The Holistic Admission Process at Harvard
Last week, the legendary Harvard University Dean of Admissions, William Fitzsimmons spent several hours in a federal courthouse defending how the university is taking race into account in its “holistic” review of an applicant. As the head of the Harvard Admissions Office for the last 32 years, Mr. Fitzsimmons, or “Fitz” as he is commonly called, is considered as the most influential figure in college admissions today. What he defended vehemently was not only his and his university’s reputation, but also the entire field of college admissions. In testifying about the once-secretive selection process, Mr. Fitzsimmons also shed light into how a highly selective university, like Harvard makes admission decisions. This revelation is one of the biggest takeaways from this trial.
Holistic admissions is a comprehensive process where more than one reviewer considers factors beyond academic merit. Each applicant is rated based on four categories: 1. Academic ability 2. Athletic ability 3. Extra-curricular activity (EC) 4. Personality. The overall rating ranges from the highest a 1 to the lowest a 6. The SAT or ACT scores are considered alongside of other factors because, as the Dean explained, “one test score is simply not equal to another standardize test score," meaning a SAT score of a low-income, inner-city, minority student should be evaluated differently from a score of a wealthy, top-quality high school student who has taken the test multiple times with the help of tutors and his family.
The potential Harvard recruits are identified in their junior year in high school. The PSAT, SAT and ACT scores determine which high performing students would receive recruitment materials. These “direct mail” students are twice as likely as other students to be admitted. Beyond the test scores, applicants are evaluated 1. Outstanding intellectual ability 2. Unusual effervescence (extraordinary enthusiasm) 3. Athletic talent 4. Superior leadership 5. Creative aptitude. If a student is heading for Ivy league, he or she must cultivate these characteristics early in their careers in addition of preparing to score high on standardized tests.
In improving the chances of certain sub-populations (minority, athletics and children of alumni and donors), the admission officials have introduced “tips.” The tips are based on 1. High score for athletic achievement 2. Personality rating 3. Alumni relationship 4. African-American. Tips essentially is a bump that can push a non-admissible student into the admit pool. The personality ratings are given based on interviews, recommendations and other factors.
Interviews by Harvard alumni is part and parcel of the personality rating. In the trial Harvard released its Alumni Interview Handbook. Like any other university, Harvard’s alumni take great pride and joy of being a part of its admission process. In their interviews, the alumni are asked to stay away from test scores and ask questions like “What blogs or sites do you read regularly?”, “Which courses do you enjoy”, “What do you do in the summer?” The applicant’s responses are evaluated on potential, time management skills, initiative, motivation, interest and decisiveness. There are other subjective evaluations such as whether the alumni would share a room or meal with the applicant.
Deploying the holistic review, Harvard makes the admission decision through several rounds of “reads” of applicant’s folder. First, the file is read by the admission officer in-charge of the student’s geographical area. The officer argues strengths and weaknesses of the applicant to an admission sub-committee. After several rounds of evaluations, a vote is taken on the applicant’s rating from a “clear admit” (1) to a “strong reject” (6). The “tips” could play a decisive role in this juncture. These ratings are, then, presented to a full admission committee which makes the final decision.
How to Get into Yale or Harvard Tuition and How to Pay for it
It is every students' dream, isn't it? If you think you are an exceptional student, getting admission to an Ivy League University and pay for it, is not as difficult as you might have thought. Here is an encouragement, if your parents earn less than $65,000 a year, you can attend Yale or Harvard free of charge. In 2005, a private college consultant charged $9,999 per head for one-week of boot camp to teach you how to do this. There are paid personal admission counselors who personally market you at NACAC and other conferences and admission events for a sizable fee. If you are related to an alumnus like President George W. Bush, Ivy admission is a walk in the park. If you have neither money nor connections, there is still a very good chance.
I will take Yale and Harvard as examples because I know a little bit about them. Yale’s endowment was 27.2 billion for Harvard’s 37.1 billion in 2017 which they use for financial aid. Yale and Harvard cover 100% of demonstrated need (“need-blind”) toward the full cost of attendance irrespective of the immigration or citizenship status. That means, international students receive exactly the same financial aid treatment as US citizens. The full cost of attendance not only covers tuition (“sticker price”), it also covers room and board. The Ivy’s like Yale or Harvard does not offer merit scholarships because the students they admit are equally good. Icing on the cake, Harvard boasts 100% of their graduates are debt free while Yale claims 85% of their graduates are debt free.
