If you’re not following the Harvard trial (Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard), you’re missing out on one of the most important events in the world of US college admissions in years. A decision has not yet been reached in the trial, but it has already impacted Harvard’s admissions and, consequently, the field of college admissions more broadly. This post will do three things. First, it will break down exactly what the trial is about. Second, it will take an inside look at some of Harvard’s most heavily guarded admissions secrets and provide recommendations for what you can do to best increase your chances of getting into Harvard. Lastly, it will take a broader look at how Harvard has changed its processes since the trial.
1. The Basics of the Trial
There are many stellar summaries of the trial out there already (here are links to some articles that we recommend), so we’re not going to reinvent the wheel here. Instead, we’ll give a breakdown of the basics.
Students for Fair Admissions is suing Harvard College, claiming that its admissions policies discriminate against Asian-American students. Students for Fair Admissions is not an Asian-American organization, but is run by conservative activist Edward Blum whose goal is to dismantle affirmative action in America. His organization previously represented Abigail Fisher in the 2016 case that made it to the Supreme Court (where he ultimately lost), alleging that the University of Texas discriminated against white students.
For those who don’t follow this world too closely, affirmative action in the context of college admissions means that colleges can consider race as one factor in the college admissions process in order to benefit underrepresented minorities. The idea behind affirmative action was to make college admissions more equitable. Part of the reasoning behind it is that the college admissions process as a whole has historically favored wealthier students, who tend to be predominantly white. This is still, unfortunately, the case. Funding for public schools is linked to property taxes in America, the SAT correlates closely with family income, and the likelihood of students applying to elite colleges is tied to whether they already know someone who has attended an elite college.
The reason the lawsuit exists is because Blum’s previous lawsuit (Fisher), which alleged that affirmative action hurts white students, lost, but the decision that the Supreme Court came to left future challenges open (particularly around Asian-American applicants). This article offers a good explainer on the history of lawsuits around Asian-Americans and affirmative action, if that’s of interest.
Though the trial was in fall of 2018, no decision has been reached yet as of the publishing of this article. That’s because it is a bench trial, where a judge (rather than a jury) issues a verdict. It’s expected that the decision will be released sometime this year. In spite of no decision having been issued, we have already learned huge amounts from the trial’s proceedings.
2. What We’ve Learned
As a result of the discovery process for the trial (when private documents are placed in the public record), information that has been hidden for years behind Harvard’s closed doors is now available for view. Specifically, we’re able to get an unprecedented look inside Harvard’s admissions process. Here are some of those findings and the key takeaways from them.
Harvard ranks all applicants with an overall rating, 1 being the best possible (in their words “Exceptional – a clear admit with very strong objective and subjective support”) and 5 being the worst (“Negative – Credentials are generally below other applicants”). That overall rating is determined based on four separate category ratings: Academic, Extracurricular, Personal, and Athletic. In order to have a reasonable chance of acceptance to Harvard, students need to achieve a 2 or better in at least one of these categories. Over the course of six years, 99.9% of students who didn’t score at least one 2 rating (about ⅓ of Harvard’s applicants total) were rejected.
The Academic category is defined by grades, rigor of school, SAT/ACT scores, SAT subject tests, and academic activities like math competitions, science fairs, or other more academic-oriented “extracurriculars.” About 42% of applicants receive a 2 or higher on the Academic section, which means that based on Harvard’s definition for the category, nearly half of Harvard’s applicants have perfect or near-perfect GPAs and test scores. Of students who receive a 2 on Academics (the second-highest rating possible), more than 90% are rejected. This is why it’s so important to do more than just get great grades and test scores, and why we encourage building a Spike, which we define as an impressive, non-teenage activity built on a strong sense of purpose and passion. In order to achieve a 1 in the Academic section, students need to be “a genuine scholar… [with] possible evidence of original scholarship… Possible national or international level recognition.” In other words, in order to score a 1, students need a Spike. Those few who manage to achieve a 1 in Harvard’s academic rating (without any other 1s) are accepted to Harvard nearly 70% of the time – which is almost as high as the acceptance rate for recruited athletes.
Extracurriculars are defined as the various non-academic activities students participate in, such as music, art, clubs, volunteering, jobs, internships, or family-related responsibilities (for instance, taking care of a sick parent or a younger sibling). High Extracurricular ratings are much rarer than high Academic ratings – almost half as many students score an Extracurricular 2 than an Academic 2. This is because so many students get stuck with a dull 3 rating, which is defined as “Solid participation, without special distinction.” Even students with leadership experience often fall into this category. In order to achieve a 1 in Extracurriculars (and with it a nearly 50% acceptance chance at Harvard), students need “Possible national-level achievement or professional experience… Truly unusual achievement.” Again, in order to reach that level of achievement, students need a Spike.
The Personal rating is meant to be an assessment of “what kind of effect the student might have on others at Harvard or beyond.” This is a mostly subjective category, based on students’ recommendation letters and personal statements. It is also the most controversial category in the current trial, because on average Asian-American applicants to Harvard were found to have received lower Personal ratings. In the trial, Harvard Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons argued that the reason behind this is that Asian applicants tend to receive worse letters of recommendation than white applicants. This is in line with the findings of several academic studies, which have shown that students of color are often victims of teachers’ internal biases. However, this could also be Harvard’s veiled way of saying that Asian-American applicants tend to have less impressive involvement in their communities, which is consistent with studies showing that Asian-American students tend to prioritize academics and are less socially engaged than white students.
