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?