To make sure how much you or your family would have to pay, plug in your financial information in the Net Price Calculator (NPC) below. Though NPC is an estimate, the expected family contribution (EFC) should be within close range of what it provides. There is no commitment to try out the NPC; however, you will be surprised to learn how little you may have to pay:
Harvard’s NPC is very easy: https://college.harvard.edu/financial-aid/net-price-calculator
Yale’s NPC takes about two minutes: https://admissions.yale.edu/estimate-your-cost
The million-dollar question is, how do I get admitted to Yale or Harvard? Yale admits only about 7 students and Harvard about 6 students out of 100 who apply – this is not too bad, when I went to university in Sri Lanka only 1 in 100 got in. Yet, Ivy admission is fiercely competitive. A lawsuit filed in New York in 2018 by Ivy Coach, a college consultancy firm, attempts to recover the remaining 50% of a 1.5 million fee it says is owed by a Vietnamese mother whose daughter they helped get admission to an Ivy League University.
While in high school do some sports such as swimming, soccer, cricket, badminton, cross-country, tennis, martial arts etc. Since it is improbable to start a sport in high school your track should start before that. Other activities such as music, chess, ballet, dancing and coding are big help; take leadership roles in scouting, marching band, clubs or as a prefect; engage in volunteer work in a hospital or an orphanage. You must keep your teachers very happy because their recommendation letters are crucial—it is all about how to impress in your personal essay. Then there is test scores. There is no way around it when we think Ivy – you should have perfect or near perfect SAT or ACT score together with 4.0 GPA or several A’s in A/L examination in English medium.
If you have read this far, you are serious about it. Below is the link to the Common Application the majority of the universities use in the US, including Yale and Harvard, so go ahead:
Common Application: https://apply.commonapp.org/login
Revisiting Project Based Learning
In school level 117,000 kids took part in the Invention Convention and 18,000 moved to regionals and 7000 proceeded to state. Out of the 7000, 480 moved to nationals and about 100 kids were recognized in the nationals. Going through the Connecticut Invention Convention leading up-to National Invention Convention and Entrepreneurship Expo (NICEE) (http://www.stemie.org/2018-nicee/), we witnessed some of the amazing project based learning experiences. As filmed in the documentary Most Likely to Succeed, the project based approach has gained immense attention recently. The stories of Wright brothers, Steve Jobs and Henry Ford bolster the importance of project based learning and the difficulties associated with it (In the high end, Orville and Wilbur almost got killed experimenting their plane while Otto Lilienthal (who inspired Wright Brothers), Marie Curie and may others died following their experiments).
The future belongs to the curious -- the human who did not ran away, like any other animal when he saw a wild fire, instead, he walked toward it, managed to tame one of the most important tools that helped his race to venture out of the woods in Africa and into the cold north. My dear storm chasers, bungee jumpers, skydivers -- go for it! In project based learning you learn by doing it with basically a very few instructors or instructions. Thomas Alva Edison had 2,332 patents worldwide for his inventions. When we switch on the light bulb and illuminate the dark room, we hardly think about Edison or the fact that someone found this.
Though the heyday of individual innovator passed giving rise to big corporate (IBM, Intel, GE, UTC) and government (NASA, NSA, NOAA) innovations, elementary, high school and colleges can implement programs that allow individual innovation, something that stamped on my face in the Innovation Convention.
The Law of the Land and the Vision of College Diversity and Inclusiveness
The 14th amendment to the US Constitution guarantees equal rights to its citizens. For centuries, it was just on paper. In the landmark case of Brown Vs Board of Education US Supreme Court decided that “separate education facilities inherently unequal” desegregated public schools in 1954. Yet, series of Supreme Court decisions allowed colleges and universities to consider race in their admission policies to have a diverse student body. An amicus curia (friend of court) submitted by the American Council on Education and 37 other higher education organizations in support of University of Texas asserts that a diverse student body is essential to educational objectives of colleges and universities (click here to read the brief).