Beyond Asian-Americans receiving lower ratings on average, the Personal rating is a much harder category for students to do well in across the board. Over the course of six years of admissions at Harvard, fewer than 50 students achieved a 1 personal rating (with no other 1s). This is in part due to the rigorous standards to which Harvard holds a 1: “Student may display enormous courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles in life… Student receives unqualified and unwavering support from their recommenders.” That last sentence in particular explains why so few students are able to achieve the top personal rating. Recommendation letters rely not just on how highly a recommender thinks of you, but also on that recommender’s writing ability, how well they know you, how many other recommendations they’re writing, and a variety of other seemingly trivial factors. Recommendation letters are actually a large part of why international students have lower acceptance rates than US students.
The Personal section perhaps benefits the most from a Spike, since it proves that students are interested in making a difference in their community, and shows both compassion and leadership. See our Student Stories page to learn more about the types of impact our students are having.
The last category in Harvard’s assessment system is Athletics. This is a unique category, in that it is defined by how applicants themselves choose to classify their activities. That is, if a student is involved in a sport but calls it an “extracurricular,” it counts for the extracurricular rating; whereas if a student calls it a “sport,” it counts toward this rating. Students who score a 1 in Athletics have the highest acceptance rate (88%) of all, in part because most are recruited by athletic coaches (for those following the admissions scandal, it was related to the way athletic recruitment works). Harvard defines a 1 as “Unusually strong prospect for varsity sports at Harvard, possibly desired by Harvard coaches or recognition for individual athletic achievement/championships at the national, international or Olympic level.” That’s right, to earn a 1 students have to essentially be on the Olympic level. For these students, their athletics are their Spike. They put the same amount of time into their sports per week that many adults put into full-time jobs. While this may be both a tempting and viable route to admission for students with athletic talent, it is incredibly difficult to balance school with athletics and the risks are huge. One injury can cause a student to lose their ticket to college or worse (including life-time health repercussions). These injuries are incredibly common (in particular, concussions account for between 20-25% of sports injuries) and students who specialize in one sport (who are often the ones getting recruited) are 70% more likely to encounter a serious injury. Additionally, students who go this path have a very different college experience, because their acceptance is contingent on them competing for the school.
Like the Personal rating, Asian-Americans on average also tend to have much lower Athletic ratings than white applicants. The Harvard trial didn’t explain this gap, but previous research has simply shown that there are far fewer Asian-American student athletes. The NCAA tracks demographic statistics and has found that fewer than 1% of student athletes in the most common American sports (football, basketball, baseball, hockey) are Asian-American.
What You Can Do
Beyond understanding the overall admissions system of Harvard, there are a huge number of interesting takeaways that have come out of the trial. For instance, of the students scoring a 2 academic rating, nearly twice as many white students have a strong non-academic rating compared with Asian-American students. This in particular is a large part of why we focus primarily (but not exclusively) on developing the non-academic strength of Asian and Asian-American high school students by building Spikes.
Another interesting takeaway is that Asian-Americans are more likely to live in major cities and regions of the country that have more students attending elite colleges (New England, California, New York, etc). Colleges strive for geographic diversity, so Asian-Americans are hurt by lower populations in states like Montana, Wyoming, and more.
So if you wanted to do everything possible you could to maximize your chances of admission at Harvard (without becoming an Olympic athlete) here’s what you would do:
- Get great grades and tests scores (high enough to score a 2 in academics)
- Build a Spike grounded in your passion that creates real-world impact, which would help develop the non-academic (Extracurricular + Personal) side of your profile
- Develop close, positive relationships with your teachers over the course of high school and get excellent letters of recommendation from them to ensure that your Personal rating can be as high as possible
- Move to a remote part of America (just kidding)
3. Where We Are Now
It appears that despite no judgment being rendered yet, Harvard is already learning lessons from the trial. We can see this in their admissions statistics alone.
This year, Harvard admitted a record share of Asian applicants, 25.4%, up from 22.7% last year. It’s hard to know what the official numbers would be with truly “race-blind” admissions, since the majority of top colleges that don’t consider race in admissions are either public or engineering schools. The closest parallel to Harvard is Rice University, another top-tier private institution. With race-blind admissions, 27% of admitted applicants at Rice are Asian, which is nearly in line with Harvard’s admissions numbers this year.
So what does this mean exactly? Harvard’s internal reading guidelines for admissions very clearly says that “readers should not take an applicant’s race or ethnicity into account in making any of the ratings other than the Overall rating.” For the Personal rating section, it also makes it clear that race should not be a factor in assigning that rating. That said, something has to explain the sudden increase in accepted Asian students. The trial has most likely forced Harvard to weigh the letters of recommendation for Asian applicants more carefully in their consideration. We’ve previously written about the “Asian tax” in college admissions. Our position on this issue has not changed in that we think colleges need to do more to ensure that they’re not (whether knowingly or not) discriminating against Asian-American populations, but it does really look like Harvard is starting to address the issues that led to this lawsuit in the first place.
It will likely take some time before colleges start to catch up to Harvard’s adjustment, but we expect to see changes happening across the college admissions landscape as a result of the trial. Yale, UNC, and other schools are already coming under increased scrutiny. Both NACAC (National Association of College Admissions Counseling) and IACAC (International Association for College Admissions Counseling), the two largest professional organizations for admissions advising, have panels dedicated to Asian-American admissions at their 2019 conferences (which we’ll be attending!).
Regardless of how the judge rules in this trial, college admissions for Asian-Americans has already started to shift.
Please note, this trial and post is primarily about Asian-American applicants, not international Asian applicants. International applicants still face a severe uphill climb in college admissions, which we detail here.