kitchen table math, the sequel: Harvard Admissions Meeting

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Harvard Admissions Meeting

This might go well with the discussion on getting perfect SAT scores. I realized from the SAT averages of Ivy League schools that they must go way out of their way to accept students with (relatively) lower scores. That's why many students with top scores don't get in. A friend of mine was in charge of an open meeting, sponsored by our state's Harvard Club, that talked about Harvard and the admission process. It also included a discussion by some current students from our state.

It started with a 20 minute video presentation that seemed to go out of its way to talk about how Harvard students are really just regular people - not some sort of elite. Well, they are elite regular people. That's the community they are trying to put together, and above a certain level of grades, other things become much more important.

So here is the issue. What does Harvard look for in a student? They don't want kids to apply just because it's Harvard or an Ivy League school. But after the meeting, I can't say that I know the answer to this question. They want a well-rounded school, but the admissions officer for the state claimed that each student can be "oblong". If you don't know what you want to concentrate in (they don't call it a major), then why would you want to go to Harvard? Because it's an Ivy League school? The admissions officer said that all Ivy League schools are different, but she didn't explain how Harvard might be different than Yale. It seems to me that if you made a case about wanting to be part of the work being done in one specific department at Harvard, that wouldn't be enough. Since most students don't know what they want to concentrate in, that's not really part of the admissions equation. They don't want you to apply because of their name or because it's an Ivy League school, but what else is there? They will decide if they want you based on their needs, not your needs. One of my grandfathers went to Harvard and one went to Yale. Why? Because one lived in CT and one lived in MA.

Someone once told me that the reason to go to an Ivy League school is for the people you'll meet and for the opportunities you might get. I realized when the students spoke that they were just talking about undergraduate courses. They were still figuring out what they wanted to concentrate in. Do they transfer to another Ivy League school when they figure it out? No. They wait for grad school.

In music performance, the goal is to find the best teacher to work with. You don't just blindly apply to Juilliard or Curtis. But then again, name, connections, and opportunities matter. It seems that the top schools want it both ways. They recruit based on their reputations, but students are supposed to pretend that it doesn't matter.

21 comments:

FedUpMom said...

SteveH, I often think the Ivies want to have it both ways. Here's another example: the admissions directors give lip service to the idea that they don't want teenagers becoming sleep-deprived workaholics obsessed with their college applications. "We want creative, well-rounded kids who have found their passion!" Who do they actually admit? Sleep-deprived workaholics.

SteveH said...

I don't think they want well-rounded kids either, and most of the students probably don't know what their passion or concentration will be. The school would rather have someone who has exceptional abilitites in one area (not just academic) rather than someone who dabbles in a variety of areas. They want to cherry pick the driven, "oblong" elite who are specialists and not generalists. Their reputation allows them to do that, but students have to pretend that something else drives them to apply to the school.

Anonymous said...

This kabuki dance reminds me of a sequence from Liar's Poker, by Michael Lewis.

Michael is interviewing for a Wall Street job, and it is going poorly...

Interviewer: Why do you want to be an investment banker?

Michael: (obviously, the honest answer was that I didn't know. That was unacceptable. After a waffle or two, I gave him what I figured he wanted to hear): Well, really, when you get right down to it, I want to make money.

Interviewer: That's not a good reason. You work long hours in this job, and you have to be motivated by more than just money. It's true, our compensation is in line with our contribution. But frankly, we try to discourage people from our business who are too interested in money. That's all.

That's all? The words ring in my ears. Before I could stop it from happening, I was standing outside the cubicle in a cold sweat listening to the next candidate being grilled. Never for a moment did I doubt the acceptability to an investment banker of a professed love of money. I had thought that investment bankers made money for a living, the way Ford made cars. Even if analysts were not paid as well as the older investment bankers, I had thought they were meant to be at least a tine bit greedy. Why did the interviewer from Lehman take offense at the suggestion? A friend who eventually won a job with Lehman Brothers later explained. "It's taboo," he said. "When they ask you why you want to be an investment banker, you're supposed to talk about the challenges, ant the thrill of doing deals, and the excitement of working with such high-caliber people, but never, ever mention money."

Learning a new lie was easy. Believing it was another matter ... That money wasn't the binding force was, of course, complete and utter bullshit ... I mean, did anyone, even in those innocent days, doubt the importance of money on Wall Street?

