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Admissions officers can't do it alone.
Except for the allure of the famous name, Harvard's admissions shtick is no different from other top colleges: same glossy brochures, same polished pitches.
Instead, it's the efforts of current students that make Harvard stand out for many applicants.
Admissions officials explain that while they encourage interested high schoolers to seek the college that is the best "match" for the individual, they understand that it can be difficult to distinguish between Harvard and other selective schools. To fill the gap, an assortment of student organizations works to help applicants learn about Harvard.
"People already know it's a great institution, but they're looking for details, vignettes, credible examples of success. They've read the information books, they've read the articles and a lot of the information blurs. They're really looking for people who can speak from their own experience with both their heads and their hearts," says Roger Banks, senior admissions officer.
According to Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons '67, the assistance is essential to admissions work.
"Students have the most credibility of anybody in dealing with prospective applicants," Fitzsimmons says.
Fortunately for Fitzsimmons and his staff, hundreds of current students working for a variety of organizations participate by visiting, calling, writing or hosting the tens of thousands of applicants Harvard receives every year.
As UAC Co-chair Diarra K. Lamar '01 explains, the organization's role is to serve as a proactive resource.
"You can't get into Harvard unless you throw your hat into the ring, and that's our job: to get prospective applicants to throw in their hat," Lamar says.
For starters, the UAC runs a 'greeter' program that schedules current students to accompany admissions officers in their daily information sessions at Byerly Hall.
Lamar explains that these sessions are a great opportunity for prospective applicants and their families to "interrogate" the information they hear and read.
"One of the goals of these sessions is to dispel the myths about Harvard: that all classes are taught by TFs; that advising at Harvard is poor; that it's really competitive and only rich, snobby people come here," Lamar says. "We just want to tell applicants what it's really like now."
According to Lamar, greeters are regularly asked to share their experiences on a wide range of issues from advising to weather to workload.
Senior Admissions Officer Chuck Hughes '92 says that the greeters greatly enhance the impact of a student visit.
"I think it's what distinguishes our information sessions," Hughes says. "I can give general information on concentrations and tutorials, but students can provide more personal examples from their classes or their thesis."
Hughes adds that particularly for admissions officers who did not attend Harvard or are older alumni, the greeters are essential to providing an up-to-date perspective on the school.
The UAC's hosting program also requires a great deal of student support.
"Harvard will honor a request for a student to visit the college anytime throughout the week," Lamar says. "You don't even have to have been admitted."
The UAC uses a network of dorm representatives to recruit hosts for visiting applicants. Whenever possible, visitors are placed with first-years since they are closest to the application process. At particularly busy times such as the pre-frosh weekend in April, all undergrads are called upon to open their doors.
While staying at Harvard, visitors are often introduced to volunteers from the new UAC regional representative program.
Applicants can fire questions at regional reps with whom they share a high school, town, or just a general geographical region. Sometimes regional reps also correspond with prospective students by mail or e-mail, answering questions as they arise.
"The student on campus will serve as a resource to applicants," Lamar explains. "Being from the South myself, I often meet with students applying from the same region who have concerns similar to those I experienced on applying."
When students are admitted in December and April, UAC again calls on volunteers to assist with outreach projects to accepted students. At the beginning of February, UAC will send accepted early action students a package of publications, information brochures and other goodies. About a week later, UAC will follow up with a calling campaign over a series of weekday evenings.
"I think that undergrads enjoy doing this both because it's nice to share the excitement of admission to Harvard and also to connect with someone from your region," Lamar says.
And of course, planning is already taking place for UAC's highest profile program, the pre-frosh weekend in April. The annual extravaganza is the prime opportunity for many accepted students to 'kick the tires' on Harvard.
"These activities are really important," says Wendy Chang '93, the senior admissions officer who coordinates UAC activities. "Prospective students come to visit and admissions officers can talk and talk, but they really value conversations with current students."
And the UAC encourages students to help out.
Lamar says that UAC tables actively at registration, especially to first-years, and that activities are open to students at all times.
Unlocking the Campus
"We give a lot of tours for prospective students--in fact all of them for the admissions office," says Virginia Grace James '00, president of the Crimson Key Society. "Our job is to provide information."
According to James, tour-takers are often more interested in the personal comments and anecdotes of their guides than the campus geography.
"The admissions office runs an info session before they come on our tour where they talk about basic things," James says. "Our tour is so that they can meet a student and really get a student's perspective on anything they want to."
The Key maintains a constitution-mandated membership of 75 students who staff more than 20 admissions office tours each week--in addition to other responsibilities. Vacancies are filled through an advertised competitive application process in March and April.
James emphasizes that everyone who turns in an application gets an interview, but with 200-250 applicants every year, some are bound to come away disappointed. For James, the Key's appeal is obvious.