In Fisher Vs Univ. of Texas at Austin (2016) Petitioner who were White alleged University of Texas' use of race as a consideration in admission decisions was in violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The UT policy was to automatically admit all in-state students who graduated in the top ten percent of their high school classes. For the remainder of the in-state freshman class the university would consider race as a factor in admission. In a 4:3 decision the Supreme Court decided that race should be a factor if the programs are narrowly tailored toward advancing a diverse student body.
The Fisher decision was based on precedence of Reagent of University of California Vs Bakke (1978) which was affirmed by Gutter Vs Bollinger (2003).
Interestingly, 40 years ago the complexities justices faced in Bakke have resurfaced in a case escalating at the Harvard University in which US Department of Justice has filed a statement of interest. The case alleged that the race-conscious admission decision at Harvard discriminates Asian Students.
A report published by the Office of Institutional Research at Harvard in 2013 found that, if test scores and grades were the only criteria for admission, Asian students would make up about 43% of the entering class instead of just under 19%; White student would account for 38% instead of 43% of the class; Black students for under 1% of the class instead of just over 10% and Hispanics for under 2% of the class instead of just under 10%.
The irony is, if Harvard’s admission decision was race-neutral, in the most-selective university in the country, there would be just under 3% of Black and Hispanics students even though Blacks and Hispanics make up about 30% of the population. Remember, Harvard University is a minority-majority university.
Naturally, since the size of the admitted class is limited, if admission decisions favor students of one racial or ethnic group based on their representation, past-discrimination or in furtherance of a diverse student body, it would decrease the % of students admitted from other racial or ethnic groups, though, it might not explain how % of White students went up. The favorable decisions toward White students may be explained by other aspects of the holistic review such as students of alumni, extra-curricular (EC) activities, personal characteristics etc.
Ten (10) Factors about Selecting a College Major
Please start thinking about what to study as an undergrad while you enter the high school, if you want to go to college and succeed. Research shows the students who enter college with an intention of what to study, have the greatest chance of surviving college and graduating. How can one decide what to do? 1. Explore out of school experiences such as volunteering, travel, sports, summer employment etc. 2. Take advise from family and friends with a "pinch of salt." While they all means good for you, best advise is often given by those who are involved in your field of interest such as employees or industry professionals 3. Think about requirements. For example, the STEM fields are hot and robotics is very intriguing. At the same time, the courses on STEM streams are the toughest. There are prerequisites and specific requirements to graduate in certain STEM fields. If you are in pre-law, pre-med or pre-healthcare track, there are required courses. So research well before you dive into a major or track. 4. Think STEM. In the current market, those who are employed in science, technology, engineering and math command higher salaries than their non-STEM colleagues. The growth of STEM fields are the steadiest. There is a high demand for women in STEM jobs. 5. Research scholarship opportunities. If you are low income explore PELL grant. The Gates Millennium Scholars (GMS) Program is an academic scholarship award available to high-achieving ethnic minority students who are PELL eligible (https://www.
Discount Rate Continues its Upward Trajectory
While it is very good news for the college-bound seniors, though, not so good news for the small liberal arts colleges. The discount rate (financial aid divided by tuition) private colleges offer to its incoming freshmen increased to the highest level, 48.8%, meaning most private colleges are now half-price. In this pressure, most colleges with fewer than 1000 enrollment and 100 million endowment are predicted to either merge or close. This also puts pressure on the rest of the colleges to grow at a time they are compelled to slash its tuition through discounting.
