Harvard Posts Record Low Acceptance Rate

Last week, Harvard sent emails to 1,260 high school seniors, offering them coveted spots in the Crimson Class of 2016. You can still hear the peals of joy — and cries of pain. This year’s college application process has come to its bitter or sweet end, depending. For most parents and kids, Harvard applicants or not, it was a tough year.

“It gets more difficult every year,” says Bev Taylor, founder of The Ivy Coach, a college consulting firm based in New York. “That’s only because every year we see, not so much more students applying to colleges, but these kids are applying to 20 schools. Twelve schools was the norm about five years ago. Then it came to fifteen schools. Now the norm is outrageous.”

Harvard chose its precious few from a pool of 34,302 applicants. While this pool was slightly down from last year, Harvard let fewer in overall — just 5.9 percent — which is why this year’s acceptance rate is the lowest on record.

Why did Harvard let in fewer kids? Two likely factors: the reinstatement of the single-choice early action process and — what else? — Linsanity.

First, single-choice early action. This is the process through which candidates can choose to apply to one school in the fall. If the candidate doesn’t get in, he or she is notified in December and can go on to apply during the regular cycle elsewhere. In 2006, Harvard stopped this procedure, bowing to the perception that it hurt financial aid candidates. That wasn’t true in Harvard’s case, and the college reinstated the practice this year. All of which means by the time the regular applicants arrived in January, 772 students had already been accepted.

According to Taylor, “When you consider the admit rate for those accepted under regular decision, including the 2,838 early action candidates who were deferred, the regular decision rate was actually 3.8 percent.” (Cue the screams.) Not to overcrunch the numbers, but if you really, really wanted to get into Harvard, applying in the fall would have increased your chances substantially — to an 18.2 percent acceptance rate.

Because Harvard realizes that most of those early-action kids will say yes, the school had to be more conservative with its general acceptance this spring, putting more kids in the dreaded limbo of the waiting list than in the past. And this is where Linsanity comes in. Harvard said it offered spots to 100 fewer applicants this year than last year, in part because the school anticipates a high yield, which basically is college-admissions speak for lots of yesses. Both Linsanity and the Harvard basketball team’s appearance in the NCAA tournament, its first since 1946, put the school on people’s radar in a whole new way, potentially upping this year’s yield.

“All that great publicity got kids to think of Harvard as if it were a Big Ten school,” adds Taylor.

But while the school itself may suddenly appear more well-rounded, the students who got in sure aren’t. “The well-rounded kid does not make it into Harvard,” says Taylor. “It’s the angular kid, the talented kid in one specific area that’s going to make it.” They also happen to test off the charts, but so do a lot of kids who don’t get in. According to one article:

[Harvard Dean of Admissions William] Fitzsimmons added that more than 14,000 applicants boasted scores of 700 or higher (out of 800) on the SAT critical reading test, 17,000 applicants had scores of 700 or higher on the SAT math test and 15,000 scored a 700 or higher on the SAT writing test. Plus, 3,800 applicants were ranked first in their high school classes.

That’s a lot of high achievers who didn’t make the cut. I was reminded of Globe columnist David Nyhan’s popular column on college rejection, first published in 1987 (back when I was a sophomore in college). In it, he writes to all the kids who’ve just gotten rejected from the college of their choice. It’s interesting to read now, as researchers are zeroing in on the importance of resilience in life and learning. Clearly, Nyhan was onto something.

But his words, about disappointment and picking yourself up, are also a great counterbalance to the craziness of college admissions that we now find ourselves in. I imagine if he were still alive, he’d write the same thing. Here’s a taste:

They can look at your grades and weigh your scores and see how many years you were in French Club. But they can’t look into your head, or into your heart. They can’t check out the guts department.

This is the important thing: They didn’t reject you. They rejected your resume. They gave some other kid the benefit of the doubt. Maybe that kid deserved a break. Don’t you deserve a break? Sure. You’ll get one. Maybe this is the reality check you needed. Maybe the school that does take you will be good. Maybe this is the day you start to grow up.