Anonymous said...

"I don't think they want well-rounded kids either, and most of the students probably don't know what their passion or concentration will be. The school would rather have someone who has exceptional abilitites in one area (not just academic) rather than someone who dabbles in a variety of areas. They want to cherry pick the driven, "oblong" elite who are specialists and not generalists."

I don't think that they are hiding THIS. I think I remember reading somewhere that some admissions director pointed out that BigNameCollege didn't want well rounded students ... they wanted a well rounded class. The point being that the school wanted kids who excelled at one or two things rather than were merely above average in lots of things.

In fact, what they *really* want are kids who are good generalists and who *ALSO* have a specific skill/talent/interest in depth.

Well, heck, this is what I look for when I'm interviewing job candidates!

I think these schools are looking for drive/passion more than they care about the specific direction. And I don't think they are hiding this, either. This doesn't seem unreasonable.

What I don't get is why they care about the candidates pretending to want to be at Harvard/Yale/Princeton for any reason *other* than that these are Ivy League schools.

-Mark Roulo

Allison said...

Oh, for one, because the admissions folks want to believe the Ivies aren't interchangeable. Yale really really really doesn't want to be "Harvard but in Cambridge" (well, because they'd lose then, completely. No one in their right minds would pick ceteris paribus, New Haven over Cambridge.) Same for all the rest--they want to claim their schools has some individual unique value. If you're just applying to an Ivy because it's an Ivy, you're applying to all the others too, and then you didn't really want to go to THEIR school at all--you didn't really think one had more prestige or character or something than the rest.

Anonymous said...

"If you're just applying to an Ivy because it's an Ivy, you're applying to all the others too..."

Which a bunch of these kids are doing ... maybe not applying to *ALL*, but probably applying to more than one.

Which everyone knows.

So why pretend?

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

The sad thing is that the Ivies have become less and less a route up the social ladder due to the ridiculously high expectations of students. You can't just have great grades and great ethos any more - all of which puts lower-income kids at a serious disadvantage. I was lucky to get into a top 10 (or 20) college over 15 years ago. I was above-average in lots of areas but didn't have any special skill. My parents simply didn't have the time or money to support me in extracurricular activities.

Did you read the NY Times article on "Super Persons" this past Sunday? It kind of goes along with this college admissions craziness.

SteveH said...

"You can't just have great grades and great ethos any more - all of which puts lower-income kids at a serious disadvantage."

Their point was that it takes more than just great grades, and that they go out of their way to balance the class in many ways. The video made a big deal about the acceptance of the son of a lobsterman. It was clearly a point they were making. They want more kids to apply. I would say that many affluent kids are at a disadvantage. They are a dime a dozen.

I think what struck me the most is that Ivy League schools have to work really hard to lower their average SAT scores to where they are. Of course, we're talking about a 725 average, but how many applicants are rejected who have higher scores? I also think that being well-rounded is not a good thing, especially if it looks like resume padding. I'm sure they can spot that a mile away.

By the way, they try to interview every applicant and they made a point that on the application, "optional" doesn't mean secretly mandatory. They want you to make your case but don't annoy them with too much. If your application folder is too thick, nobody will read it. Follow directions carefully. They allow you to send only the best SAT scores. They also want to see two achievement test scores (not at least two) as long as it shows strengths in multiple areas.

Catherine Johnson said...

Steve - I'm going to email you off-list so check your junk mail just in case.

As to the question of the Ivies taking students with low scores, I've been wondering how many students score 'evenly' on the SAT: that is, how many students have a 700 math & a 700 verbal?

Obviously C. has a huge discrepancy between math & verbal here; I'm hearing the same thing with other kids. Huge, enormous, giganto discrepancies.

So...and I maybe shouldn't be getting into this here...

Out of the blue, C. has received a letter from a major school, a school we weren't even thinking about. It is apparently a recruitment letter, though it doesn't guarantee acceptance - I assume it must be like the kind of thing good high school athletes get??

I don't know. A professor at the college in question told us he thinks that means C's chances of acceptance are 50-50.

As far as we can determine, this has happened because of C's 800 on critical reading. He has a 620 on math, but that seems to have no bearing on the 800 in reading (at least not for the purposes of the letter & the weekend he'll spend at the campus).