Big College Athletics and College Experience
College Athletics is huge. Some colleges are popular because of their athletic prowess, as it brings a lot of money (and fame) to the institution. The 65 colleges that make up the members of the Power Five conferences : 1. Atlantic Coast Conference 2. Southeast Conference 3. Big Ten 4. Big 12, 5. Pac-12 had their athletic revenues doubled in the last 10 years. Big-time college football and basketball produce about $8 billion in annual direct revenue. In addition to direct revenue, the Power Five colleges raised $16.49 billion in gift income in fiscal 2017. The intangible benefits of fame, popularity, publicity are immense that colleges without big sports have to spend huge sums of money to get. Places such as University of Connecticut, Villanova, Notre Dame, University of Michigan, University of Maryland, University of Florida are well known in every corner of the country. The windfall can benefit other areas of the institution. It can be invested on eye-catching sports complexes, lazy rivers, climbing rocks and what have you. The support staff can be instructors or professors of other departments like Kinesiology. Remember Larry Nassa, he was an associate professor in the College of Osteopathic Medicine at MSU in addition to being the team's physician. The moral to the story is, when the college athletic department brings money, it helps the overall institution. While adding to fun-filled, joyous college experience, big sports come with Greek life (fraternities and sororities), drinking and partying. Then there is inevitable public safety, clean up and health care costs. Plus the likelihood of title IX allegations and hazing go up. Some institutions chose to look the other way and have the academics dictate the college experience rather than sports. Well...that's tough for some students who are finally looking for independence and fun! However, they should be fully aware what they are getting into when they step into a big sports school, that, still #1 is getting a good education.
Winners and Losers in Higher Ed?
Recently, Thomas Jefferson University, PA and Philadelphia University, PA merged, creating the Jefferson University. These two are small, private, liberal arts founded in the late 1800's. The colleges are relatively small 3000-5000 student population in each. It is true that like health care, housing the cost of college is going up. While some colleges are seeing increase in enrollment some, especially rural, small, private, liberal arts are seeing decline in enrollment. Because prospective students seem to be heading for large metropolis such as New York, Los Angeles and Boston for better internship opportunities and job prospects, most rural colleges and universities are struggling to stay afloat.
Recently, Wall Street Journal invited its readers to think about "winners and losers."
"...Concord University in West Virginia and Clemson University in South Carolina were both founded shortly after the Civil War. During the 20th century, each grew rapidly. Now, the two public universities that sit just 300 miles apart face very different circumstances. Clemson, a large research university, enrolled its largest-ever freshman class in 2017 and in December broke ground on an $87 million building for the college of business. Concord, a midsize liberal-arts school, has seen its freshman enrollment fall 19% in five years. It has burned through all $12 million in its reserves and can’t afford to tear down two mostly empty dormitories..."
"...According to an analysis of 20 years of freshman-enrollment data at 1,040 of the 1,052 schools listed in The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education ranking, U.S. not-for-profit colleges and universities are segregating into winners and losers—with winners growing and expanding and losers seeing the first signs of a death spiral..."
(If you want to read the full article, please search its title, "U.S. Colleges Are Separating Into Winners and Losers," in FB, otherwise, you will be prompted to subscribe or login to WSJ.)
I don't know what to make out of "winners and losers" analogy. To me, if a university closes, everyone loses. Research shows that number of crimes committed negatively correlates with level of education. There is no doubt these small colleges and universities are struggling to survive. The fast deregulation and expansion of the private, for-profit sector is not helping either. A few years ago, I read that only the top-50 universities may survive. I'm not sure what top-50 (US News top-50 or New York Times top-50 or WSJ top-50), nevertheless, in the coming decades, the life is going to be very interesting for the for folks in the education sector, that's for sure.
I sometimes wonder how much information average class size provides about the quality of education in a college or university. The research on class size and student success is inconclusive that some students perform better in small classes, and for some, it doesn't matter. However, the idea that small classes are better is anecdotal and intuitive--students in smaller classes get more time with the professor; therefore they can get more instruction and personalized attention. The US News ranking puts about 10% weight on class size. There used to be two tiers 1. less than 20 2. 20 or more students. Then US News changed it to 3 tiers 1. less than 20 2. 20-50 3. 50 or more. I'm not sure how much research went into determining these cut off points or whether they are pure arbitrary. Since registering for classes is not random, the class size can be misleading. For example if I have 1000 students and design 99, 1 student creative writing courses that is taught by a single professor and put the rest of 901 students in one massive course, 99% of my courses are small. The perception depends on where you stand: for a student the fact that there is a class of 901 students would be interesting, and for an administrator, 99% of small classes would be appealing. That just fascinates me!
