Who Gets Into Harvard?

Does a student need perfection? Not necessarily.
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College Coach

Great question! Harvard recently announced that nearly 40,000 students applied for admission to the class of 2021. On March 30, they’ll notify applicants of their decisions, and here’s where the news gets even worse: of that almost 40,000, Harvard only has room to enroll about 1,670 of them. That’s right, 1,670.

And Harvard is not alone with its low acceptance rate. All of the other institutions that make up the Ivy League, and a few other highly selective universities like Stanford, Caltech, and MIT, are putting up similar application numbers and selecting very few of those students.

I do have a tiny ray of good news: based on my experience as an admissions officer at Penn, and my colleagues’ experiences doing the same work at Columbia, Stanford, Yale, MIT, Cornell, Caltech, and Harvard, among others, not all 40,000 of those applicants are super competitive for Harvard. Unfortunately lack of competitiveness doesn’t mean they’re not really smart and reasonably accomplished. It’s just that in applicant pools of this size and quality, there is a big difference between the ability to do the work and getting in.

The space between ability and acceptance is where all the confusion and unknown lies. It’s why most high school students who hoped to be in that group enrolling at Harvard or another highly selective college this fall are getting bad news this spring.

These are good students getting good grades. They’re smart, they have extracurricular activities, and they really, really want to go. So they and their parents either ignore the odds or dismiss them as applying to applicants other than themselves.

How can you avoid their fate in the college admissions process and more accurately evaluate your chances of getting in? Start by asking the right questions.

Can I get into Harvard?

Wrong question! The real first question to ask is: Am I the top student in my class?

I don’t mean the top based strictly on GPA. I mean the top based on both grades and challenging coursework. Have you taken the most rigorous curriculum available at your school? That typically means sticking with all five subjects—specifically math, science, history/social science, English, and foreign language—all four years, and going to the highest level available in each by the time you are a senior.

At many schools, that will involve going to the Advanced Placement, or AP, level in all five areas. At others it might mean pursuing the full International Baccalaureate, or IB, Diploma. It might be defined by some designation that your school has developed if they offer neither AP nor IB. Whatever the most challenging is—you need to be doing it.

And of course, you need to be doing well in that curriculum. Well almost always means A’s. Not A-‘s. Not a combination of A’s and B’s. A’s.

Are there schools where the very top students might only have an A- average? Yes. Does this describe most high schools here in the US? No.

Are there schools in the US and abroad in which strong performance is indicated in different ways? Yes. If you attend a high school that grades on an 11 point scale, for example, and the very top students are getting 10.5’s in their classes, then that’s what the most selective universities will expect. You can apply that logic to your institution if they grade differently than just A+, A, A-, etc.

But whatever is considered the best, that’s where you need to be. If there is grade deflation and you’re getting A’s and B+’s, that might be fine. But if a handful of students in the most rigorous curriculum are getting A’s despite the grade inflation, then you are not one of the top students in your class, and you are not going to be competitive.

This is the moment when I typically get a barrage of questions like: What if I decided to drop foreign language once I fulfilled my high school’s requirement and doubled up on science instead? What if I’m a straight A student now, but I was more of an A/B student in ninth and tenth grade? What if I have a few B’s every year but I’m doing something really interesting outside the classroom?

My response here is that there will always be exceptions, but they almost definitely won’t apply to you. So if you are trying to assess your chances of getting into an Ivy League college, take me at my word. It is generally not okay to drop one of the five major core areas. It is generally not okay to lack consistency in your grades. It is generally not acceptable to balance out weaker performance with some appealing extras.

You’ll note that my question actually asks, “Am I the top student in my class.” Not one of the top, but the top. When is it okay to be one of the top? If you attend a particularly strong high school that sends five to ten or more students to a range of Ivy and highly selective colleges each year, then it is okay to be among the top group—but you still need to be in that top group. If only one or two (or fewer) are going on to Ivy League schools from your high school, then I mean THE top student in your class.

Is there room for a B or two? Yes. Does a student need perfection? Not necessarily. Is dropping in one area to double up in another the kiss of death? The decision never comes down to one curriculum choice, so no. But presenting a competitive application at the most selective level comes down to a series of decisions made along the way. In the end, it will all add up to a very compelling application, or to one that falls short.

Next up: standardized testing, otherwise known as, what scores do I need to get into an Ivy?