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Making Sense of a Complex System

By Philip P. Pan, Harvard's Admissions Process

Thousands of eager high school seniors crossed their fingers this week and mailed envelopes of full of transcripts, essays and hope to Harvard's admissions office.

Many of these Early Action applicants have studied diligently for four years and spent endless hours fiddling with their applications. Some, no doubt, have even attempted to outguess the system, ploughing their way through the tangle of books, articles and pamphlets that attempt to tell students how the admissions process really works and what kind of student Harvard really wants.

New Light on an Old Matter

But a recently released government document may shed new light on the matter. The report, a 46-page statement of findings issued by the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and obtained by The Crimson under the Freedom of Information Act, describes the methods and findings of a two-year federal investigation into allegations that Harvard used quotas to limit the number of Asian Americans admitted.

While the OCR concluded that Harvard had not illegally discriminated against Asian Americans, its official report also provide a unique insight into the College's admissions procedures.

Indeed, the OCR findings seem to contradict directly a number of Harvard's stated admissions policies.

For example, Harvard has stated and continues to assert that a tip for recruited athletes and children of alumni is only used as a tie-breaker in cases when "all other factors are substantially equal." But according to the report, the admissions office seems to give considerably more weight to athletics and legacy.

"Without lineage, there would be little case," is one of the more telling reader comments documented by the report. "With it, we will keep looking."

In addition, the OCR was not able to substantiate Harvard's assertion that Asian American applicants, like other minority applicants, receive a tip or preference in the admissions process.

A Challenge From Fitzsimmons

But Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons '67 challenged the accuracy of the OCR report and maintained in no uncertain terms that Asian-American ethnicity does act as a tip for many applicants.

His argument was that the OCR report was based upon incomplete information. The federal investigators' findings on this issue were inaccurate, Fitzsimmons said, because they relied on written records and were not present at the subcommittee meetings where applicants were discussed. The ethnic tips were often used at these meetings, he said.

But although only one of more than 1000 summary sheets reviewed by OCR reflected a possible tip for an Asian-American student, several sheets revealed how "crucial if not decisive" being a legacy or recruited athlete could be.

For example, one reader's comment noted "a straightforward case hanging on athletic ability. Easy to do if a needed `1' [athletic rating], pretty ordinary if not."

And OCR concluded, "While the various `tips' or preferences could not be weighed or defined precisely, it was clear that the ethnic tip for Asians was significantly less instrumental, and present less often than tips for legacies and recruited athletes."

But Fitzsimmons said that it was impossible to compare the effects of Asian-American tip and the other tips.

"I don't think it's possible to measure them in the same way," Fitzsimmons said. "It isn't as quantifiable as it is for lineage and for some athletic cases."

And Fitzsimmons went on to say that any special characteristic that could be an indicator of future success might be used as a tip in the admissions process. "The term tip is an oversimplification really."

The final message to high school seniors? To hear Fitzsimmons tell it, it is something that prospective students should have known all along.

Successful applicants, he says, are those who have a tip, a hook, or some "distinguishing excellence" to make them stand out of the 80 percent of the applicant pool that the dean describes as "solid candidates."

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