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Past and Future ‘Merit’ in College

By Michelle I. Gao, Contributing Opinion Writer

From the time I learned that a student could exercise the right to look at her admissions file, I have wanted to peek behind the curtain of Harvard admissions. So against the advice of this newspaper’s Editorial Board, I filed a viewing request, waited 36 days until my appointment, and sat for 30 minutes in a conference room with a notebook, a pen, and my mysterious file.

Obviously I knew the admissions office’s final decision, but I wanted to see their steps along the way. What were their impressions of me? How were they evaluating me? I knew that their deliberation would not purely be one of merit. The myth of “meritocracy” in college admissions, particularly in Harvard’s admissions, has been debunked. There are the suspicious stories of famous, seemingly less-than-qualified candidates gaining acceptance over others. There are also the suspiciously similar admit rates for certain demographics each year.

But even if college admissions are not a true meritocracy, it does not mean that the concept of merit has been completely abandoned. When reading my admissions file, I found myself considering who exactly merited my admission, though. Me? Or the person in my file, who was not quite the same?

My file contained lines my interviewer quoted from me—lines I remembered preparing in advance. I apparently justified my aspiration to be a journalist with the reasoning, “Words have power.” I imagine I would have had to be deeply terrified and desperate to utter such a trite phrase with a straight face. Further on, my interviewer noted that I explained why I applied for a job at a museum by saying that I wanted to challenge myself to improve my public speaking skills. The statement was not exactly false, because my public speaking skills had been worse before, and the job had helped me improve. But I had thought it would be a good line, a smoothing-over of my personal narrative, and I delivered it right on cue during my interview.

One of my application readers imagined a possible mathematical future for me at the College, as evidenced from my calculus teacher’s recommendation. Here, I am sorry to disappoint. I have not taken a math class in college yet—not so much as dropped by one during Shopping Week. Indeed, I increasingly hope never to have to do so. Instead, I merely let my TI-84 graphing calculator gather dust on my desk.

As for other predictions of my future life at Harvard, I am gladly fulfilling the one that I would work on various publications, even at this moment. Interestingly enough, my interviewer also predicted that I would be an “avid participant” of the Phillips Brooks House Association. While I am a member of a PBHA program, I would not count myself an “avid” one. I especially pale in comparison to the many peers I know who dedicate much more time, effort, and genuine heart into their community service activities.

So how do I reconcile these two people—the person that the officers and interviewer assessed and admitted, and the person now attending Harvard? This question of merit grows more complex with each action the second person makes.

Admissions officers judge one’s merit by looking at one’s past accomplishments and circumstances. But merit is not just about one’s past—it is about one’s future potential. Prior success only matters in so far as it suggests that one can achieve even more success with access to the Harvard community and the Harvard name. That’s why the admissions file contains numbers predicting one’s viability as a roommate, contribution to college life, intellectual originality, and more. They want to quantify potential, distill it into some easy-to-read numbers, because this is the crucial measure.

But because merit is about potential, the success of judging by merit—whether one actually merited what one got—can only be assessed in hindsight. It will not be the person in the admissions file, or even the person in the college classroom, who determines merit. It is the person that one becomes from going through college, from living in the “real” world, which is more ruled by meritocracy than elite universities, who will determine whether the admission was justified.

Discussions of merit should therefore take the long-term view. We in the College are still in the short-term, though—the verdict on our “merit” is still out. So while I encourage those who want to look at their admissions file and satiate their curiosity to do so, I do not believe one should linger on it too long. For me, at least, regardless of what exactly got me here, I continuously work toward a future in which I can say I merited what I got.

Michelle I. Gao ’21, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Weld Hall. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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