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Harvard Redacts Most Sensitive Admissions Details in Court Filings

The College's admissions office is located on 86 Brattle Street.
The College's admissions office is located on 86 Brattle Street. By Jacqueline S. Chea
By Caroline S. Engelmayer, Crimson Staff Writer

Hundreds of pages of court filings made public last week revealed previously unknown details of the process by which Harvard admissions officers rank applicants—but withheld certain information, including the “distinguishing excellences” that the College looks for in top students.

Documents penned by the University’s lawyers and a Harvard-paid expert contain over 20 redacted references to information about the admissions process, including the qualifications or traits that will earn applicants high marks from the admissions committee.

Friday’s filings mark the latest development in a lawsuit alleging Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans in its admissions process. Anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions first filed the lawsuit in 2014.

In a brief filed in March, lawyers for the University argued that revealing “highly proprietary” details could compromise the College’s admissions system.

“Publicizing this information would cause applicants and college consultants to seek to orient their applications to what they perceive Harvard wants, to the detriment of the authenticity of the information Harvard receives and its ability to make its best judgments,” that briefing reads.

Last Friday’s filings—which outline what Harvard considers undisputed facts in the case and argue that the University does not discriminate against Asian-American College hopefuls—reveal that admissions officers assign applicants scores ranging from “1” to “6” in approximately 14 categories, including academic achievement, extracurricular involvement, athletic prowess, strength of character, teacher recommendations, counselor recommendations, and “personal” and “overall” ratings. “1” is the highest possible score a candidate can receive in each category.

Lawyers redacted sections of filings outlining what specific qualities or achievements allow candidates to garner a “1” in categories including academics and extracurriculars. But Harvard left unredacted some descriptions of the ratings system.

The documents report that an applicant who receives a “1” academic rating usually “has submitted academic work of some kind that is reviewed by a faculty member,” but redacted a more detailed description of what constitutes a “1.” A candidate with a “2+” academic rating typically has “perfect, or near-perfect, grades and testing, but no evidence of substantial scholarship or academic creativity,” per the documents.

Lawyers redacted information about what constitutes a “1” in extracurriculars, although they left visible guidelines about who typically receives a “2”: someone who has “significant school, and possibly regional accomplishments,” like a student who is “student body president or captain of the debate team and the leader of multiple additional clubs.”

Harvard’s redactions not only included guidelines about how to grade applicants, but also numerous quotes from the Casebook Discussion Guide and Interviewer Handbook—training aids used to teach admissions officers how to evaluate Harvard hopefuls. In one instance, Harvard’s lawyers write that a “variety of examples from applications in the Casebook” demonstrate “the wide variety of factors Harvard considers in order to distinguish among the many academically strong candidates in its pool.”

Although the document goes on to list some of these factors, direct quotes from the Casebook are redacted.

Other redacted filings included do not seem to include sensitive material about Harvard’s admissions process but rather personal details of students whose unsuccessful applications form the basis for the lawsuit. In more than 10 places throughout the filings, names of candidates whose admissions files were specifically mentioned as part of the suit are blacked out.

Lawyers from Harvard and SFFA conferred to determine which portions of the documents to redact before submitting their filings Friday—and it is possible that Judge Allison D. Burroughs could decide to remove some of the redactions in the future.

A filing submitted jointly by Harvard and SFFA dictates that, if the parties cannot agree whether to redact certain parts of the filings, the Court must decide. Burroughs could choose to remove redactions from some of the material that Harvard or SFFA blacked out, if the other side argues it should not be redacted.

The lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in October. Although both sides asked Burroughs to issue a summary judgment beforehand, many experts—and Burroughs herself—have said that is unlikely.

—Staff writer Caroline S. Engelmayer can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @cengelmayer13.

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