’It’s Not Surprising to Any Of Us’: College Counselors Shrug at Harvard Admissions Secrets Spilled In Trial

As the high-profile and high-stakes Harvard admissions trial spilled secret after secret of the College’s notoriously private admissions process across the past three weeks, high schoolers around the country followed along with bated breath.

In online forums like College Confidential and in anxious calls to college admissions consultants, students and their parents dissected every juicy detail — ranging from the fact Harvard favors those who fund it, to the fact College admissions officers cannot consider race when assigning personal scores, to the fact Asian-American Harvard applicants saw the lowest admit rate of any racial group from 1995 to 2013.

Some of their college counselors, though, were less riveted.

Counselors working both in the private consulting business and on high school campuses said that, though they noticed an uptick in Harvard-related calls and questions from clients during the trial, they themselves do not find the revelations that surfaced in court surprising.

“We’re actually pretty well aware of how it works anyway,” said Cahn Oxelson, executive director of college counseling at the Horace Mann School.

The Harvard admissions trial, which kicked off on Oct. 15, wound to a close Friday after three weeks of fiery debate between Harvard’s lawyers and attorneys for Students for Fair Admissions, the anti-affirmative action group suing the University over its admissions process. The judge presiding over the case, Allison D. Burroughs of the U.S. District Court in Boston, is not expected make a ruling for months.

No matter how she rules, one thing is clear: this year’s batch of Harvard hopefuls will benefit from an inside understanding of the College’s admissions process unavailable to generations of prior applicants. Information released as part of the trial — the latest development in SFFA’s 4-year-old lawsuit alleging the College discriminates against Asian-American applicants — shows how Harvard scores the academic achievements and personal qualities of each high schooler, as well as how it determines which applicants to reject.

Erika G. Chapin, college counseling director for the Hopkins School in New Haven, Conn., said parents and students at her school have closely tracked the case.

“Of course it has been of interest to our students and families,” Chapin said. “I think one of the more interesting thoughts that our families have had, especially for our Asian-American families, is they feel like with this issue part of under a bit of microscope this year, they feel a little more potentially confident about the process.”

Brian Taylor, managing director of college consulting firm Ivy Coach, agreed that some applicants — especially those of Asian heritage — may feel more confident in applying to Harvard while its admissions process is under public scrutiny.

He noted that “way more” students working with his firm are applying to Harvard this year as compared to previous years.

“In past years have we discouraged our Asian-American applicants with their perfect grades and perfect scores from applying to Harvard? Sure,” Taylor said. “And as much as we’ve discouraged them in the past we’re encouraging them this year because the eyes of the Department of Justice are looking.”

The Justice Department has publicly sided against Harvard and with SFFA, filing a scathing “statement of interest” in court in August 2018 that asserted the College perpetrates “unlawful racial discrimination” against Asian-American applicants. The department is independently conducting a Title VI investigation into the University in response to charges that the College rejects qualified Asian Americans in favor of less deserving applicants of other races.

Though a number of college counselors noted heightened interest in the case — and in Harvard — most said information that came to light as part of the trial will not change the advice they give to prospective applicants.

“It isn’t changing our counsel on how to work with these families through their application processes,” Chapin said.

Anna Ivey, the founder of Ivey Consulting, also said she thinks the trial will have a limited effect on this year’s application cycle.

“For the short term I don’t think this changes a thing for applicants,” Ivey said. “In the short term, applicants can assume that the status quo will still operate. Several years from now, things might look different.”

Like Oxelson, Ivey and others said tibits made public as part of the trial — while interesting — are largely par for the course.

“Everything that’s coming out as a result of this lawsuit and the discovery process, it’s not surprising to any of us,” she said. “This is all stuff we knew was already happening in many ways, it’s not even specific to Harvard. This is common at many private, selective colleges.”

Still, Chapin acknowledged the procedural secrets unveiled over the course of the Harvard trial could reshape the way students and families seek admission to highly selective universities more broadly.

“I think there’s understanding that it’s not just Harvard, because this is not only Harvard,” Chapin said. “Harvard is not unique in holistic review process.”

Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an emailed statement that the “most compelling” applicants evaluated by the College are students who convey themselves “as authentically as possible.”

“In our admissions process, we give careful, individual attention to each applicant,” Dane wrote. “We seek to identify students who will be the best educators of one another and their professors—individuals who will inspire those around them during their College years and beyond.”


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