Harvard and the Numbers

Harvard Numbers, Harvard Stats, Harvard Statistics

The longtime Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard is quite candid in an article of “The Burlington County Times.” Photo credit: Chensiyuan.

We happened to be reading “The Burlington County Times” this morning. Because who doesn’t start their day reading about what’s going on in Burlington County? As it turns out, there will be some forest trail closures. The girls soccer team finished the season undefeated. And the county is gearing up for Halloween. Ok, so you don’t read our college admissions blog to learn about what’s going on in Burlington County. Frankly, we’re not even sure where Burlington County is. We’d have to look it up. But there is a good article in this newspaper today about college admissions, one that includes an interesting quote by Harvard’s longtime Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid.

Here’s the quote from the article on college admissions by Marion Callahan in “The Burlington County Times”: “‘We have applicants who are home-schooled, and those who have had a wide array of formal and informal schooling,’ said William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions and financial aid. ‘Some schools give grades; some don’t. Standardized tests provide a rough yardstick — a blunt instrument of sorts — to compare our applicants.’ Still, Fitzsimmons said, with more than 35,000 applications flooding the admissions office annually, personal factors are increasingly coming into play, and in the end, test scores are relatively unimportant ‘because most of the people who apply have strong scores and grades and are fully qualified to be at (Harvard). We are always very interested in evidence of unusual achievements, academic or extracurricular. If you’re a great poet, we’d love to have you send your poetry along. You could send your short stories or mathematical solutions or computer programs or your life sciences research.'”

It’s important that our readers properly interpret Dean Fitzsimmons’ quote. Yes, he says that grades and test scores are increasingly less important. Harvard, like all highly selective colleges, are not all about the numbers. But he also notes that this is because applicants to Harvard tend to have outstanding grades and test scores to begin with (there is a fairly decent self-selecting filter). That’s often true. So, basically, what he’s not saying is that a ‘C’ student with an amazing angle can gain admission. He’s not saying that at all. But what he is saying is that the numbers are only part of the equation for those students who do apply. An increasingly big part of the equation is a student’s extracurricular interests, the student’s (hopefully) unique story, the diverse perspective that student would bring to the university, etc. And this, of course, is very, very true not only at Harvard but at each and every highly selective college in America.


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