There is a little argument that education pays. Though it is becoming an expensive bet due to high demand, it is increasingly becoming essential. The attractiveness of the high school diploma had been declined significantly and bachelors degree is becoming the basic requirement to land on a fair earning job. Thus education provides an "universal ladder" for success for those who are lucky, resourceful and smart enough to step on it. Statistically, there is somewhat strong correlation between level of education and income and somewhat negative correlation between unemployment rate and level of education.
Project Based Learning
There is a nice documentary featured in the Sundance Film Festival, "Most Likely to Succeed," (https://www.mltsfilm.org/) that claims the current mode of instruction is out-dated, that kids today need to develop "hands-in" and "real-time" problem-solving skills and critical thinking abilities. The passing of a standardize test or having a high GPA do not tell much about that student's skill level. That may have some truth to it, however, there is high positive correlation between those who perform and their ability to deal with day-to-day problem-solving, decision-making, critical thinking etc. It may not be visible in individual cases or based on anecdotal evidence, however, in the board spectrum the student population, it is true. Those who are curious will always be curious whether it is a project-based task or whether it is to cram for an exam, buy a car or house in a good neighborhood. The current demand in education is to pass SAT or ACT, and those curious learners would master it, with parental guidance or without it. Governments and other organizations can spend a lot of money, flip it or introduce another form or measurement, and these curious learners would adapt. To me, the best form is to effectively coalesce measuring cognitive skills via a test (O/L, A/L, GPA, SAT, ACT, TOEFL, GRE, IBT...) and practical skills via project-based approach (labs, presentations, newspaper articles, study abroad, internships, work-study). Trying to link from my background, even though I had not put it in my resume that I worked for my father in his printing business--I managed delivery and personnel for him for four years and had very early exposure to how he managed finances. It had been the best real-life learning experience I ever had. We lost the business after his untimely sickness and death.
Fortunately, with my experience in America, it provides the best opportunity to try project based approach individually through its education system, and its freedom to purchase anything you want on-line. (soon enough, Amazon Prime may deliver to my doorsteps via a drone!). I had been fortunate enough to participate in the Connecticut Invention Convention (CIC) in the last few years thanks to my son's willingness to participate. This has been a glaring revelation of how project-based leaning can inspire kids. I have seen kids develop exceptionally innovative products.
College admission is a dream come true. It opens up a world of possibilities and opportunities. Education propelled me, whose parental roots go to a small, beautiful southern village called Magedara in the border of Siharaja rain forest, the only rain forest in Sri Lanka, and another to a remote village, in the hot, agricultural central province of Sri Lanka called Kirigahapitiya to work for a top university in the New York City.
College admission in the US can be very stressful and complex process. Most of the time, it begins in the Sophomore year in high school. It may not that difficult to understand or navigate, if you know how and where to look for information, and especially if you start learning about the process early. No matter how cumbersome, at the end when your child finds his dream school, you will feel, all that effort is worthwhile.
With my experience in US higher education, I will try to explain the admission process as clearly as and as much as possible I can. My wife is a college professor, and I'm an administrator so our daily debates -- that are not argumentative about the ratings of our colleges, and how it is and why it is -- in some way or another tough on college education: academics or administration. I think it is a blessing that we can see the admission world in two sets of eyes: faculty and administration.
College admission in the USA can be a function of finance, connections, know-how, and what colleges describe as the "best fit." As applicants look for the college they dream of attending, the colleges are looking for the applicants they dream of admitting to the entering class. Colleges are universities are different in their own merits. Many families and applicants do not know, or do not have access to the resources available in the college admission process, especially first generation, minority and low income students. In a recent discussion, a former student commented that she didn't know that she could appeal the financial aid package. Not only families can appeal the financial aid package; those who are well within means to pay for colleges are likely to grab the most lucrative deals because of their resourcefulness and colleges' inability to trace their income. How many of us can hire a private admission counselor who could market our child to an Ivy League college during the annual meeting of National Association of College Admission Counselors (NACAC)? Income from self-employment, farm, family small business, consultancy are very difficult to trace, and these families are likely to be the wealthiest. It is how it is.
