3 years ago
Harvard prospective students

What does Harvard look for in students?

I know all top tier schools want people with integrity, super strong academics, and amazing extracurriculars, but are there any specific things that Harvard looks for to make sure that the applicant fit in with that program?

For that matter, what do Stanford and Caltech look for?


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2 answers

Accepted Answer
3 years ago

Harvard College has one of the most complicated and detailed criteria for evaluating applicants for consideration for admissions. It makes sense because they have been doing it for 384 years. As the oldest college in America by 60 years and the oldest Ivy, they have for the most part kept their admissions process under lock and key for all these years. However, during the lawsuit brought against them by Asian students under SFFA (Student for Fair Admissions) in 2014 and ruled on in 2019, the discovery process turned up tens of thousands of documents that revealed the actual admissions process including scorecards and ranking rubrics so the "cat was out of the bag" for those paying attention.

I will not go into really deep detail but I will give you the 1000 feet birdseye view of the big picture. Basically, all cohorts are ranked 1 to 5 on a scorecard by 1 application reader. Unless the application gets stuck or needs help, only then will a 2nd application reader be brought into the process before presenting their stack to the admissions committee to give a thumbs up, thumbs down, or deferment. If you are ranked a 1 in a rubric such as academics you are Summa Potential which means that you are a "Genuine Scholar", have near-perfect scores, possess unusual creativity, and show evidence of original scholarship. Less than 1% of Harvard College admits are ranked 1 for academics. So in an accepted class of 2024 which admitted 1980, that would be 20 students. If you are ranked a 2 that means you have Magna Potential. Magnas have superb grades, mid to high 700+ SAT scores per section, and 33+ ACT scores per section. (90% of Harvard admits are in this range) So they are in the 98th to 99th+ percentile range of test scores. If you are ranked 3 you have Cum Laude potential and have excellent grades, up to low 700s SATs, and up to 32 ACT scores. (Very few Harvard admits have these scores and they are reserved for say VIP applicants like Celebrities (David Hogg), Development Candidates (Jared Kushner), and Recruited Athletes. A rank of 4 means has "MARGINAL POTENTIAL" you are a respectable student with good grades low to mid 600s SAT scores per section and up to 29 ACT. A rank of 5 means you are classified as "Achievement or Motivation Marginal" (I don't know what that means but these are the applicants that apply for the heck of it and have decent grades, average SAT and ACT scores (0.0000% of getting in). So at Harvard, if you are a 2 which I think can be further broken down into say a 2+, 2, or a 2-, that's all you need to meet the academic threshold. They don't care if you have a 33 ACT or a 36 ACT, or a 1460 SAT or 1600 ACT, you don't get a bump unless you are a certifiable genius and get ranked a 1. The best candidates due however show evidence of intellectual curiosity beyond the high school curriculum and this can be evidenced by taking a college course, dual enrollment, doing independent learning, etc. So what I've just talked about is 1 check box on a scorecard.

The other scores have to do with the following 6 criteria:

Extracurricular, Community, Employment, Family Rating - Rank 1 to 5

Personal Rating - (Grit, Leadership, Integrity, Helpfulness, Courage, Kindness) Rank 1 to 5

Teacher Recommendation and School Support - Rank 1 to 5

Athletic Rating - Rank 1 to 5

Interview Rating - Rank 1 to 5

Other factors that influence Harvard Admissions officers are whether you are a

1. Recruited Athlete

2. Legacy - Only a parent from Harvard College (not Grad School) qualifies as a legacy, not aunts, uncles, siblings, or grandparents.

3. Development Candidate - Someone whose family has donated $$$ (I would say at least $2.5 million) There are many Int'l families that donate say $1MM to every single Ivy each year of HS just to make sure their kid gets in somewhere.

4. Son or daughter or Harvard employee

5. Celebrity factor - VIP candidate. Famous actor/actress or justice warrior.

Although Harvard was found completely innocent of any systemic practices that had to do with unfair admissions practices based on race or demographics, it is a nuanced complicated problem nevertheless. It is the policy of the college to make higher education a level playing field as much as possible so they give a hand up to BIPOC low income, first-gen applicants fully aware that some of them do not have perfect grades, test scores nor have had any access to participate in Varsity athletics like Water Polo, Lacrosse, Fencing or Rowing. As a result of creating a more diverse cohort of admits, it is naturally much harder to get into Havard if you are Asian or White even if you have perfect grades and test scores.

The system is not fair nor equitable to some, but on the other hand, since they are the oldest and richest private university in the world, they can do whatever they want. They didn't get 40 billion dollars in endowment overnight. They amassed this wealth from many generations of loyal families and family-owned corporations. As a perk, they have one of the highest legacy matriculations as well. Some reports suggest that in any given year, legacies make up 30% of the class.

Although 85% of legacies come from families whose annual income is 250,000+, Harvard at the same time has one of the most generous need-blind financial aid in the country. If you qualify and are admitted and come from a low-income family (Less than 75K) you basically get a free ride for 4 years.


I've already written more than I originally intended but you can see that just talking about Harvard College is worthy of a 300-page book if you really want to know how they think about their applicants.

With regards to Stanford and Caltech, the application review is different at both. I would say that Stanford is a close relative to the Harvard Approach where they use a scorecard and ranking rubric as well. 1 is the highest, 2 is what most applicants are ranked and 3 is barely acceptable. Very few admitted students have a 3 on anything but some have 3s on Athleticism for example because they are very nerdy and don't do any sports.

Caltech is closer to MIT where everything is more Black and White and based on a meritocratic method. That is why those 2 schools have the highest test scores and GPAs in the country. I think Caltech's SAT scores are like 1530-1560 for the middle 50%. Since Caltech is basically a STEM school, it doesn't make sense to apply there if you are into political science, gender students, or history. While they have excellent English and Language professors, their purpose to make sure that all the cohorts know how to write well in order to explain their thesis' and projects and that they fulfill a language requirement. Caltech doesn't give a d@mn about legacy, recruited athletes, or big money donors kids. I think it's the same at MIT.

The last thing I will say is that these schools are getting harder and harder to get into during COVID-19 because a.) they are all test-optional or test-blind (Caltech) b.) there are fewer spots because up to 20% of last year's class took a gap year. Harvard had 349 deferred admissions which mean that there will be say up to 250 fewer spots for the Class of 2025. I expect at least 125 Class of 2025 will defer because of COVID-19 as well. As a result, SCREA admits rates were 7.4% versus 13.9% last year. At MIT SCREA admit rates were 4.74% versus 7.4%. So you know that Stanford and Caltech have a similar squeeze on EA/ED as well. This year, we will most likely witness the lowest Regular Decision admit rates of all time. And it will continue like this into next year as well.

Good luck with your college admissions process.

3 years ago

CalTech Stanford and Harvard all are super selective school and generally super selective schools look for in a word uniqueness. The cliche of not a well rounded student but a well rounded class applies. This typically comes from ECs and essays. Uniqueness can come from personal circumstances or from extracurriculars that aren’t the common ones. One of the ones I heard a Stanford student do was be a top person in a sport I can’t even name. On a CV livestream someone was ranked nationally in a rifle competition. Essentially they want a moving essay/circumstances and someone that has impressive unique ECs. Being president of a club doesn’t suffice.

Hope this helps and feel free to comment if you’s like clarification as I’d be more than happy to help!

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