How to get into Harvard

Deborah Friedell

The director of Harvard admissions has said that being a ‘Harvard legacy’ – the child of a Harvard graduate – is just one of many ‘tips’ in the college’s admissions process, such as coming from an ‘under-represented state’ (Harvard likes to have students from all 50), or being on the ‘wish list’ of an athletic coach. For most applicants to Harvard, the acceptance rate is around 5 per cent; for applicants with a parent who attended Harvard, it’s around 30 per cent. (One survey found that 16 per cent of Harvard undergraduates have a parent who went to Harvard.) A Harvard study from a few years ago shows that after controlling for other factors that might influence admission (such as, say, grades), legacies are more than 45 per cent more likely to be admitted to the 30 most selective American colleges than non-legacies.

Preferential admission for legacies ought to be an anachronism, not least because it overwhelmingly benefits rich white students. Harvard's admissions director defends the practice by claiming that legacies ‘bring a special kind of loyalty and enthusiasm for life at the college that makes a real difference in the college climate... and makes Harvard a happier place.’ That ‘special kind of loyalty’ can express itself in material ways. Graduates with family ties – four generations of Harvard men! – are assumed to be particularly generous, and they cut colleges off when their children don’t get in.

Private colleges have never pretended that any kind of Chinese wall separates the admissions office from the development office. And as long as a student can survive academically, the argument might go, why shouldn’t a mega donation tip the scales? After all, money to renovate the campus art gallery or to endow a chair in sociolinguistics benefits a college no less than having a North Dakotan instead of a Virginian. In one episode of The Simpsons, Mr Burns tries to have his son admitted to Yale. An admissions officer tells him, frankly, that ‘test scores like Larry's would merit a very generous donation. A score of 400 would require new football uniforms. Three hundred would require a new dormitory. And in Larry's case? We'd need an international airport.’

WikiLeaks has published all the Sony emails that had been hacked last November, and made them searchable by keyword. In 2014, a senior executive emailed an Ivy League vice-president of philanthropy: he’d like to endow a scholarship, anonymously, ‘at the $1mm level’. In another email, he tells a development officer that his daughter is applying to the college as her first choice. It’s all very decorous. The development staff arrange a 'customised' campus tour for his daughter and a meeting with the university’s president; but he asks for no favours and nothing is promised. An email from the president says that his daughter's application will be looked at 'very closely'. She gets in. He writes to his sister: 'David... called me. he is obsessed with getting his eldest in Harvard next year.’ She replies: ‘If David wants to get his daughter in he should obviously start giving money.’ Obviously.


  • 20 April 2015 at 6:05pm
    AVK says:
    This blog post trades on popular stereotypes about insufferably privileged people and the Ivy League. These stereotypes clearly exist for a reason. It is also true, though, that at least 84% of students at Harvard are not the children of Harvard graduates, that 70% receive some form of financial aid, and 20% pay nothing at all.

    This financial aid is made possible, at least in part, through donations from families that have sent generations to Harvard. I knew a lot of legacy admits when I studied at Harvard many years ago as one of the 20% who qualified for full financial aid. Some of these legacy kids lived in another social stratosphere entirely and swanned into jobs on Wall St or art galleries in Manhattan. Many were hardworking, brilliant, wrote prize-winning novels and went to medical school. Not all were white (newsflash: immigrants and visible minorities also go to Harvard and then encourage their kids to apply). None were stupid or manifestly unqualified to be there.

    It's easy and fun (and not at all new or especially interesting) to sarcastically denounce the role of money in Harvard admissions. The more difficult question, though, is whether it is justified. Insofar as it allows for a need-blind admissions policy, I'm inclined to think that it is. Or at least that it is better than an admissions policy that admits the best (who can afford to pay). That would be an elitism worth mocking.

    • 21 April 2015 at 4:31pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ AVK
      The blog trades in statements of fact, not stereotypes. Of course its true that 84% of Harvard undergraduates don't have a parent who was a Harvard undergrad, but what do you think is the figure for the total population of the USA (not the mention the rest of the world, since admission is at least in theory international)? 99%? 99.9%? Whatever it is, there's clearly an imbalance.

      That such "legacy" kids are not stupid is not surprising. They are the well educated children of well educated, often very wealthy, parents. (They have also been socialised to present a certain kind of intelligence, which is that valued at Ivy League universities - which is why their being "qualified" as you put it, is not an entirely unambiguous or objective measure of merit.)

