Keys to the Kingdom

Early this month a red brick building tucked away a short walk from
Harvard Square will become the smallest structure in Greater Boston
deserving of its own ZIP code. Imposing if its columned façade is
viewed from Radcliffe Yard, inconspicuous when the modest official
entrance on its east side is approached from Cambridge Common, Byerly
Hall is home to Harvard's undergraduate admissions office, ground zero
in America's meritocratic rat race. Shortly after the November 1
deadline for the early action round of admissions, more than 4,000
applications will pour into its basement mailroom; another 18,000 or so
will follow soon after the New Year, when the regular action deadline
hits. A 90-strong battalion of postal clerks and temporary employees
will shepherd the packages past the reception hall, filled with nervous
high school students ogling black-and-white photos of century-old
Harvard sports teams, and into the records room. There, encircled by
hulking filing cabinets, student employees will sort the applications
by last name. The last few letters of the alphabet won't fit in the
main room, and will be taken to a sort of records annex.

The packages will arrive in every conceivable form, from minimalist
(vanilla manila envelopes) to bribe filled (chocolates and cakes are
popular) to downright campy; one young man reportedly wrote his
application entirely with his foot and included photographic evidence
of his efforts, indicating in his essay an aspiration to leave
footprints at the university. But if some envelopes reflect
questionable judgment, there's no questioning the quality of their
contents. Overall, says one former Harvard admissions officer, 80
percent of candidates have the smarts to succeed academically, and 40
percent are premier contenders with superb chances of admission at any
other school—which means SAT scores of 750 or higher, top class ranks,
and prodigious extracurricular accomplishments.

Eliminating the clearly inferior applicants will be easy. After
that, the selection committee will have to pare down some 17,500
generally qualified students to the 2,100—or fewer than one in 10 of
the total pool—who meet Harvard's incredibly restrictive criteria for
entry. While making their decisions, the application readers will
attempt to ferret out the influence of for-hire admissions consultants;
weigh the need for geographic, economic, and ethnic diversity; and meet
the demands of Harvard's sports teams, arts groups, academic
departments, and alumni office, along with the whims of Harvard's
hard-charging president, Larry Summers, who seems to have his own
agenda for reshaping the student body. In doing so, they will face
perhaps the only challenge in the admissions world more daunting than
getting into Harvard: choosing who gets in. To accomplish that task,
they've set up a filtering process so rigorous that a lot of very
bright kids who've spent their lives assembling what they believed to
be perfect applications will never really have a shot.

In both the early and regular action rounds, Byerly Hall evaluates
applications with the same exacting system. Under the leadership of
dean of admissions Bill Fitzsimmons and his deputy, Marlyn McGrath
Lewis—or Fitz and Marlyn, as the famously down-to-earth pair are often
called—admissions officers start by assessing each applicant in four
areas (academics, extracurriculars, personal qualities, and athletics)
on a scale of one (best) to six (worst). Those who pass this initial
threshold move forward to a second and sometimes third reader for
further appraisal; the rest form the first batch of rejects, their
folders marked with dismissive notes such as “below the edge” or “case
falls flat.” Small teams of admissions officers, each responsible for
one of the 25 or so geographic regions into which Harvard divides its
applicants, then scrutinize the survivors for as long as five days.
Between 5,000 and 7,000 applicants proceed to the last and most
contentious stage, the full committee meeting, in which all 35
admissions officers debate and vote on who will make the final cut.

Those discussions can get heated. “Emotions run high as you get down
to last couple of days,” says former Harvard admissions officer Chuck
Hughes. “We get so attached to cases that we are rooting for these
kids.” But the committee's decisions are ultimately rendered by simple
majority ballot. Typically, more students are voted in than space will
permit. So the final portion of the process is spent in “reruns,” in
which candidates who had won approval have their acceptances cruelly
yanked away.

Some 900 students are accepted during the early action round, and
1,200 through regular action. Several hundred or so applicants will be
wait-listed, and of them, anywhere from zero to 100 will eventually get
in. About thirty candidates, most of them legacies, will receive a
compromise spot on the little-known “Z list,” which reserves a place in
the following year's class in exchange for an agreement to
take a year off for “personal development.” Legacies are most often the
beneficiaries of this side-door option.

