He had perfect scores — on his SAT, on three SAT subject tests and on nine Advanced Placement exams — and was ranked first in his high school class of 592. An admissions officer who reviewed his application to Harvard called him “the proverbial picket fence,” the embodiment of the American dream, saying, “Someone we’ll fight over w/ Princeton, I’d guess.”
But in the end, the student was wait-listed and did not get in.
Generations of high school students have applied to Harvard thinking that if they checked all the right boxes, they would be admitted.
But behind the curtain, Harvard’s much-feared admissions officers have a whole other set of boxes that few ambitious high school students and their parents know about — or could check even if they did. The officers speak a secret language — of “dockets,” “the lop list,” “tips,” “DE,” the “Z-list” and the “dean’s interest list” — and maintain a culling system in which factors like where applicants are from, whether their parents went to Harvard, how much money they have and how they fit the school’s goals for diversity may be just as important as scoring a perfect 1600 on the SAT.
This arcane selection process has been illuminated by a lawsuit accusing Harvard of violating federal civil rights law by using racial balancing to shape its admissions in a way that discriminates against Asian-Americans. Harvard says it does not discriminate. Hundreds of admissions documents have been filed in the suit — over the university’s objections that they could reveal trade secrets — and many sections that were previously redacted have been ordered unsealed in recent weeks.
To an outsider, the more obscure aspects of Harvard’s admissions system might seem transactional and filled with whims and preferences that are raising questions both in court and in public debate. From the university’s perspective, those aspects are part of a battle-tested way of building a diverse class of “citizens and citizen-leaders,” as Harvard’s mission statement puts it, who will help shape the future of society. The system has put brainy future Nobel laureates next to all-star athletes gunning for Wall Street, accomplished musicians and aspiring politicians, the offspring of wealthy alumni and of migrant farmworkers who never got past grade school. It has tapped Jeremy Lin, Malia Obama and Mark Zuckerberg.
“I hope that no student who doesn’t get accepted to Harvard — by the way, I wasn’t accepted to Harvard College out of high school; I wouldn’t let me in, even today — what you hope is that people do not read this as if it’s a validation either of who they are nor an invalidation of their potential or their achievement,” said Rakesh Khurana, the dean of Harvard College, who went to Cornell as an undergraduate.
“Our goal is not to create a zero-sum game,” Khurana added. “We do have some very affirmative goals though that I think are important to understand. That when we talk about diversity of backgrounds and experiences, it includes different academic interests. It includes different occupations of parents. It includes socioeconomic differences. It includes different viewpoints on issues.”
The lawsuit, brought by an anti-affirmative action group called Students for Fair Admissions, has revived the national debate over race-conscious admissions, which is playing out from colleges down to elementary schools.
The case has been orchestrated by Edward Blum, a longtime crusader against affirmative action and voting rights laws, and it may yield him a fresh chance to get the issue before the Supreme Court. The court turned away his last major challenge to university admissions, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, in 2016.
That debate goes back to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. The assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 was a turning point, pushing colleges to redouble their efforts to be more representative of U.S. society.
But Asians were an overlooked minority despite a long history of discrimination. As late as 1976, Harvard did not recognize them as a minority group and barred them from a freshman minority orientation banquet. They had a kind of neither-nor identity, denied both the solidarity of other students of color and the social standing of white people.
“There’s even a tendency to stay away from each other because you know how, in college, status and prestige are important,” said T.K. Chang, who was at Harvard in the mid-70s. Chang said he found his niche in The Harvard Lampoon, the campus humor magazine.
Since then the stakes in the admissions game have grown. About 40,000 students apply each year, and about 2,000 are admitted for some 1,600 seats in the freshman class. The chances of admission this year were under 5 percent. Of the 26,000 domestic applicants for the Class of 2019 (the lawsuit is not concerned with international students), about 3,500 had perfect SAT math scores, 2,700 had perfect SAT verbal scores, and more than 8,000 had straight A’s.
The sorting begins right away. The country is divided into about 20 geographic “dockets,” each of which is assigned to a subcommittee of admissions officers with intimate knowledge of that region and its high schools.
