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Getting Into Harvard

Getting Into Harvard

A lesson from a Harvard admissions interviewer.

by

How do you get into Harvard?

Many students wonder, particularly in the current frenzied climate of college applications. 2014 was the most selective year ever: Stanford University officially became the hardest school to get into in US history, accepting just 5% of applicants. The University of Chicago, which a decade ago took 40% of students who applied, admitted just 8% in 2014. Harvard and Yale accepted 6% of students applying, their lowest number ever.

As an alumna interviewer who meets with prospective students applying to Harvard, many high school students and parents ask me what they can do to give themselves an edge. I don’t think there is any definitive answer, but I will tell you one crucial criterion that I saw Harvard Admissions Office use in their selection process.

When I first began interviewing, I was fresh out of Harvard, attending graduate school in London. The first applicant I interviewed came from a posh private school, and was almost impossibly accomplished. Her grades were off the charts and she spoke about her life with poise and polish I could never hope to master. The second student I interviewed had perfect grades too; she hoped to be a doctor, and to this day I remember how movingly she spoke about her wish to give back to society.

But perfect grades weren’t the most important benchmark. Included in the information packet for interviewers, the Harvard Admissions Office explained that while perfect grades help, they do not guarantee a spot in the freshman class. The university wanted to know instead if the students have challenged themselves to move beyond their comfort zones. Have they moved beyond the boundaries and limits of their schools, their communities, their families? Harvard recognized that promising students come from all types of backgrounds, from extremely privileged to disadvantaged. One crucial question they asked was: What have you done with the set of challenges and opportunities you've been given?

My next interview was another accomplished student who went to a prestigious school. She explained with great passion how a chance meeting with a foreign student had opened her eyes to the poverty of some schools in the developing world. She’d decided to do something for a particular school abroad, and described an extensive charity program she initiated, recruiting volunteers, organizing events, and coordinating enough donations to rebuild parts of the foreign school she’d adopted. I was dumfounded.

Of all the applicants I interviewed that year, she was the only one Harvard admitted.

Based on my experience, the most promising students are often those who have sought out new opportunities.

One student I interviewed attended a less-academic high school than many applicants. Disappointed that his school had few advanced classes, he took evening courses at a local community college. Another student I interviewed started a book discussion group amongst the students to help inspire teens in her community to read. Another student did ground-breaking research during a summer internship, and published his eventual breakthrough in a major journal.

Not every one of these students was admitted to Harvard, but no matter where these talented and motivated students go to college, their energy in pushing themselves beyond their limits – in finding creative ways to go beyond what is expected of them – ensures their success.

Are you doing the most you can with what you’ve been given?

The Torah teaches that we’re each created betzelem Elokim, in the Image of the Divine. When we begin to grow, to push ourselves to maximize our talents and potential, we tap into this limitless potential. When we start pushing our own boundaries, we find ourselves strengthened and aided, too.

I once heard a rabbi compare people to actors on a stage. Stage actors don’t complain about their character’s surroundings because actors know that’s not the criteria by which they’ll be judged. Actors understand that some characters they play might be rich, others poor, some clever or troubled, etc. These attributes don’t reflect on the actors themselves; what counts is how well they play their role, what they do with the material they’ve been given.

Similarly, each of us is surrounded by our own unique setting. And while we cannot control the conditions around us, we have it in our power to push ourselves to do the best with the material we’ve been given. As our sages say, “According to the effort is the reward” (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:1).

We are in the midst of a Sefirat HaOmer, when we count the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, which celebrates when we received the Torah. These days are a time to prepare, to climb the rungs of the ladder moving from the limitations of slavery to the maturity of being ready to receive the Torah and live up to our full potential.

One way is by keeping in mind the advice of Harvard’s Admissions Office. Are you doing the most you can with what you’ve been given?

Published: May 4, 2014


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Visitor Comments: 12

(10) Anonymous, May 8, 2014 4:20 PM

who needs Harvard

I'm sure most Americans will not get this comment. Americans are so brainwashed to believe that all success and happiness is completely corelated with entry and completion of ivy league universities. From what I read in another article on Aish concerning anti-Israel sentiment in many American universities, including Harvard, I am greatly relieved that my own children will never study there.
Actually, there's a lot more to life and to how success can be defined.

Steve David, May 13, 2014 12:05 PM

Anti-Israel Sentiment Is Not Confined To The Ivy League

Because "Israel Apartheid Week" is "celebrated" on many college campuses around the world, it's unfair to single out the Ivy League as a culprit, although you'd think that the students accepted to these highly selective schools should be smart enough to know better. That said, there is something to be said for an admissions process which selectes students who have demonstrated their brilliance in unusual and exceptional ways. That doesn't mean that some students at other schools don't share those qualities or can't receive an excellent education at their colleges, but the odds are you will find a greater number at the more selective schools. Anyway, the author of the article is using her experience as a college recruiter to make the very Jewish point to use our gifts to make the world a better place no matter where we went to school.

(9) Lisa, May 7, 2014 1:29 PM

Great role models!!

Just having my son do his homework is pushing him out of his comfort zone! Lol
Also kudos to their parents who are probably amazing role models!

(8) Haim, May 7, 2014 3:30 AM

I envy you. Meeting so many Albert Schwiters and mother Thereza, just before...

just before...

(7) Rachel, May 7, 2014 2:30 AM

Unrealistic for many students

I don't think it's right that Harvard would tell students they should "move beyond their comfort zones."

Many students today are already overwhelmed with schoolwork, mandatory community service, and extracurricular activities. Students attending Jewish day schools are particularly overwhelmed because of the dual curriculum.

I realize that schools need a way to differentiate. However, many of the young people I know are already pretty uncomfortable because of these pressures. And in my experience, elite schools don't really care if a teen is working at a paying job (never mind that she's waitressing to save money for college) or sharing a lot of family responsibilities because of a large family or a disabled parent.

I went to a state university because it was all I could afford. Many years (and another career, and two children) after undergrad, I was admitted to and attended a very prestigious law school. My life experience might have bolstered my chances (although my 92nd percentile on the LSAT and my cum laude undergrad degree didn't hurt), but I didn't obtain my life experience because I was planning to eventually apply to top-notch law schools.

Live YOUR life to the best of YOUR ability. First, meet your responsibilities. And then try to learn something new every day, and find pleasure in what's good as well as what's fun. If after that Harvard doesn't want you, I suspect you won't really care because you'll know by then that there are more important things in life than where you get your degree.

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