      Harvard is of course an excellent university, whose undergraduates are very intelligent. But they're not all future Nobel prize winners or genii, and they don't need to be to fit in. There are thousands of kids from America's upper class capable of excelling there. But there are thousands of kids from other backgrounds equally capable. Are they getting the same opportunities to do so? That's the question at issue here. As the study that the author cites demonstrates, even controlling for grades, (which we might take as a proxy for intelligence, for the sake of argument), legacy kids still have a much greater chance of admission. So the question, again, is why?

      If Harvard and other Ivy League universities actually think that wealthy families should be able to buy places for their children, and justify this on the basis of financial aid as you do, then they should be upfront about it. At the moment they cloak it in the language of culture and loyalty as quoted above. They should be transparent - like Mr Burns' interlocutor.

      Incidentally, the article doesn't say anything about legacy students all being white. Seems you're projecting.

    • 21 April 2015 at 4:48pm
      John Cowan says: @ AVK
      But need-blind is just what it isn't, because people with needy parents (who can't make donations) are disadvantaged at getting in. So it's pay tuition or pay donations, but in any case, pay.

      (I went to an American public university by choice. My daughter went by necessity, and I imagine my grandson will go by necessity too, if it's even still affordable a decade hence.)

    • 22 April 2015 at 10:45am
      AVK says: @ Harry Stopes
      The stereotype - 'four generations of Harvard men' - is very moneyed and WASPish. Throughout, Friedell conflates legacy admits with 'the children of very wealthy donors.' This is conjecture since the studies (to my knowledge - please correct me if I am wrong here since those numbers would be interesting) don't actually distinguish between a legacy admit whose parents are first generation college graduates who have given no money and a legacy admit who is one of 'four generations of Harvard men' and whose parents are generous donors. Some of those 16% legacy admits certainly belong to the former category; acknowledging that would be helpful (although it would make for a less compelling narrative).

      An episode in The Simpsons (that exemplifies without substantiating the stereotype) and a stray email (the $1mm donation was actually to Brown, which the donor had not attended--so, not a legacy and not Harvard) do not constitute facts, and certainly do not substantiate the assumption that if one's parents went to Harvard, and one gets into Harvard, it is (even partly) because of money exchanging hands.

      This leaves open the question of whether wealthy donors (whether or not they are Harvard alum) should be able to give their otherwise qualified children an edge, given that (1) there are usually more than enough qualified applicants, and decisions are at best, as Timothy Rogers put it, educated guesses; and (2) this edge makes possible the education of some who would otherwise not be able to afford the place. This strikes me as a difficult and interesting question, one that isn't resolved by more transparency, and one that at least complicates blithe denunciations.

    • 22 April 2015 at 12:51pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ AVK
      You need to think about what it is you actually want to say. Either legacy admissions are nothing to do with money (in which case what is it?) or they are about money, and that's ok because it pays for bursaries for other kids. You're all over the place.

    • 22 April 2015 at 1:24pm
      AVK says: @ Harry Stopes
      I'm not all over the place. I'm arguing that legacy is an imprecise proxy for money. If the concern is money (which I take it to be), then there's a question on whether or not it is justified to give donors' children an edge IF (1) they are otherwise qualified and if (2) this subsidises the education of others (thereby allowing for a more economically diverse student body overall).

      Do you have a view on that (and preferably one that can be articulated thoughtfully)? Maybe you could think about what you actually want to say.

  • 20 April 2015 at 9:21pm
    ander says:
    To paraphrase Lord Justice Mathew, "In America, ivy league education is open to all, like the Waldorf Astoria."

  • 21 April 2015 at 5:53pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    I think AVK has it more right than Harry Stopes does, with “right” here shaded heavily toward being realistic and practical. Keeping up a university’s endowment by accepting a percentage of legacy kids will sustain the level of private funding (donations) that enables all kinds of useful expenditures – it’s a reasonable strategy. For some of the Ivies it definitely yields the desired “trickle-down” effect of allowing the institutions to absorb the costs of scholarships. For instance, Princeton, which, of course admits a lot of legacy kids, claims to have a “need-blind” admissions policy. You apply, and then, if accepted, the business office looks at your family finances, often resulting in a full or partial scholarship. The legacy kids are not eligible for this aid, and everyone understands the reasons they should not be, regardless of brilliance or some kind of promise that might convert into a socially useful career (which does not include investment banking). Once they’ve gotten beyond the evaluation of grades (standardized test scores plus high-school grades), the admissions people are in the business of making character judgments. This is always risky and is made more difficult today by the knowledge of the applicants that they have to pad their resumes with all kinds of wonderful or exotic “learning experiences” or volunteer service that may or may not tell anyone what kind of people they will be later in their lives. As to transparency, it seems to be a red-herring, especially because all parties involved (kids, teachers, parents, administrators) probably know what’s going on. On this point the applicants generate as much boilerplate that makes them look good as the school does. Transparency is overvalued as soon as it becomes overextended, especially in an era when technology, government, business and a host of others want to know you inside out. Institutional programs that qualify for public money (state or federal) have greater obligations to be transparent (at the university level this would be research programs – typically totally separate from undergraduate education -- that compete for federal funds). And, by the way, whether you are a wealthy child or a poor one, there is no unambiguous or objective measure of your merit, just "educated guesses".