In early April, when decisions are finalized and letters ready to be
mailed, everyone from student workers to Fitzsimmons himself forms an
assembly line and passes down boxes of envelopes to a waiting mail
truck. Afterward, wine and cake—fresh cake, unlike the stale morsels
many candidates enclose in their applications—abound.

Required to say no to about 20,000 students, Harvard's admissions
officers are more than happy to find any reason to cut an applicant.
Even the slightest blemish—a stray grade or less-than-demanding course
choice—can become a scarlet letter. On the other hand, unless a student
comes from a particularly underprivileged background, readers won't be
blown away solely by valedictorian honors and stratospheric aptitude
scores: In 2003, the college rejected nearly half of candidates
boasting perfect 1600s on their SATs. With so many of its would-be
freshmen performing so well on the traditional quantitative measures of
grades and standardized tests, those numbers become almost meaningless.
So Harvard assembles the jigsaw puzzles that are its incoming classes
based on a much more fluid definition of merit.

Despite the university's reputation for braininess, it's jocks who
have the most pull inside Byerly Hall. Every year, the admissions
office has to replenish the squads of 41 Division I teams, and reserves
up to 10 percent of the entire pool for that purpose. The edge given to
athletic recruits is dramatic: The football team usually proposes only
50 to 60 names to get its 30 or so guaranteed acceptances, constituting
an admit rate comparable to that of, say, Hampshire College. “Half the
athletes we rejected at Dartmouth [for weak academics], Harvard took,”
says Michele Hernandez, a former Dartmouth admissions officer who now
runs a private-college counseling firm. “Then they beat us
academically, and athletically.”

Other requirements are less formal but clearly consistent from year
to year. Each state usually has at least one representative, which can
give applicants from places like Wyoming and Montana a proportional
advantage compared with overachievers from northeastern
suburbs—including those around Boston. The percentage of black students
regularly reaches a new “record high” (the most recent class was 10.5
percent black). Extracurricular groups are catered to on more of a
catch-as-catch-can basis, though an orchestra without an oboist gets
awfully cranky if its needs go unattended for too long. As of 2003,
four out of 10 children of alumni who applied were admitted, a rate
five times as high as that for nonlegacies: A so-called lineage case
who's just a “really good kid” can often slip through the gauntlet.

Bruce Breimer, director of college relations at the Collegiate
School in New York, estimates that the demands of these “constituent
admissions” leave less than half of the available slots for students
who don't have some sort of leg up. “If you're a generalist in the
scholar pool,” he says, “it's not easy.” McGrath Lewis says that just
15 percent of Harvard students are accepted for primarily academic
reasons—which in Harvard-speak means substantial progress toward
rewriting the history of Western Europe, not just acing a pre-calc
exam. As for your well-rounded, all-American, strong-B-plus student at
a good suburban public school who plays three sports fairly well,
serves as class vice president, and helps out at a local soup kitchen?
He should get ready to enjoy four frigid winters in Ithaca.

Some parents may view this system as grossly unfair, because
parents, wrongly, tend to regard college admissions as a referendum on
their children's cumulative accomplishments: They believe their kids deserve
to get in based on their high school records. But admissions officers
aren't interested in rewarding past performance—they gain no reflected
glory from an applicant's A-plus in 10th grade civics—and see
themselves not as MVP voters but as talent scouts whose duty is
predicting what a prospect will pull off as an undergrad and beyond.
Harvard places a strong emphasis on that “futures test,” using alumni
interviews to look for the mix of ambition and talent that Byerly Hall
staffers say distinguishes eventual Harvard students from the

The search for the desired je ne sais quoi begins when the
university screens for star quarterbacks and budding Bob Woodwards.
“People change their minds about what they want to do,” says McGrath
Lewis, “but the drive to develop one's interests always translates into
later life, often in a different sphere.” If the committee detects this
X-factor, a student might overcome a stray subpar grade or
one-dimensional résumé. Without it, an application that seems flawless
at first glance may wind up being judged hopelessly lackluster.

In recent years, the debates in Byerly Hall have been further
complicated by a flourishing private-college counseling industry. Many
former Ivy League admissions officials, fed up with grueling work and
mediocre pay, have parlayed their experience into lucrative second
careers, selling trade-secret books and fine-tuning kids' résumés from
the minute they enter high school. The best can shape their candidate
to the tastes of his target schools while ensuring that his application
doesn't seem so packaged as to give away their handiwork.