There are some sites you could find inside scoop of a college you are interested in. Members share their experience and inside scoop in College Confidential. You can select the colleges or topics of your interest, and can follow the comments. Care should be drawn because the comments may not represent wider scope, rather, individual experiences and viewpoints. The best way to get a sense of a college is a) campus visit b) talking to current students.
There are guides written about college admission process Peterson, Barrons, Fiske Guide to College, US News, The Princeton Review to name a few. They are useful, and definitely overwhelming. Jacques Steinberg has spent time with the Admission Staff at Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT and written, "The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College" though the book was written about the entering class of 2009, it gives some idea of how comprehensive, at the same time, individualized, thorough and deadline-driven the admission process is.
Sally Rubenstone, a "Dean" at College Confidential has published, "25 Tips How to Choose a College Get in and Pay for it" which is very interesting and informative, albeit some marketing tools.
Students from all over the world apply to US colleges and universities for higher education. In my humble opinion, US offers the best education in the world. Even in the midst of controversial or vague immigration policies in current Trump Administration, number of international applicants, though dipped a little bit, did not impacted that much as once expected.
There are two major education systems: the Ordinary Level / Advanced Level and Term system introduced by the British and the ACT / SAT and the semester / credit system in the USA. For students applying from oversea the US admission system can be overwhelming. In this complex system there is a basic foundation for admission: the holistic approach or the overall quality of the student that is depicted in his high school GPA, extra curricular (EC) such as clubs, voluntary jobs, personal statement / essay, recommendation letters, and rest of the application materials. Through the holistic approach while the student is looking for his best fit, the university is also looking for whether the student is a good fit for them in terms of fulfilling its mission and enriching the overall educational experience of the entering class--how the student can contribute to the overall learning experience of the entering class of students; therefore, it takes into account diversity, regional (US states), cultural (local / international), racial (White, Black, Asian, Hispanic...), religion, gender and so on and so on.
Adding to the mix is the academic preparation. Though ACT / SAT and high school GPA can be proxies of the quality of the student, admission counselors put heavy weight on their feeder schools--the schools that have sent steady stream of applicants to the university. The admission counselors have high confidence on the academic preparation of students applying from the feeder schools. The transition from high school to college is overwhelming for most of the students and the students from feeder schools have proven over and over that they can handle it; therefore, it makes perfect sense to put high bets on feeder school applicants. The holistic admission process, diversity, "best fit" and feeder school preference might play a confusing role that a student admitted to one school may be declined admission to another equally ranked school and vise versa. Whatever the admission decision is, it had been very thorough, and there is reason for the craziness.
1.5 million fee for getting to an Ivy?
This is crazy! right? Yes, it happened. First I came to know about private coaches from Gatekeeper's book. Yes, if someone has money they can hire a private coach for $1000 an hour or so who would work to secure college admission. They help prepare the application materials, edit the student's essay, prep the student for interviews, present the student in NACAC conferences to the admission counselors--go the nine yards. It is a business, and it cost money. Don't get discouraged. If you are a great (not good) student, it is not magic science to figure out Ivy admission. If you are not, of course, you may have to spend tons of money. This story was reported in Inside Higher Ed, that a Ivy Coach (a admission consulting firm) charged a woman in Vietnam $1.5 million to help her daughter get Ivy admission (she succeeded!). Before feel pity for the woman please understand she is from an international aristocracy. However, the woman paid only half. Ivy Coach filed a lawsuit to recover the other half. That is where the story broke out. If you are interested in reading a bit about the bizarre world of Ivy admission here is the link https://www.insidehighered.com/admissions/article/2018/02/12/suit-reveals-elite-college-consultants-charged-family-15-million. Here is another one, please don't be discouraged, things are not as bad as it sounds. There are valid reasons for these spending. In 2005, Inside Higher Ed reported that a college consulting firm is charging $9,999 per participants for a three and one-half day "boot camp" which focuses on essays, boosting artistic or athletic achievements, and summarizing student activities or awards and conducting mock interviews. (link: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2005/05/31/boot)