    • 21 April 2015 at 6:44pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ Timothy Rogers
      Assuming it was part of the cited study on legacy admissions (we can't confirm this as the researcher agreed not to name the universities as a condition of getting access to their data) then Princeton clearly does not operate a "needs blind" application system. Neither do the other elite universities in which legacy status great advantages applicants. This is the point.

  • 21 April 2015 at 7:12pm
    lordarsenal says:
    It's a total farce, this obsession among American parents to enroll their children into elite private colleges. I just came back from a trip to Ithaca, NY; my daughter had been accepted into Cornell. We found the campus atmosphere as dreary as the town the college inhabits; smug, tired and utterly lacking in bonhomie. Flying back to California, my daughter made the decision to accept the University of California at Berkeley's invitation to attend this coming fall term. We strongly believe in the public university system, the very system that helped dislodge the closed shop of Ivy League education. Why American parents have developed a mania for enrolling their children into Ivy League schools is the real story here, not the fact that legacy children have a leg up on us mere commoners.

    • 21 April 2015 at 8:31pm
      ander says: @ lordarsenal
      Ivy League isn't so much about education as about reproduction of the ruling class. Lewis Lapham, Editor Emeritus at Harper's, had made a film which explains the how it works. The link,
      explains how to get to the goods.

    • 21 April 2015 at 9:25pm
      marc b. says: @ ander
      And the reproduction of ruling class clones is a corruption of the educational system, not to mention that, contrary to prior comments, these private institutions exploit preferential tax treatment as they qualify as 'non-profits', which means that the general public is just as responsible for Harvard's weighty endowment as private donors. There really is no legitimate rationale for donors buying spots for their children in a 'meritocracy'.

    • 22 April 2015 at 12:20pm
      ander says: @ marc b.
      Indeed. Moreover, a country which drops a trillion dollars a year (no one actually knows how much because big parts of the military budget are either secret or masquerading as something else, secret not so much as to elude the gaze of the enemy as that of the citizen) should be able to finance all education, leaving the ability as the sole criterion for admission.

    • 23 April 2015 at 8:07am
      ander says: @ lordarsenal
      lordarsenal: You are no doubt right so far as the education goes. But, as any hype-ambitious mother will tell you, it's not what you know but who you know. Your daughter will surely receive good education at Berkeley, but she is far less likely there to rub shoulders with the progeny of the 'whom-you-know' set. Lapham's film illuminates this dichotomy.

  • 22 April 2015 at 12:53pm
    Nick_London says:
    No mention of the fact that bright parents have bright children. Whether by nature or nurture.

    Harvard offers schools a "Harvard Book Prize", the prize is a book selected by Harvard. An Alumnus purchases the book and presents it to a local secondary school as a prize.

    The prize is awarded by the school staff to a pupil in his or her penultimate year, the organizers intend that the school awards it to a promising academic star and hope that the the pupil will include Harvard in their consideration of which University to attend.

    I find this a simple and practical form of outreach.

    I wonder what the figures are for Oxbridge? Though the closed scholarships are no more and there is supposed to be a watertight wall between the development and admissions office.

  • 22 April 2015 at 3:12pm
    Toltec says:
    Ander: Harper's Emeritus Editor Lewis Lapham socializes almost exclusively with products of the ruling class that the Ivies allegedly serve to reproduce;ditto for the publisher John MacArthur. So is Lapham complaining or explaining? The best education for the intellectually creative, social and political leaders, seems to be at the technical colleges, military academies, arts schools, and graduate institutes where students and professors routinely test and investigate theory as part of learning experience, rather than merely engaging in passive notation and rote recitations to repeat what the students have been told to pass a course. When one looks at ivies for much real demonstration and real performance of learning as a credential of learning one finds not much difference in graduate breakthroughs in knowledge or state of the art innovations there and at non-Ivy schools. Many, it seems, are called, few are chosen, in nearly every academy since the ancient Greeks and Egyptians.

    • 22 April 2015 at 9:16pm
      ander says: @ Toltec
      Toltec: With whom Lapham socializes is less important than what he projects. If you have read him for as many years as I, you surely know what I'm referring to. If you have not, the film to which I'm pointing in one of my comments to the blog gives a nice synthesis of who the Man is. The fact that he is an aristocrat makes his virtue shine even brighter.