I know that Ed has talked to students at NYU who have sky-high verbal scores and horrible math scores -- and I have to assume, now, that the same is true at the Ivies.

If a lot of academic kids are showing this kind of split, that would account for the SAT scores at the Ivies. You'd have math/science kids with 800 on math & 600-650 on reading; then you'd have social science/humanities kids with the opposite score profile.

Crimson Wife said...

At the most selective schools, a "discrepancy" would be an 800 vs. 720-740.

I had a 750 V, 650 M on my 11th grade SAT and I was told even back in '93 as a "baby buster" that I needed to pull my math up to at least 700 (pre-recentering) if I hoped to be competitive for Harvard & Stanford. I did manage to crack 700 on the math in 12th and got into both schools.

Catherine Johnson said...

At the most selective schools, a "discrepancy" would be an 800 vs. 720-740.

I have reason to believe that's not always the case.

ChemProf said...

I think you are right, Catherine, especially for boys with high verbal scores.

GoogleMaster said...

Thirty years ago I collected a couple of brown grocery bags full of recruitment materials sent to me out of the blue, some from top tier schools and many from schools I had never heard of and wouldn't have been interested in anyway. I suspect C will end up with the same, and this one is just the first of many.

SteveH said...

It reminds me of Professor Slughorn (Harry Potter) who selects "high flyers" for his Slug Club. He selected Ginny Weasly because she could do a marvelous Bat Bogey hex.

I'll bet colleges rate a 800/650 SAT combo higher than a 725/725 combo.

ChemProf said...

There's also a dirty little secret here -- Harvard wants to get applications from students who have no realistic shot of being accepted. They like having an admit rate under 10%. 23,000 people applied to Harvard last year. Even if only 2300 of them had no shot at admission (and I'll bet it is higher), since they pay $75 to apply and they can be easily screened out by a cheap student intern, that's over 170K for free, plus it keeps their admissions profile where they like it. No downside! And maybe they do find the occasional gem from these students.

Amy P said...

"There's also a dirty little secret here -- Harvard wants to get applications from students who have no realistic shot of being accepted. They like having an admit rate under 10%."

Very good point.

Catherine Johnson said...

There's also a dirty little secret here -- Harvard wants to get applications from students who have no realistic shot of being accepted.

absolutely

there's a fabulous passage in Crazy U about that (a scene at Harvard, in fact)

Catherine Johnson said...

I'll bet colleges rate a 800/650 SAT combo higher than a 725/725 combo.

I would bet a very large sum of money on this.

First of all, I more or less know it's the case at NYU, where Ed routinely encounters students with sky-high verbal scores and cra*** math scores. Routinely.

Second, it now looks to me likely to be true at the Ivies as well.

We've been scared C. wouldn't be accepted by NYU because there is no way he's going to make their median math score.

But when you stop and think about it, what is that math score and who has it?

Given the students Ed has talked to, it looks to me like that math/science kids have the math score & the history/humanities kids have the verbal score.

In the aggregate, it looks like they've got a gazillion students with 750-750. But I'm pretty sure they don't.

Also, the left-digit bias thing is absolutely true.

I've been meaning to publish research showing that parents will pay for more tutoring to get a 680 or a 690 up to a 700.

When I first read that, I thought it was irrational.

Now I don't.

There is a HUGE psychological difference between 800 and 780 -- and between 700 and 680.

Catherine Johnson said...

I think you are right, Catherine, especially for boys with high verbal scores.

I've been thinking the same (re: boys with high verbal).

Catherine Johnson said...

Free advice!

Parents should be thinking about yield .... the global numbers we see may not be the right numbers to be looking at.

Of course, I'm not sure how exactly to go about looking at yield....I'm thinking articles in alumni magazines are the best bet.

Catherine Johnson said...

Thirty years ago I collected a couple of brown grocery bags full of recruitment materials sent to me out of the blue

We have a gazillion of those things!

VIEW BOOKS!!!!

I scanned the one from Grinnell & haven't gotten around to posting it -- (hint: it features International Mean Girls!!!!)

This is different.

(Ed has now talked to his friend who teaches at the school as well as to another friend whose kids both attended the weekend in question.)