Generally two or three admissions officers, or readers, rate applications in five categories: academic, extracurricular, athletic, personal and “overall.” They also rate teachers’ and guidance counselors’ recommendations. And an alumni interviewer also rates the candidates.
Harvard says it also considers “tips,” or admissions advantages, for some applicants. The plaintiffs say the college gives tips to five groups: racial and ethnic minorities; legacies, or the children of Harvard or Radcliffe alumni; relatives of a Harvard donor; the children of staff or faculty members; and recruited athletes.
Whether Harvard gives a penalty — in effect, the opposite of a tip — to Asian-Americans goes to the heart of the current litigation. A 1990 report by the Education Department found that, while Harvard was not discriminating against Asian-Americans, it was not giving them a tip, either. A 2013 internal report by Harvard found that being Asian-American was negatively correlated with admission, as did an expert analysis for the plaintiffs. But using a different statistical approach, Harvard’s expert found a modest bump for two subgroups of Asian-Americans — women and applicants from California — belying, Harvard said, the overall claim of discrimination.
There are other ways to bolster one’s chances of admission, according to the court papers. Savvy alumni hope to gain an advantage for their children by volunteering for Harvard, perhaps by being an admissions interviewer.
It also helps to secure a spot on the “dean’s interest list” or the “director’s interest list.” These lists are named for the dean and director of admissions, and include the names of candidates who are of interest to donors or have connections to Harvard, according to the court papers.
The final decisions are made by a committee of about 40 admissions officers over two or three weeks in March. Meeting in a conference room, they argue over candidates who are “on the bubble” between admission and rejection.
In a deposition running hundreds of pages, William Fitzsimmons — who has been Harvard’s admissions dean since 1986 — offered a rare look into the admissions office.
“What is the dean’s interest list?” a lawyer for the plaintiffs asked.
“The dean’s interest list is something that I would use to make certain that I’m aware of what eventually might happen to that application,” Fitzsimmons replied.
“And how would one go about getting on the dean’s interest list?” asked the lawyer, who was prone to calling it the “donor’s interest list,” in an apparent slip of the tongue.
After an objection from Harvard’s lawyer, Fitzsimmons replied: “In my recruiting process as I go out on the road, I might meet a person at one of the evening meetings, recruiting events, and think just on an impression that this is a person who, you know, might be of interest to the admissions committee. So I might put that person on my interest list.”
How about, the plaintiffs’ lawyer asked, “if a candidate is of interest to a donor to Harvard, is that something that might land them on the interest list?” Over another objection, Fitzsimmons replied, “It is possible.”
After an exchange running three fully blacked-out pages, Fitzsimmons explained that candidates on the dean’s list could receive a separate rating, in consultation with people connected to the alumni association and the development office, the chief fundraising arm.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer asked, “And are you rating the applicant, or are you rating the level of interest that other people at the university have in this applicant’s admission prospect?”
Over an objection, Fitzsimmons replied, “The latter.”
But people on the dean’s list often have family who have been involved in the alumni association or scholarship or development work, Fitzsimmons said, so they know how hard it is to get into Harvard and apply only if they are strong candidates.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer asked whether the bigger the financial contribution from a donor, the more it would affect the development office’s rating of someone on the dean’s list related to that donor. “It would tend to go that way,” Fitzsimmons replied.
Court filings also explore Harvard’s little-known Z-list, a sort of back door to admissions.
Harvard is reticent about the Z-list, and much of the information pertaining to it in court papers has been redacted. The list consists of applicants who are borderline academically, the plaintiffs say, but whom Harvard wants to admit. They often have connections. They may be “Z-ed” (yes, a verb) off the wait-list, and are guaranteed admission on the condition that they defer for a year.
About 50-60 students a year were admitted through the Z-list for the Classes of 2014-2019. They were for the most part white, often legacies or students on the dean’s or director’s list, the plaintiffs say.
Chuck Hughes, an admissions officer at Harvard from 1995-2000, described a special review given to minority applicants while he was there.
Early in his tenure, he said, all competitive applicants had their files studied by at least two readers. He said some minority applicants would also have their file reviewed by a third reader who was considering the racial composition of the entire class.
