Harvard Attracts More Potential Engineers

Though aspiring Harvard students may spend this week mired in uncertainty as they wait for admission decisions on April 1, one thing is almost certain: more admitted students than ever before will come to Harvard with the hope of pursuing engineering and applied science.

Cited by Harvard Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 as one of three central trends driving an increase in applications to Harvard, the rise in applicants interested in these fields has been all but meteoric since the establishment of an independent School of Engineering and Applied Sciences almost three years ago.

Previously, when SEAS was still the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the number of applicants interested in engineering held steady at about 2,500 each year. But over the course of the next three years, the admissions committee has seen a 68 percent surge in applicants who list their primary interest as engineering sciences, during a period in which the total number of applicants to Harvard has risen by about only 11 percent.

The increase, while significant, is not wholly unexpected. The College admissions staff has maintained a concerted effort to publicize the creation of SEAS, striving to dispel the notion that Harvard is primarily a school for the liberal arts, according to Fitzsimmons. This undertaking—coming at a time when national interest in science and technology is rising—appears to have been successful.

But the increase in applicants—and thus, potential concentrators—will challenge SEAS in new ways. While SEAS Dean Cherry A. Murray detailed plans to expand the engineering school during an “All-Hands” Meeting earlier this month, she also noted that the school’s space was already “severely constrained.”

“Any future growth will be done in such a way to ensure we can support the increase in the number of students,” Murray said in an e-mailed statement. ‘We plan to grow without growing apart.”


Harvard has aggressively advertised the new opportunities offered by the creation of SEAS in its on-campus information sessions and in its outreach efforts to high schools in dozens of cities across the country, according to Fitzsimmons.

“Basically any time we saw students, we talked about the new school,” Fitzsimmons says. He adds that the recent creation of majors in Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology and Biomedical Engineering gave admissions officers additional talking points to entice students interested in applied science.

“There are lots of people who have this outdated stereotype of Harvard as pretty much humanities and social science,” Fitzsimmons says. “It obviously attracts everybody to have strong engineering. It’s a huge asset.”

Prior to the creation of SEAS, engineering concentrators studied within the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, which Computer Science professor and former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 describes as “halfway between a department and a school.”

As Lewis explains, the 2008 chartering of SEAS broadly increased awareness of engineering at Harvard. And because Harvard does not consider engineering applicants separately—unlike other colleges including Cornell and Columbia—the creation of SEAS allowed Harvard to offer the unique opportunity to study engineering within an independent school without having to make a decisive career choice as a high school senior.

“Harvard has the advantage that to be an engineer here, you simply apply to be a student at Harvard College, with all of the other resources that Harvard College students have,” Lewis says.

At the same that the admissions office has been advertising SEAS, individuals within the school itself have worked to increase the visibility of Harvard engineering and the various research projects undertaken in the field.

According to former Dean of SEAS Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti, the establishment of the school allowed for greater outreach efforts to potential students through the SEAS Communications Office. These efforts included redesigning the official Web site, hosting Web chats, and calling high school seniors.


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