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An Asian-American Athlete’s Application to Harvard

Much ado about nothing

Admissions Files

My curiosity got the better of me a month ago, and I emailed a request to the Harvard FAS Registrar’s Office to view my admissions file. I figured that with only one semester left in my college career here, I’d be distant enough from my application process and freshman “community conversations” about imposter syndrome to handle any brutally honest comments about my application from the admission department. Of course, the continuing saga of the Students for Fair Admissions lawsuit against Harvard also only piqued my curiosity.

To be perfectly honest, I did not necessarily enter the viewing room last week with the best of intentions. I was searching for a scrap of evidence that my race or status as a recruited athlete overshadowed the rest of my application, with which I could write a scathing column. Ultimately, I was underwhelmed by the assessment in my file. But what was I expecting? A handwritten comment in the margins of my Common Application standardized test score section saying, “scores not quite high enough for an Asian, but good enough for an athlete”?

I chide myself now for my ill-conceived expectations. Even though the admissions trial has shed a bright light on the mysterious 1 to 6 ranking system and evaluation process, there were still several markings I could not identify the meaning of. The only substantive assessments accessible were comments from my alumni and on-campus interviews. These certainly carried no explicit acknowledgement of the racial tinge that both sides of the trial seem to imagine heavily color every application, but unsurprisingly my interviewers acknowledged that I was being actively recruited by the rugby coach.

I was left wondering if perhaps the whole trial affair isn’t just a lot of sound and fury. Admittedly, my mixed Asian-white ethnic and racial background hasn’t had the same influence on my lived experiences that it’s had for some of my peers. I shouldn’t be surprised that it didn’t figure very strongly in my application. But I also know, thanks to some surprisingly excellent Crimson reporting, that there was still more to my admissions process than what I could see in that slim folder. I’ll never be privy to those closed-door committee discussions or votes where more unpacking of status and qualifications take place.

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Perhaps the most valuable part of this experience was a reminder that my admissions readers and evaluators have initials and names, and live real lives. As I read their comments, I didn’t feel like the abstraction of “Harvard” in all its overwhelming weight and legacy was scrutinizing me with a magnifying glass in an austere admissions court. Rather, real people with names were basically filling out a form, a strangely comforting sense of personal bureaucracy that felt very different from the admissions trial’s rhetoric.

Don’t get me wrong: I still don’t believe for a second that the admissions process doesn’t somehow move the goalposts for applicants based on various labels and statuses. If anything, this trial has revealed what we already all knew to be true — that college admissions is nothing but a crapshoot for most people. But I believe it is possible for us to think too much of central figureheads, to improperly personify an institution or idea into something it is not.

What do I mean by this? Well, when we speak in such generalized nothingburgers such as “Harvard is committed to diversity” or “Harvard under-resources this-or-that interest group,” we seem to envision some omnipotent master “Harvard”-planner pushing buttons and pulling levers to nefariously alter the balance of power and resources on this campus. If our demands and agenda are heard, we have found favor with the all-powerful brain; if they aren’t, the powers that be are clearly conspiring against us.

The reality is surely much more mundane. I often joke to my friends at dinner (usually followed by groans) that mid-level bureaucrats are the ones who really run the world. It’s not as if University President Lawrence S. Bacow or Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana are personally reading applications or approving funding for student groups. The middling Office of Student Life administrators, a cohort of very normal admissions officers, the likes of DMV clerks and the IRS, and other oft-faceless rubber-stamp bureaucrats who are just trying to do their jobs and stay in their administrative lanes — these are the ones who have a much more measurable impact on our lives.

I struggle to believe that most large institutions like Harvard, with its countless demands of routine administrative machinery, can actually enact something like the master scheme to reward or punish chosen groups we seem to imagine it has. If anything, viewing my admissions file was a reassuring yet somewhat haunting reminder of the human nature of institutions.

Grace M. Chao ’19 is an Economics concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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