"I chose to do Crimson Key because I really enjoyed Harvard a lot my first year," James says. "I've always wanted to do tours and I really like talking to people. It's a lot of fun--we don't get paid, people just do it because they want to."
Diversifying the Pool
"Our students can make a difference for diversity in the applicant pool and ultimately in who chooses to come here," Banks says.
The UMRP programs include mailing and phone outreach campaigns, one-on-one correspondence and hosting--all similar to those offered by UAC. But Banks explains that the programs complement each other well.
"We run on the same tracks, but with somewhat different foci. What minority students want to know when all is said and done is what it's like to be a minority student at a majority institution," Banks says. "Lots of students and their families have a full appreciation for the institution and the quality it represents, but they want to know whether, on a daily basis, this is a worthwhile experience for minority students."
The UMRP's most ambitious program sends undergraduates out to spend a week sharing their experiences at Harvard with middle and high school students across the nation.
"Essentially they have to practice the art of recruitment as an admissions officer would," Banks explains. "Usually it means five days a week, at least three schools a day, and obviously a major part of the entire week is having a presentation to offer people . It's a very challenging, very exciting, very demanding, experience."
According to Banks, travelling with the UMRP is one of the deepest and most meaningful commitments to recruiting undergraduates can make.
"It's a huge sacrifice to students, and we're very grateful to the people who choose to make this kind of commitment--it's not easy," Banks says.
A council of 10 students works with Banks to co-ordinate UMRP activities. Two members represent each of five campus ethnic groups: African-American students, Asian-American students, Native-American students, Mexican-American students and other Latin American students.
The representatives work with campus ethnic groups to involve as many students as possible. The process is open rather than competitive, including the travel opportunities.
"The recruiting process really is multi-factorial," Banks says. "No aspect of the recruitment process works in isolation. The minority recruitment program is operating in sync with UAC. The UAC is operating in sync with Crimson Key. What we're doing in Cambridge is operating in sync with what alumni are doing at the precinct level. We're all working to get the very best students to Harvard along the lines of excellence and diversity; diversity of excellence."
Athletic recruiting efforts are a crucial part of maintaining the school's prowess on the game field. Prior to graduating from high school, a large majority of Harvard athletes experience some form of athletic recruitment.
However, unlike other aspects of student involvement in admissions, recruiting is mostly organized and maintained by individual teams and coaches. Athletic recruiting can include combinations of mailings, e-mails, phone calls, and all-expense-paid visits to the campus, subject to NCAA recruiting rules.
Depending on the sport, students support their coach's efforts by corresponding with recruits and hosting prospects for the weekend visits.
Hosting a prospect is a significant commitment. For up to two days, the student-athlete will have a high school shadow--attending classes, eating meals, and going out to social events. Student-athletes often sacrifice their schedules to the burdens of hosting and to the NCAA rules that accompany them.
The NCAA and the Harvard Athletic Department set specific restrictions for these visits. The prospect must be a high school senior who may visit only once for a maximum of 48 hours, and may not consume alcohol during the visit.
However, athletes say that despite the regulations, a visit to Harvard is a crucial selling point. Softball Co-Captain Deborah A. Abeles '00 explains that the trip allows the recruit to see Harvard beyond the brochures and stereotypes.
"We show the prospects around the campus and what everyday student life is like," Abeles says. "How we work, go out, what dorm life is like--we aim to give an honest portrayal of life at Harvard.
Abeles adds that she tries to give recruits an honest impression of the team and the school, rather than actively trying to dispel stereotypes.
"We just try to be ourselves and let the recruit decide if Harvard is the place for her," Abeles says.
In addition to providing an introduction to Harvard, recruiting visits allow prospects to meet the team. Coaches usually schedule entire team meeting during the visits, such as dinners or trips to Boston. By organizing such activities, coaches hope to provide the recruits with a feel for how the team functions together.
"We schedule team events, so the recruit can get to know the team," says Erik M. Binkowski '00, baseball tri-captain. "What impressed me most on my recruiting trip was the closeness of the team."
In luring athletes to attend, Harvard faces strong competition from schools that offer scholarships and other athletic incentives, Binkowski explains.
"We have to compete with schools that offer financial scholarship and have big social scenes," Binkowski says. "In light of that, I try to show recruits what Harvard offers: the educational experience, job prospects after graduation, Boston."
Despite its many disadvantages in athletic recruiting, Harvard continually attracts top-notch recruits. In addition, many current athletes cite their recruiting visits as influential in their decision to attend.
"My recruiting trips were a huge factor in my decisions on schools," Abeles says.
Be All You Can Be
After the prestigious name, one of Harvard's biggest selling points is its diverse and talented student body. Keeping undergraduates intimately involved in the admissions process is the natural way to showcase the College's best asset.
"There is no question in my mind that undergraduates make the best and most credible ambassadors of the institution," Banks says.
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