After a point, though, it's unclear how much bang candidates get for
their parents' bucks. Because of paid advisers' growing influence,
colleges now have “a tendency to discount the experiences” of rich
students, says Chuck Hughes. “There might be a bias against people who
are trying to use money to put them over the top”—whether those
applicants have actually hired counselors or not. Michele Hernandez,
who charges $22,000 for two years of consulting delivered by phone from
Oregon, admits she got only one student into Harvard last year—one
whose fearsome family ties to the university, she says, might have done
the trick on their own.

Unless highly selective colleges begin taking a larger number of
wealthy kids—the opposite of current trends—students who hire private
counselors will be forced to compete with each other for more or less
the same slots. If you really have money to burn, you might be better
off making a massive donation: Hughes says he recalls a handful of
cases in which such gifts proved decisive. But, says Hernandez, “an
investment banker giving a few hundred thousand is a drop in the
bucket” for a university whose $25.9 billion endowment is larger than
the gross domestic product of Bulgaria. “You have to be Bill Gates's

Last year Harvard president Larry Summers announced a plan to
provide full scholarships to all admitted students from families with
incomes below $40,000 a year, and an expanded recruitment drive to
attract them. With the overrepresentation of wealthy students under
increased scrutiny, Summers's plan won widespread acclaim; McGrath
Lewis calls it a “great new initiative” that will “give us better
access to more very talented and ambitious students.”

But other observers have expressed skepticism about Summers's
ability to pull off his grand designs—or whether they might conceal a
less palatable objective. Considering Harvard already attracts more
than 20,000 applications, intellectual diamonds in the rough may be
hard to unearth, and Byerly Hall may not be able to boost the
representation of such disadvantaged kids without tinkering with an
admissions preference on their behalf. Summers has not proposed doing
so; on the contrary, the president has dedicated himself to raising
Harvard's academic standards, battling grade inflation, and
spearheading a 14 percent Ivy League?wide cutback on football recruits
(a fruitful source of “socioeconomic diversity,” Fitzsimmons has said).
This could make the admissions process even more daunting for students
whose lesser opportunities have translated into lower scores. “Summers
loves those Korean kids in Flushing,” says Nicholas Lemann, author of The Big Test
and dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. “They're
working their butts off, their parents are, they want a chance. But in
most cases, that kid is going to show up worse than the kid from
Scarsdale on standard admissions measures.”

On Harvard's campus, there's a growing concern that Summers aims to
resolve the tension between his push for more lower-class students and
higher academic standards by redefining the very nature of the school's
undergraduate experience—and, by extension, the Harvard undergraduate.
By design, Byerly Hall—much more so than Yale, says Breimer—selects
students who typically have shown some all-consuming passion, and will
dedicate themselves to it even at the cost of their academics. During
his first year on the job, Summers publicly derided this “Camp Harvard”
mentality. The president's lower-income recruitment targets are much
more likely to be majors in math and science—disciplines he has
committed to expand—than, say, budding thespians scooting by with a
B-minus in Physics for Poets. As Richard Bradley writes in Harvard Rules,
“Both faculty and students fretted [that Summers, an MIT alumnus]
wanted to turn Harvard into MIT—a school where sports were
insignificant, science and economics were the dominant disciplines, and
extracurriculars were clearly subordinate to classwork.”

No matter how many new academic all-stars from disadvantaged
backgrounds Summers succeeds in bringing in, each will have to take a
bed away from someone else. “It's a zero-sum game,” says one
well-connected New York guidance counselor. “If they really tap into
the kids they're planning to, [private schools'] numbers are going to
have to drop.” But a further round of deep cuts in the number of
admittedly overprivileged students accepted could have drastic
unintended consequences. The college preparatory schools many wealthy
applicants attend are called that for a reason: They turn out excellent
college students who have already developed the skills to excel in a
high-pressure environment and can pass that knowledge on to their less
well-off classmates. “Those kids are sophisticated and highly charged,
the kind of kid who thrives at Harvard,” says Breimer. “Why bite the
hand that feeds you?”