exactly does it take to be admitted to a top college? It’s a
secret, according to Harvard.
past couple of weeks have offered an unprecedented look into the
way Harvard University evaluates applicants. The details came to
light during a lawsuit alleging that the school has discriminated
against Asian-Americans hoping for a spot at the school — a claim
Harvard vehemently denies. Though the suit has certainly pulled
back the curtain on the Harvard admissions process, many details
still remain under wraps. Harvard is hoping to keep it that way.
part of the suit, the school filed
a brief late last week arguing that
certain documents produced as part of the case — including
internal training materials and preliminary snapshots of the
school’s admitted class during specific periods of the application
cycle — should remain under seal.
brief is part of a larger request to keep certain documents, like
individual applicant files or correspondence with alumni, under
seal so as not to violate the privacy of people communicating with
or submitting their information to Harvard. “Harvard is deeply
committed to protecting the extensive personal information
applicants entrust to us in the admissions process,” a Harvard
in a statement regarding last week’s
it’s also one of multiple instances throughout the case where
the school has argued that the way it
selects its incoming classes is tantamount to a trade secret.
Harvard officials say keeping the “narrow category of documents”
under seal is necessary to protect both student privacy and the
integrity of its admissions process.
the training documents would disadvantage Harvard “in the
extremely competitive market to recruit, admit, and enroll the
most outstanding students across the world,” the school’s lawyers
wrote in the brief.
is not difficult to imagine how Harvard’s competitors might try to
utilize information about Harvard’s yield rates, or the number of
students Harvard seeks to admit from certain geographic
territories, to their advantage and to Harvard’s detriment,” they
the brief, Harvard’s lawyers note that that argument is one
typically made by businesses. Harvard isn’t the first elite
college to present this argument to the court. Other schools have
used a similar line of reasoning to prevent the release of
justification to keep its admissions processes private reveals
something not just about Harvard, but about the state of selective
admissions more generally — even if the school manages to keep the
documents themselves under seal. In some ways, the process for
creating a class of the best and brightest high school students is
equivalent to developing a proprietary algorithm or set of
look for students with something extra
are looking for a student who, yes, is bright” and has a resume
full of traditional accomplishments, like leading the student
government or an athletic team, said Mimi Doe, the co-founder of
College Admissions Consultants, an independent college counseling
service. “But they’re also looking for a student who can add that
special sauce to a campus.”
what is that something special? It depends on the school and even
the year in which a student is applying, experts say. Colleges are
evaluating students individually based on a set of priorities
often developed by top-level administrators, said Anna Ivey, a
college and law school admissions consultant and former dean of
admissions at University of Chicago’s law school.
admissions officers aren’t just looking at applicants as
individuals, they’re also evaluating them as part of the class
they’re trying to shape, Ivey said.
many cases, colleges hope to create classes that are diverse on a
variety of different levels, including, yes, race, but also
geography, academic interests, economic background and more, Ivey
said. For example, three college admissions experts interviewed
for this article each noted that something as seemingly distant as
changes in the lineup of the school’s orchestra can affect the
priorities of the admissions office.
the admissions officer you might get word that the orchestra
really needs to fill that trombonist spot,” Ivey said.
part of the lawsuit, Harvard
has already provided a look into its
system to evaluate applicants. For example, the admissions
officers typically rate applicants on a scale of one to four in
four categories — academic, extracurricular, athletic and personal
— and also provide an overall rating.
court documents indicate that a variety of other factors can also
tip the scale. Legacy applicants, or students with a parent who
attended Harvard, were accepted to the school at the rate of about
to data from six admissions cycles
analyzed by an economist hired by the group suing the school.
That’s compared to an admissions rate of about 6% of non-legacy
students, according to an analysis of Harvard data.
admissions processes are like trade secrets
way a particular college might evaluate an application would be
fairly proprietary,” said Ivey.
hard to say whether that idea will hold up in court. Harvard is
relying on arguments that are similar (though not exactly the
same) to those companies use to protect a trade secret, said
Jeanne Fromer, a professor at New York University’s School of Law
and an intellectual property expert.
the school is using that justification to protect something more
amorphous than engineering information or a customer list. It’s a
relatively new line of argument that’s being used more frequently,
cited a recent lawsuit
filed by IBM IBM, +1.05%
against its former chief diversity officer after she left for
Microsoft MSFT, +0.55% .
IBM, which settled the suit earlier this year, had argued that the
data and strategy it used for achieving diversity were trade
it’s hard to predict whether Harvard’s argument will prove
successful, Fromer said, the organization is signaling that they
find the information valuable because they’re willing to invest
money to keep it secret.
can be a difficult pill to swallow for students seeking spots at
colleges like Harvard. “It puts you in a position where you feel
like you’re playing a game where you don’t know the rules,” said
Jim Jump, the academic dean and director of college counseling at
St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. and the former president
of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.
available information about admissions
course, there is some publicly available information about what’s
required to get into a top college, such as average standardized
test scores and grade-point averages. But meeting that criteria
will only get students in the door, Doe said. Harvard could admit
several classes worth of students with essentially perfect
academic credentials. Of the roughly 26,000 domestic applications
Harvard received for the class of 2019, 3,500 had perfect SAT math
scores, 2,700 had perfect SAT verbal scores, more than 8,000 had a
perfect GPA and nearly 1,000 received a perfect composite score on
the SAT or ACT, according to court documents. The incoming class
had about 1,600 spots.
the brief filed last week, Harvard’s lawyers argued that keeping
the training documents under seal would prevent “applicants from
attempting to ‘game the system’ by modifying their conduct or
their applications to conform to what they believe Harvard wants
from them.” They also argue that releasing the training documents
would provide a boon to independent college counselors, which
Harvard says is a $400 million industry, who could use information
to help the clients that can afford to hire them get into Harvard.
well-connected students and families are already using information
about college admissions that they get through their networks,
experience and, yes, private college counselors, to their
advantage, Ivey said.
Keller, the director of technical assistance for the National
College Access Network, an organization that works to increase
access to college, said in an email that “full disclosure for many
competitive colleges has never been the case.” That’s part of the
reason why her group encourages students to apply to some “safety”
schools, where they know they will get in, in addition to
competitive schools where the outcome may be less clear, she
this very uneven distribution of background information on how the
admissions process works, the optics are not great for a school
like Harvard to seem to be suggesting that this is all information
that students shouldn’t have,” Ivey said. It “empowers the
applicant” to have more information about how to be competitive at
a top college, she added.
they’re nonprofit institutions, colleges do owe the public a
certain amount of transparency, said Faith Sandler, the executive
director of the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, which works
with low-income students applying to college.
she worries that publishing granular information about admissions
criteria would open top colleges up to legal challenges. Those
challenges could come from students who believe they earned a spot
at the school by, for example, achieving a certain test score
thanks to the help of expensive test prep, and not necessarily
from families who have been historically underrepresented at top
colleges, she said.
likely that “publishing in some detail their process or criteria
will cause folks to litigate to hold them accountable to something
that can’t be completely objectively measured or proven,” Sandler