    • 23 April 2015 at 11:08am
      Toltec says: @ ander
      Ander: You cannot know my knowledge of Lewis H. Lapham, but, choosing my words carefully, it so happens that I am very familiar with the work of Lewis H. Lapham at Harper's Magazine and his Lapham Quarterly. As Americans like me however do not recognize class titles, so I was unaware that he was an "aristocrat" in a strict sense. But I have the impression that he considered himself a WASP "Brahmin"; and from mutual acquaintances and hearsay, I get the impression that he tends to an American version of class snobbery or class elitism based on WASP family pedigree. His persona seemed to bless multiculturalism publicly while he remained deeply embedded among familiar journalistic confessors. He was long representative of the WASP finpol who serve as gatekeepers in too much of American culture for too long in our intellectual media outlets, a social orbit uniformly homogenous until recent years. Anyone not his color, not, as the Brits put it, from his "kith and kin," nor in the local Social Register, seemed not on his radar unless mockingly or as a recipient of patronage. To many journalistic colleagues of mine who had some direct experience of one kind or another with Lapham's Harper's, the magazine was never as interesting as its rival, the Atlantic. The short takes he introduced into the mag, in my view, were an editorial disaster. One wonders whether he really cared how the magazine fared, or whether Harper's losses in revenue and readers were his personal losses.

    • 23 April 2015 at 6:33pm
      ander says: @ Toltec
      Toltec: One mustn't try to fit Lapham into the all-American mold, and not everybody who carries a hankie in the breast pocket is a snob. (My late father used to say that a man without one looked naked.) So far as the Atlantic, I have never thought it a rival to Harper's. Having once given it a go I found its Zionist bend off-putting. I know nothing of Lapham's aristocratic pedigree. His letters patent came off of my press.

    • 23 April 2015 at 7:36pm
      Toltec says: @ ander
      Lapham's reputed snobbery was never directed at his sartorial tastes, so far as I knew. I have no idea what you mean by the Atlantic's "Zionist bend." Harper's was certainly never boycotted in Israel as anti-Israel in its editorials or Lapham's musings. The MacArthurs and their foundation would never stand for that.

  • 22 April 2015 at 4:33pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    The legacy-children aside, lordarsenal has hit on the real issue of the “prestige-college” mania of many middle-class parents. In the US it’s part of the post 1970s trend of “over-parenting” mixed with the (unfortunately) normal ambition to climb higher on the greasy pole so that you can smirk at or pity your neighbor, whose child did not do as well in this absurd arena of status competition. Thorstein Veblen could have done it justice. The parents themselves may justify it by saying that they merely want the “best” for their children (as if they had a clue what best means other than more of the same). Any bright, well-motivated kid can follow a couple of paths that, while less prestigious, are far more rational and economical (i.e., not breaking the family budget). One path is the local community college (cheap) that offers advanced placement or honors tracks. By the end of year two, they will find many good colleges (including the Ivies) who need to replace something like 5%$ of the starting class who have failed out or left for other reasons. Or they could transfer to a state university. Or they could start and finish at a state university (preferably in their home-state, where tuition is always relatively cheaper). If the kid performs well academically at one of these, then he or she will be able to get into a decent graduate-school program, if so inclined (or law school, or medical school etc.). Left unsaid until now is skipping college altogether, or deferring entry until one is 21 or 22 (after working or military service, for instance). All of these paths are capable of producing graduates (or just plain old self-reliant people) whose knowledge and skills are on a par with the graduates of Ivies and the other big-name institutions. But those prestige-obsessed parents (or those fearful ones who have nightmares about their children falling out of the middle class) resist such easy and effective alternatives.

  • 23 April 2015 at 7:10pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    On the Lapham "issue", I weigh in with the opinion that his social life and whether or not he was a snob by someone's definition seem to be matters not worth bothering with. For over four decades I had subscriptions to both Harper's and the Atlantic (as well as a lot of other magazines and "lit-rags"), and I always thought Harper's was a more interesting and challenging magazine, even when an issue or two would strike me as odd -- but never dull, the peculiar problem of many Atlantic issues (yesterday's received wisdom presented as tomorrow's cutting edge thinking). As an editorial writer and essayist, Lapham used a syntax that could at times be flowery and involved, and he certainly made many allusions based on an old-fashioned familiarity with the classics of Greek and Latin literature (I don't see anything wrong with that - if you don't get it, look it up, pal). In this respect his writing resembled a lot of Murray Kempton's (to the credit of both). At least his writing was always interesting, more than that, stimulating.

    • 23 April 2015 at 8:32pm
      ander says: @ Timothy Rogers
      And always elegant.

Read more