I once answered a question on Quora about Yale, so pretty much every day I receive a email asking to answer the question “How do I get into Yale?” from some exotic resident of the remote Third World.
Clearly, the mysteries of elite Ivy League admissions are an intriguing topic these days all over the world.
I ran into a Quora posting this morning from a U. Chicago guy named Hasnat, quoting an anonymous Harvard 2006 graduate who had worked in the Harvard Admissions Office.
I thought it pretty accurately captured a home truth applicable to Yale as well, that, beyond grades and test scores (which had better be high), they are looking for a certain kind of exceptionality and competitiveness. They want people out of the ordinary.
I think you need to join Quora and all that to open a link, so I cut-and-pasted the whole bloody thing to make life easier for NYM readers.
[A] little bit of advice.
â€œFirst of all, there are a number of small factors that can move the admissions needle in small amounts: location, economic background, race. You can just accept that these exist and don’t really count for muchâ€”a slight counterbalance to the general advantages that wealthier folks tend to enjoy as a rule. Or you can spend millions of dollars on lawyers and consultants, and hundreds of hours fighting in court in order to claw back this tiny little potential advantage from those in the lower half of the socioeconomic spectrum.
â€œEither way, these are things beyond your control, and I’d recommend not worrying about them. Frankly, it’s the cheaper and quicker option.
â€œOtherwise, the official party line, as taken verbatim from Harvard’s longtime Dean of Admissions, William Fitzsimmons (class of 1963, dean since 1986) is that Harvard selects for “academic excellence, extracurricular distinction, and personal qualities.” And that sounds goodâ€”who doesn’t love excellence?â€”until you think about it.
â€œWhat Dean Fitzsimmons really means is that he isn’t going to tell you anything substantial (that’s why he’s lasted for so long in his job). So I will tell you that in this context, measuring “academic excellence” really boils down to two things: Will this applicant graduate on time and happy?
â€œPure intelligence is one part, hence the focus on scores and GPAs. Harvard is difficult, and someone who has never seen a differential equation will probably struggle in the basic required math courses; isomeone who has never read a Steinbeck novel or a Shakespeare play will probably feel excluded from general English Lit.
â€œBut so is extracurricular activity. You might be smart, but do you have the discipline to keep going for four years? How do you respond to setbacks, challenges, opposition? Do you show signs of life in the wider world? In short: are you of sound mind?
â€œThe 4.0 student who just works the ball-washing station at the country club does not necessarily demonstrate great time-management skills. On the other hand, we’ll take the person who has an A-minus GPA but spends most of her free time in a research lab breeding generations of flies for genetic tests, thank you very much. This is why admissions officers will say “well-rounded” until they’re blue in the face. There’s nothing wrong with plain old eggheadsâ€”but let’s try and get out there once in a while, too.
â€œAnd when the committee selects for the mysterious and ephemeral “personal qualities,” well, we want to know how much of a jerk the candidate is, and how well they’ll respond to a campus full of jerks.
â€œLet’s be honest: Harvard and its affiliates will inflict some kind of damage (academic, emotional, occasionally physical) on everyone who lingers there. It is a place where everyone is out to get everyone else. In a place where no one can be the best at everything, everyone takes any chance they can get to measure up to their peers. It is a mob of ruthless young overachievers with a taste for blood.
â€œAyn Rand, eat your heart out. Your Objectivist paradise is alive and well, and its name is Harvard. Here, people believe that each of them is a “heroic being,” that their individual happiness is a moral absolute, that their own reason is ironclad and incorruptible. Just look at what four years of that does to a person. Never mind the outliers like Mark Zuckerberg and Ted Kaczynski. You just need to look at the offices of Wall Street investment banks (where half of the graduating class of Harvard ends up every year). Or the op-ed pages of New York newspapers. Or the halls of Congress (one shudders at the thought).
â€œSo, as far as I’m concerned, you may as well start toughening up as soon as you can, because the world isn’t going to wait for you.
â€œSometimes this toughness comes through in the application proper. Were you an award-winning debater? Did you write snippy op-eds in the paper? Did you muscle out people with Ph.D.s to get a second author on a scientific paper? Have you had to endure a lifetime of pressure from your legacy parents, warning you that if you don’t get in, you’ll be disinherited? Congratulations. You’re in.
â€œBut if the force of your pushy little personality fails to shine through in the rest of the application, then I have to try and draw it out in the interview. It’s not psychoanalysis by any stretch. I just want to hear that you like certain things and dislike others, that you’ve run into obstacles and heard the word “no” on occasion. Don’t tell me everything is great, because it’s not. Don’t tell me everything is terrible, because it isn’t. And most of all, prove to me that you’ve spent some time thinking about a big brand-name in education, and what it can do just for you.
Then I can give you a strong recommendation.
â€œIn my admissions tenure, I’ve learned to understand the process as the soft con that it is. On the one hand, it’s utterly opaque and more than a little arbitrary. On the other hand, it has huge consequences for the tens of thousands of young people who get sucked into it every year, and for the multi-billion-dollar institutions that live off of those students’ money. And throughout the whole process are the unpaid, underappreciated, probably not impartial people like me, who get to make a lot of questionably appropriate, marginally legal, rational-until-it’s-totally-arbitrary decisions. It makes very few people look good, but makes a lot of people pretty rich.
â€œI’ve endured year after year of privileged sameness, with no sign of the non-millionaires whom I wanted to help. Exactly once I was assigned a candidate who came from the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. But his GPA and SAT scores were close to the cutoff for “not recommended,” and when I asked him questionsâ€”about school, sports, family, TV, whateverâ€”his answers lasted barely five seconds. When I asked him why he wanted to go to Harvard, he shrugged and said, “Dunno.”
â€œIn spite of all that, I made good on this one chance I had been given to help someone who didn’t have all the advantages of his applicant peers. I put him in the “acceptable but perhaps not competitive” category and gave him a tentative thumbs-up.
â€œWeeks later, when the acceptance lists came out from our region, I didn’t see his name. Later, in June, the interviewers from my region got a gentle reminder from my Schools Committee chair: as much as we might like to give a boost to underprivileged (if less-competitive) candidates, it was our job to evaluate, not advocate. Best to leave that sort of adjustment to the professionals.
â€œSo in the grand scheme of things, I realized I was powerless to say no to those who were only marginally deserving of an Ivy League spot, and completely unequipped to find those who could make the most of a top-shelf education but who never even thought to ask for one. Instead of giving people a boost on the ladder to upward mobility, I felt that I was simply there to make sure the children of the upper class stayed in the virtuous cycle that would keep them in the upper class. And there’s no point in staying in a volunteer job that brings you nothing but frustration.
â€œTrue, I could always parlay my “expertise” into a college counseling business. After all, people with thinner credentials than mine do it all the timeâ€”why not make a buck myself? But that would be crossing the Rubicon. The point at which you use applicants as sales leadsâ€”your “in” to thousands of dollars of their parents’ moneyâ€”is the point at which you can no longer claim any pretense of helping applicants, period.
â€œSo instead, I’m hanging up my admissions-representative blazer and trying not to make anything actively worse. I hope to succeed.â€
Anonymous is a 2006 graduate of Harvard College.