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Harvard Admissions Dean Touts ‘Transparency’ as Peer Institutions Hide Acceptance Rates

William R. Fitzsimmons '67 has served as Harvard's Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid since 1986.
William R. Fitzsimmons '67 has served as Harvard's Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid since 1986. By Julian J. Giordano
By Rahem D. Hamid and Nia L. Orakwue, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard College Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 said in an interview last Thursday that the College is committed to “transparency” in releasing admissions statistics.

Fitzsimmons said he believes it is important for applicants to apply to Harvard with an understanding of the College’s competitive admissions process, even as a number of peer institutions — including the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, and Princeton — have opted against sharing acceptance rates with the public in recent years.

The College has continued to reveal its perennially low acceptance figures, however, including a Class of 2027 early admissions acceptance rate that fell to 7.56 percent.

“We certainly believe in transparency and also just the idea that people would have a clearer sense of exactly what it is to apply to Harvard,” he said.

With the College facing a deluge of applications every year — including a record-breaking number of applicants to the Class of 2026 — Fitzsimmons said the admissions office aims to “encourage people who are realistic applicants.”

“We don’t want people, for their own sake, limiting themselves early,” Fitzsimmons said. “Maybe they’d be — they’re a little less competitive — better off applying early somewhere else and then taking a shot at a very competitive place.”

Fitzsimmons also discussed the following topics:

Early Action and Yield Rates

The Harvard College Class of 2026 faced a 7.9 percent early admissions rate and a record-low 3.2 percent regular decision rate, consistent with nationwide trends suggesting higher odds for acceptance in the early admissions cycle. Still, according to Fitzsimmons, applicants in both pools are held to the same standards.

“We make sure that as we admit people early that we’re 100 percent certain that these people would be admitted at the end of March,” Fitzsimmons said. “And that’s really the sole criteria.”

The College has also seen rising yield rates over the decades: 84 percent of the Class of 2026 opted to attend Harvard, up from 76 percent of the Class of 1996. Harvard’s yield figures are consistently above those of peer schools.

“It means that the admissions office has to be more and more careful in not sending out too many admits,” Fitzsimmons said.

Some admissions offices track a metric called “demonstrated interest,” which can include campus visits, emails with admissions officers, and social media interactions. All Ivy League institutions say they do not consider demonstrated interest in their admissions processes, though the factor can give applicants to some other schools a leg up.

Fitzsimmons said Harvard does not plan to track demonstrated interest, despite the challenges posed by rising yield rates to predicting class sizes, because it is “too variable.” Utilizing the waitlist would “in theory” be a better way to fill classes, according to Fitzsimmons.

“You’re better off leaving plenty of room as it were,” Fitzsimmons said. “We would love to admit 40, 50, 60 people off the waitlist every year. And that would be terrific.”

Test Optional

The College’s applicant pool has exploded in recent years, which Fitzsimmons attributed partially to the switch to test-optional admissions through the Class of 2030 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Class of 2026 faced the College’s largest ever applicant pool, with more than 61,000 students vying for a coveted slot. The Class of 2024, the last class required to submit test scores, was selected from an applicant pool of approximately 40,000.

Despite the change, Fitzsimmons says the admissions process has gone on “pretty much as expected.”

“We talked a lot — in fact, a lot publicly — about looking at the whole person, and people somehow think that if you don’t have test scores it’s very hard to evaluate an application, but you have teacher reports, you have grades,” he said. “There’s an enormous amount of academic information.”

Improving Access

Fitzsimmons called Zoom “an enormous help in recruiting” but added that it is not accessible for every applicant, noting that the admissions office is continuing efforts to reach students who may not have access to broadband internet, especially in rural areas.

“We read it in essays – people talk about how they had homework assignments, they had no internet access on the farm,” Fitzsimmons said.

While Fitzsimmons said the College is “making progress” in terms of recruiting, there are still challenges ahead, including expected volatility in the number of high school seniors in the United States.

“It goes down dramatically in 2026, goes up a little bit in 2032, but it goes way down after that essentially for the foreseeable future,” Fitzsimmons said.

Fitzsimmons also said Covid-19 has created a “knowledge gap” between students from high-income and low-income backgrounds due to inequities in educational opportunities during the pandemic.

The College aims to “double down” on recruitment messaging to students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, Fitzsimmons said.

“The power of recruiting tools today is much greater than it was even five or 10 years ago,” Fitzsimmons said. “I’m very optimistic, actually. But that isn’t to say that, especially in poor parts of the country and the world, that there aren’t huge challenges.”

No Plans To Retire

Despite some challenges, Fitzsimmons said “the future looks exciting” for admissions.

Fitzsimmons has served as the College’s dean of admissions for 36 years and worked in admissions for five decades, but he said he has no plans to step down.

“I will live forever,” he joked.

—Staff writer Rahem D. Hamid can be reached at rahem.hamid@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Nia L. Orakwue can be reached at nia.orakwue@thecrimson.com.

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