“If there was uncertainty on a case in which there were candidates that might have represented minority interests — an Asian-American, an African-American, a Hispanic or a Native American candidate — those would be passed on to someone who was looking at the entire slate of candidates in that particular demographic pool,” Hughes said.
Hughes said that practice ended early in his time at Harvard.
But the court papers describe a continuing process called “a lop,” which the plaintiffs say is used to shape the demographic profile of the class.
As the admissions process winds down, the dean and the director of admissions review the pool of tentatively admitted students and decide how many need to be “lopped,” by having their status changed from “admit” to “waitlist” or “deny,” the court papers say.
The plaintiffs say that admissions officers then fine-tune the final class using a form that lists five pieces of information about the applicant; they give an example of a form that has spaces for the applicant’s name, LIN (lineage), ETH (ethnicity), ATH (athlete), and HFAI (financial aid).
Along the way, Fitzsimmons, the dean, consults what are called “ethnic stats,” which he defines as “any statistics that would give us a sense of where we are in the class regarding ethnicity at that moment.” Ethnicity is one of many factors considered in a lop, Fitzsimmons said in his deposition.
In a response filed in court Friday, Harvard said that all information in an application file is considered during the lop, and that lopping is not used to control the racial makeup of the class.
The plaintiffs accuse Harvard of jiggering its selection process to create a remarkably stable racial profile from year to year. This year it admitted a class that was almost 23 percent Asian-American; almost 16 percent African-American; and just over 12 percent Latino. The share of admitted students who are Asian-American has risen from 17.6 percent in 2009, and other minorities have gained in concert.
But if Harvard were race-blind, the plaintiffs say, its freshman class would be about 40 percent Asian-American, like the University of California, Berkeley, a public institution that has to abide by a state ban on racial preferences.
As to why the racial and ethnic breakdowns of incoming classes have stayed roughly consistent, Fitzsimmons said, “from one year to the next, you tend to have roughly the same number and then roughly the same quality from an area.”
He added, “It is certainly not a goal of ours to limit ethnicity.”
‘Stronger and better’
The plaintiffs say that the personal rating — which considers an applicant’s character and personality — is the most insidious of Harvard’s admissions metrics. They say that Asian-Americans are routinely described as industrious and intelligent, but unexceptional and indistinguishable — characterizations that recall painful stereotypes for many people of Asian descent. (The applicant who was the “proverbial picket fence” was Asian-American.)
In the recently unredacted court filings, several Asian-American applicants were described in conspicuously similar terms. One was described as “busy and bright,” but the “case will look like many others without late info.” Another was “very busy” but “doesn’t go extra mile, thus she looks like many w/ this profile.” Yet another was “bright & busy” but it was “a bit difficult to see what would hold him in during a lop.”
One student was “so very bright but lacking a DE.” DE, the court papers say, stands for “distinguishing excellence.” Another got a backhanded compliment: “hard worker,” but “would she relax and have any fun?”
In Friday’s filing, Harvard countered with examples of its positive assessments of applicants of Nepalese, Tibetan, Vietnamese and Indian descent, who were described with words like “deserving,” “fascinating” and “Tug for BG,” an abbreviation for background. None of the examples the university gave appeared to be of applicants of Chinese or Korean background.
Hughes, the former Harvard admissions officer, who is now a college admissions consultant, said he warned students of the long odds of getting in for upper- and middle-class applicants, many of whom are white and Asian.
“You don’t have first-gen. You don’t have son of a police officer. You don’t have the immigrant story, or the poor immigrant story, that captivates private colleges and universities,” Hughes said he told his clients. “So those kids just have to be stronger and better.”
Other colleges are looking closely at the case.
Ted O’Neill, a former dean of admissions at the University of Chicago, said it was easy enough to identify straight-A students who would continue to excel “in the normal terms” throughout their lives.
The hard part, he said, was finding the value in someone that others might not see. “It means passing up,” he said. “It means making what looks like unusual choices.”
Khurana, the Harvard College dean, acknowledged that Harvard was not always perfect, but said it was trying to get its practices right.
“I have a great deal of humility knowing that some day history will judge us,” Khurana said. “I think that’s why we are constantly asking ourselves this question: How can we do better? How could we be better? What are we missing? Where are our blind spots?”