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Harvard College Admission: Three Recent Case Studies: Two Accepted; One Rejected

Competition to attend #Harvard college is fierce. With such a small percentage of students actually achieving admission, a cottage industry of trying to figure out the magic formula has emerged. Here, we present three case studies, two of successful Harvard applicants and one of a student who was rejected. They are all outstanding students, but why did two get in and the third one did not? This article warns that you should not try to emulate successful candidates because what worked for them may not work for you. Each student is different, and to be successful, each student must present the strongest possible case based on activities, decisions, and accomplishments.

If Harvard were a planet, it would have enough mass to attract hundreds of moons in its gravity. Its enormous stature is also the reason it inspires so many so-called “secrets” of admission. We have all heard the stories of students who were accepted at Harvard, as well as those who were rejected. From these stories, many hopeful parents and students have created their own narratives about how to get into Harvard, without truly recognizing that Harvard admission is a largely holistic process. Successful admission at Harvard is based on several intertwined decisions and accomplishments that date back to ninth grade, and possibly even earlier, and collectively tell a story that is compelling enough to warrant a “thumbs up” from the most selective college admission team on the planet.

Despite anything you may have heard, you cannot and should not expect that a great essay alone will get you in, even when coupled with a perfect GPA and test score. These factors merely put you into the discussion. But that discussion leads into a cavernous arena of additional factors, some of which are objective, but most of which have subtle shades of value. Simply stated, nowhere are the complexities of the admission process more on display than at Harvard. The one exception to this rule is the “extraordinary talent” consideration; if you are “world class” in any one particular area that Harvard needs or wants, that may be enough reason for them to grant admission—assuming, of course, you also have an excellent academic record. You see, even the mountainous offensive linemen on the Harvard Football Team have impressive academic stats!

Suffice to say that elite #collegeadmission is much more of an art form than a science. There are subtle strokes, colors, and hues that must work together to create a masterful portrait. And trying to emulate Picasso, Rembrandt, or Renoir is not the answer. In other words, what has worked for one student may not work for you. However, there are important lessons that can be learned as long as you understand that having your own style is much more likely to earn success then trying to copy somebody else’s. With this as a caveat, here are three case studies, two from students who were admitted recently, and one who was rejected.

Case Study One: Outcome— #AcceptedtoHarvard.

Student One attended public school where he was editor in chief of the newspaper, had started a community service club, had an almost perfect GPA and an SAT score over 1550. He had also conducted significant research over the past two years and had won several writing awards. His stated academic interest was Biological Science, and was deferred, then waitlisted. After a significant amount of effort was expended to get him off the waitlist, he was accepted. His #CommonApp personal essay was a coming-of-age story, about when he first realized he had a love of research and discovery. His activities supported this essay, as did his recommendations, which came after he had submitted long and excruciatingly detailed brag sheets to teachers and to his counselor. His Harvard supplemental essay was about learning how to be a lifeguard as a metaphor for learning new experiences that are outside his comfort zone but that serve to help people along the way.

Takeaway: #BiologicalSciences is a highly competitive major at Harvard which made it ultra-competitive and likely more difficult to achieve acceptance, since he was competing against students from all over the world who had even more accomplishments in the field, and had demonstrated superior character, resilience, and determination. It is likely that this seat was initially offered given to a more socioeconomically challenged student, and/or a first-generation college student, #Questbridge student, #PELLGrant Student, or #ROTC candidate.

Case Study Two: Outcome – Accepted to Harvard.

Student two attended an elite private school where she had earned the title of class president. In addition to an almost perfect GPA and ACT score, she had many significant talents including acting and singing. She had started not one, but two companies. Neither one of her companies was putting up earthshattering numbers, but the fact that she had started two companies worked in her favor, demonstrating her commitment and leadership ability. She had also demonstrated a concern for the environment by starting an organization to increase awareness of ocean and air pollution. In addition, she had provided vocals for an album of songs put together by two other students who eventually became music majors in college. Her stated academic interest was Environmental Science and Public Policy. Her Common App personal essay was about how she had overcome severe shyness in order to rise to the level where she could give a school-wide speech in her position as class president, and also play major roles in her school’s musicals. Her Harvard supplemental essay was a take off of a popular reality TV show in which she “pitches” her long list of qualifications in exchange for acceptance.

Takeaway: Student two’s stated academic interest of Environmental Science and Public Policy was well supported by classes she had taken and by her activities. She has demonstrated both concern for the environment and leadership, both of which would be essential if she decided to pursue this major. It is worth noting that the student was also accepted at MIT.

Case Study Three: Outcome – Rejected from Harvard.

Student three had a nearly perfect GPA from a highly respected public school, and nearly perfect test scores. He had also conducted significant biomedical research at a prestigious lab associated with Harvard University. His most significant activity was that he had worked in the same place for four years, yet he did not do so out of financial need. In addition, he had done several medical related classes over the past couple summers. On paper, he seemed like a very strong candidate even though he was applying with an interest in pursuing biological sciences - a highly competitive major. But this interest put him in direct competition with top students from all around the world who want to go into the biological sciences field. There’s also reasonable leave that his teacher recommendations were less than stellar. Although a brilliant student, he has a bit of an “edge” to him, which may have led to one or more negative comments by teachers or by his counselor. At this level, even one small negative comment can be enough to remove him from contention.

Takeaway: Student three is the quintessential example of the brilliant student who is simply caught up in the immense level of competition that exists at Harvard and other elite colleges. There is no doubt that he would have made an excellent student at Harvard, and that they are aware of this. But in a seller’s market (which is the situation at elite colleges these days), colleges can hold out for what they consider to be a perfect match for the campus culture they are trying to build. It is likely that this seat was given to someone who was equally qualified but was from a more socioeconomically disadvantaged class, which has been a strong push at Harvard for the past 5-7 years.


When demand far exceeds supply, as it does in the case of Harvard admission, the gatekeepers are in control. As an applicant, your job is to present the most appealing case for admission that is possible given who you are and what you have accomplished. This is no easy task given that competition comprises all the top students not only in the US but all across the globe.

Of course, if everyone who wanted to get into Harvard could actually get in, you wouldn’t want to go there because it would no longer be the highly competitive institution that it is. This is the conundrum—you want Harvard to be highly competitive, but not when it comes to your child! The task of Harvard hopefuls is to make themselves shine brightly among the applicants. To this end, all parts of the application should work together to create a unified case for admission. As previously indicated, college admission is much more of an art form than a science. To be successful, the student must build a compelling portrait that expresses a compelling academic record and meaningful activities, and that also makes the case that they are individuals who demonstrate strong elements of character that include compassion, determination, fortitude, and resilience. If this sounds difficult, it is. But students don’t have to be perfect to achieve admission at America’s most elite colleges, including Harvard. They simply need to be focused on the details, the colors, the hues, and the brushstrokes, that ultimately lead to the creation of a beautiful masterpiece.