How does the Admissions Committee determine who gets into Harvard University?

More than 14,000 hopeful students apply for admission to Harvard each year, competing to fill out a freshman class of about 1,600. In an average year, roughly 15 percent of the applicants will be accepted; about 75 percent of successful applicants matriculate.

The basic admissions requirements include graduation from secondary school, and completion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and three achievement tests (ACH) in subjects of the applicant’s choice.

An applicant’s high school academic load should include four years of English, four years of mathematics, three years of science (with labs), three years of foreign language, and three years of history. Some training in music and art is also recommended. An applicant must have an interview, either on campus or with a local alumna or alumnus, and provide letters of recommendation from three teachers.

Such are the perfunctory requirements. Most applicants meet them easily.

To actually get in, an applicant must have excellent grades and test scores: 98 percent or so of successful candidates rank in the top fifth of their high school class. Average SAT scores of those admitted are around 660 verbal, 700 mathematics, for a combined score of 1,360 out of a possible 1,600. (The national SAT average is 896 combined-422 verbal, 474 mathematics).

Still, straight A’s and near perfect SAT scores alone do not guarantee admission to Harvard. If they did, it would be very difficult to decide between the fourteen thousand applicants, most of whom distinguished themselves academically in high school. An applicant must also meet other important criteria.

Harvard’s thirty-five member admissions committee looks for special talents, virtuosity on the flugelhorn, say, or a unique knack for computer programming. Extracurricular activities are important, and ethnic origin and geographic location play a role.

It has been said that Harvard is less interested in well-rounded students than in a well-rounded class: the budding poet with no aptitude for physics might get in, and so might the brilliant amateur chemist who has never read a novel that wasn’t assigned in English class.

A well-rounded class also means a broad geographic and ethnic distribution of students. In a recent freshman class, all fifty states and dozens of foreign countries were represented. Almost as many students now come from out west as do from New England.

In terms of ethnicity, better than one student in four is of a minority, and about 45 percent of entering freshmen are women. Roughly 70 percent of all students receive some kind of financial aid. These figures represent a dramatic departure from the stereotypical Harvard student of years gone by: an affluent white male graduate of a New England prep school.

Since Harvard wants a diverse class profile, a geographic edge can sometimes make the difference between acceptance and rejection: a kid from Montana who is class valedictorian, star quarterback of the football team, and scored 1,400 on his SATs might get the nod over a kid from Massachusetts with equal accomplishments.

This is because, in essence, the student from Montana is competing with other students from Montana, where the applicant pool is relatively small, while the Massachusetts student is competing against all other applicants from Massachusetts, which leads the fifty states in number of Harvard applicants. Conventional wisdom has it that the best way for parents to get their kids into Harvard is not to send them to an exclusive prep school in the East, but rather to move to some rural county in a state such as Montana.

The surest way of all would be for the parents to have graduated from Harvard themselves. About 40 percent of applications from children of Harvard alums are accepted; “legacies,” as such students are called, are three times as likely to get into Harvard as unaffiliated applicants. Legacies constitute nearly 20 percent of Harvard’s enrollment.

Harvard admissions officials argue that the relatively high acceptance rate for sons and daughters of Harvard grads is only natural, since legacies have smart parents and usually come from privileged backgrounds where education is emphasized. The admissions people have also said that the legacy factor is only used to break a tie between equally qualified candidates.

Recently, however, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights decided to take a look at Harvard’s classified admissions files. The OCR found that contrary to the university’s claims, legacies were, on average, less qualified than their non-legacy classmates.

Based on an examination of admissions ratings of accepted students in a variety of categories, including academics, extracurriculars, personal qualities, and recommendations, the OCR concluded that “with the exception of the athletic rating, nonlegacies scored better than legacies in all categories of comparison.”

The real reason so many legacies get into Harvard is financial: every year Harvard grads contribute millions of dollars to their alma mater. To shut the door on the children of wealthy alums might have a negative effect on their generosity. And that generosity, university administrators argue, feeds the scholarship fund that allows Harvard to admit eminently qualified students regardless of their ability to pay.

In the words of one Harvard official, “If you have a perfect SAT score, are first in your class and captain of an athletic team, you’ve got a good shot” at getting admitted. Add “child of Harvard-educated parents” to the equation, and you’re a shoo-in.