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How A High-Profile Lawsuit Compelled Harvard To Lift The Veil On Their Own Admissions Practices

by Jay Choi

High school seniors from all over the world have always wondered, what exactly happens to their college application AFTER they’ve nervously hit the “send” button?

Normally, when the inner-workings of a college admissions office are revealed, it is by a “former application reader” who promises to “lift the veil” on the holistic process. These are heavily guarded secrets, and we are often only given bits and pieces to a rubric we know exists, but never had a chance to see.

That is, unless we are speaking of Harvard University, who is currently being sued for alleged racially discriminatory practices within their application review process.

Through a legal process called “discovery,” anyone defending itself from a lawsuit is compelled by the court to reveal certain material information requested by the other side.

In this case, when an advocacy group on behalf of Asian American students are alleging that they are being racially discriminated against by Harvard’s admissions practices, the information Harvard is compelled to reveal may “lift the veil” on their admissions process like never before.

And just like that, we are given an unprecedented inside-look into how Harvard’s admissions office currently sorts through its 42,749 applications (Class of 2022), straight from the horse’s mouth. This, in turn, allows us to pore through the documents with a high degree of confidence in its credibility.

Which is exactly what we did.

For the purposes of this entry, we will focus mostly on Harvard’s own legal filings (as opposed to the plaintiffs’ filings), by scrutinizing the specific words with which Harvard chose to reveal this information. We paid close attention to the ‘redacted’ portions of their filings, as Harvard thought such information so sensitive, they received permission from the court to blackout certain parts of their legal filings. Their argument was, that if they had to publicly reveal THIS much about how they grade the applications, high school seniors may model/manipulate their application profiles in ways that may not be productive for all involved.

I) First, The Basics

At Harvard, every application is evaluated according to 4 major categories:

A) Academic

B) Extracurricular

C) Athletic

D) Personal

An application reader assigns a rating for each of the above categories on a 1-5 scale (1 being the highest). These ratings contribute to an “overall” rating (NOT a simple average of the individual category ratings), which is key in determining whether a student would be offered acceptance to Harvard that fall.

As depicted in the table below, during the admission cycles from 2014-2019, 100% of students that received an overall rating of “1” would be offered admission to Harvard. In contrast, 74% of students that received an overall rating in the “2” range were accepted, and that number drops to 3.97% if the overall rating was a “3.”

Of course, it is not exactly earth-shattering news that Harvard has a rating system of some kind to sort through its thousands of applications. When we take a closer look at the accompanying language that Harvard uses to elaborate upon this rubric, some hints and details start to emerge as to what exactly Harvard is looking for when it peruses through a student’s application file.

II) In Their Own Words (and Redactions)

1) Overall Philosophy: “Distinguishing Excellences”

Harvard describes its overall admission philosophy as one searching for “distinguishing excellences” within an application. While Harvard redacts its description of what “distinguishing excellences” exactly entail, we can gather from other information they do reveal as to what this may or may not be.

For instance, is it perfect standardized test scores?

For the class of 2019, nearly 1000 applicants had perfect test scores, 361 for ACT and 361 for SAT. As you will see below, a “perfect or near-perfect” standardized test score would typically result in a “2” Academic Rating - meaning that while it is a significant metric Harvard considers, it is clearly not what it considers to be the most important academic trait in an applicant.

What, then, would be important indicators of “distinguishing excellences,” in Harvard’s opinion?

2) Academic Rating: “Substantial Scholarship or Academic Creativity”

Harvard redacts its description of what may constitute a “1” Academic Rating, but does go on to say that a student that receives a “1” Academic Rating has typically “submitted academic work of some kind that is reviewed by a faculty member,” such as “an academic paper” or “a recording of a musical performance.”

On the other hand, a student that receives a “2” Academic Rating has typically had “perfect or near-perfect, grades, and testing, but no evidence of substantial scholarship or academic creativity.”

Based on this description, we learn that Harvard is looking for tangible academic or extracurricular ‘products’ possibly in the form of a recording or a written paper, that indicates a level of scholarship or academic creativity that goes beyond the typical classroom assignment. They specifically mention multiple times in their legal filings the significance of a student submitting work that may be “reviewed by a faculty member.”

It appears, then, that the quickest way to Harvard’s heart is not necessarily perfect SAT scores or the 4.5 GPA, but an accomplished work of scholarship or artistic vision that can stand on its own, that distinguishes the applicant in ways that test scores or grades cannot.

3) Extracurricular & Athletic Rating: “Significant School and Regional Achievements”

Harvard also redacts its description of what constitutes a “1” Extracurricular Rating, but does offer some hints in its (unredacted) explanations of what goes into a “2” Extracurricular Rating.

A student that receives a “2” Extracurricular Rating has “significant school, and possibly regional accomplishments,” and could be, for example, a “student body president, or captain of the debate team, and the leader of multiple additional clubs.”

Thus, we can infer that a student that receives the coveted “1” rating in this category likely has statewide or national achievements to boast of - perhaps in an academic competition like USACO or the AMC Math Competition, or has received recognition of athletic/extracurricular achievements that go beyond the local or regional level.

4) Personal Rating: Harvard’s Preferred Attributes

The Personal Rating is both the most abstract and amorphous category within Harvard’s Admissions Rubric, as well as the most controversial and hotly debated category within the context of the lawsuit (the plaintiffs’ expert contended that Asian American applicants seemed to consistently score lower on this category as a whole, compared to applicants of other ethnicities).

The Personal Rating consists of a composite review of essays, letters of recommendation, alumni interview reports, and relevant information of personal and family hardships.

While the nature of this category lends itself to a more imprecise description of what constitutes a “1” rating, Harvard offers the following attributes as ones it prizes most of all: “humor, sensitivity, grit, leadership, integrity, helpfulness, courage, kindness.”

At the very least, this list of attributes can serve as guideposts for the college application essay - as any personal narrative that directly addresses one or more of the above values would likely catch an application reader’s attention.

III) How Does This Apply To You?

While the information we discuss here is specific to Harvard, we can assume that its insights would be applicable to most admissions processes at highly competitive colleges and universities throughout the country.

The key is not to treat these guiding principles as “rules” to an “admissions game” that we must reluctantly play - but to treat them as guidelines in pursuing each student’s own passions in an organic way. It should not be our goal to artificially create the appearance of “Substantial Scholarship or Academic Creativity” - but to do so within the confines of the student’s natural interests, both academic and extracurricular.

It is certainly true that while all this is interesting, the information from these legal filings can feel a bit abstract to the typical high school student’s family. How can this information be used to best position YOU for success as you navigate your way through your high school career?

For a more thorough discussion about specific ways in which we at Enlighteens Education apply this information to guide our students, please join us for a free informational seminar at the Pleasanton Library on August 17th, Friday @ 2pm - 5pm.

We hope to see you there!

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