to people? Jewett admits to two clerical errors in recent years in which students with similar names were mixed up. In one case, the student admitted by mistake was a strong candidate anyway and Jewett allowed him to attend. Jewett says the students did remarkably well here. In the other case, the student was clearly unqualified and the dean notified the student of the mistake and reversed the decision because he believed Harvard "was not the place" for the applicant.

This year's cycle is finally ending. Harvard's 17-per-cent acceptance rate is the third lowest in the country. It is only higher than Amherst's 14-per-cent and Brown's 16-per-cent. It compares to Princeton's 22-per-cent and Yale's 25-per-cent rate of acceptance.

In Byerly Hall today, the last lists are being doublechecked and the last envelopes sealed. Brown manila folders are being put away. The decisions have gone to bed.

Starting next week, L. Fred Jewett will be a man with an even bigger problem. A phone in his office will tinkle and it will be joined by buzzing throughout Byerly Hall. Nervous students who cannot wait another moment will inquire about their fate. Angered parents of rejected applicants will deluge the office with tears, protests and hysteria. But the entreaties are in vain, for the admissions game for this year is over, and L. Fred Jewett will already be considering the transfer applicants.