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For me, December 2019 was the end of an endless cycle of worrying. Worrying about what I wore to my interview at New York’s Harvard Club. Were my answers too short? Too long? Did I sound pretentious? Never mind my interviewers: Would I even want to be my roommate? Questioning whether that B in freshman geometry had already ended my chances at a Harvard education.
Yet, when I opened my application portal and discovered my acceptance, for the first time in years, I wasn’t worried. Unlike thousands of others, I wasn’t left wondering what went wrong or how I could have been a better applicant, a better student, or just simply better. I felt perfectly lucky.
Because I felt confident in my choice to not look back on my life of worrying — to maintain the mystery of my lucky life — I hadn’t been motivated to revisit what had been such a worrisome time in my life, when many of my friends began taking advantage of a 1970s law that enables university students to request their admissions file: the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. However, when members of the Class of 2020 reported that they seemingly got their admissions file uploaded to their my.harvard portals in January, I was overtaken by interest. While I haven’t seen my file, I was eager to speak with others who had to learn what the experience had revealed for them.
Motivated by curiosity, Syd D. Sanders ‘24, a freshman from Belfast, Maine, requested to see his admissions file at the same time as his two roommates. He expected to read anodyne remarks from his admissions officers and a warm report from an interview that in his view went well. The whole ordeal was not supposed to be especially nerve-wracking. After all, in a process where the vast majority of applicants are rejected, he got in. But the experience turned into something else entirely.
While the (written) comments from the admissions officers touched on the parts of his application that he expected, such as his class rank and other parts of his school record, the report from his interviewer was devoted almost entirely to a discussion of Sanders’s identity as a transgender man.
The interviewer wrote in detail about Sanders’s physicality, noting what parts of him appeared more masculine and feminine, and stated that “he could easily be mistaken for a female.” The interviewer also pondered how Syd would appear in a few years, questioning how his roommates and classmates would feel about him, and calling Sanders’s trans identity a “sexual choice.” Syd, who was the first out trans valedictorian in Maine’s history, has experienced transphobia before — but that didn’t make the comments left by his interviewer less hurtful. In his words, when it comes college admissions “people think being a minority is an advantage, but I didn’t feel advantaged.”
The “energy and passions” that Sanders brought to his interview were frequently reduced to cutting remarks about his appearance, which makes him worried about how future trans kids applying to the college may be judged for their identity.
College spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an email that “Harvard Admissions and Financial Aid takes seriously all complaints from applicants and encourages students to bring to our attention directly any concerns they have about their interview.”
Sanders and his roommate requested to see their admissions files and neither expected anything shocking. Yet, unlike Sanders, Scott W. Arbery '24, from Atlanta, Ga. — and Sanders’s roommate — more or less found what he was expecting.
In Arbery’s interviewer’s eyes, he was “nice and normal,” easy to talk to, and well-mannered. She noted that he thanked her several times for making the 45-minute drive to their interview, a tribute to Arbery’s character. And while Arbery thinks the interview process failed his friend, he said he also feels that the more personal aspects of applications deserve a place in our admissions process, despite the biases of interviewers and admissions officers. For him, the college experience is about more than just academics and the coronavirus pandemic has shown him how important community can be.
Partly inspired by reading his own admissions file, Eric J. Cheng ’20, who graduated from Harvard in the midst of the pandemic, quickly volunteered to be an alumni interviewer for applicants from Southern California. As Cheng sees it, he would not have gotten in if not for his interview and thought he could replicate the grace and advocacy his interviewer showed to him when he applied to the college. It was his way to “pay it forward.”
Because Cheng graduated from Harvard so recently, he said he felt uniquely positioned to understand in what ways the college’s culture was failing students who were not white and male. Almost the complete opposite of Syd’s experience, Cheng used his background as a racial minority and member of the BGLTQ community to connect to those he interviewed, all of whom “had some minority status.” Upon finding out that some of his interviewees were accepted, he had an “Oh my God” moment. He was invested in their journeys.
Sanders’s experience uncovering the uglier parts of his admission represents the darker side of a deeply imperfect system.
Speaking with Sanders, Arbery, and Cheng has revealed to me what alumni interviews can do at their best. I feel lucky to go to school with Syd, yet it’s nauseating knowing that his application process was fettered with prejudice.
Though every applicant is more than just a collection of letters and numbers — that thousands of high school students like myself spend endless hours obsessing over — it can be perhaps more unsettling to know some of the most intimate aspects of our identities are being judged by other human beings that may not like what they see. And, as the SFFA v. Harvard lawsuit has elucidated in the case of Asian American applicants, Harvard’s personality scores can absorb biases from society at large and are by no means reflective of objective reality.
The stories of Sanders, Arbery, and Cheng emphasize the immense subjectivity of the college admission process. Contrary to popular belief, there is no “perfect applicant,” and the fates of each applicant come down to the subjective analysis of admissions officers at the Brattle Street office, or now on a Zoom screen. Achievements and personality are translated to the esoteric vernacular of admissions officers carefully crafting Harvard College’s next iteration.
Last week, Harvard, the most selective undergraduate institution in the country as of 2024, announced an even lower admissions rate of only 3.43 percent for the Class of 2025. While I’ll be happy to see those students who choose to make Harvard their home walking around campus next year, it is bittersweet because the majority of applicants who embraced vulnerability, sharing who they are on their applications, will be left wondering what went wrong for them in the cold calculus of college admissions offices.
Unfortunately, there will be no answers for those students, and what amounted to the end of my time worrying may well be a new worry for them. However, as some students who learned what went “right” in their admissions found out, the answers often say more about the people reading applications than those who write them.
Gordon J. Ebanks ’24 is a Crimson Editorial editor. His column normally runs on alternate Mondays.
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