Once secret, Harvard’s admissions process is unveiled in federal court

The judge even likened Harvard’s formula to the recipe for Coke.

A trial examining whether Harvard University discriminates against Asian-American applicants has revealed a number of secrets about its admissions process.

BOSTON — The deliberations that take place inside 86 Brattle St., a red-brick building where Harvard University’s admissions committee convenes, have very much stayed inside 86 Brattle St.

Until now.

A federal trial that began this week accusing Harvard of stacking the deck against Asian-American applicants is providing a rare glimpse into the secretive selection process at one of the country’s most elite universities. It is as if those sitting on the wood benches before Judge Allison D. Burroughs of U.S. District Court in Boston have been invited inside the inner sanctum of the Harvard Office of Admissions and Financial Aid.

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There is the longtime dean of admissions, William Fitzsimmons (Harvard Class of 1967), on the stand, grilled on whether rural students receive a leg up over urban students. They do.

There on a big screen are his emails with the university’s fundraisers, suggesting special consideration for the offspring of big donors, those who have “already committed to a building” or have “an art collection which could conceivably come our way.”

Grades, test scores, intended major, personality ratings, ethnicity — all the various factors that can help turn an anonymous high school student into a Harvard man or Harvard woman are being dissected for all to see.

Actual student files have been introduced into evidence, with Thang Q. Diep’s family history being pored over alongside Sally Chen’s test scores.

Court documents and trial testimony have introduced Harvard admissions jargon: “tips” are bumps given to applicants, the “dean’s interest list” is a compendium of applicants with clout, and the “Z-list” is a sort of back door into the college for students who are borderline academically. For everyone, the odds are long, as nearly 43,000 applicants sought spots in the Class of 2022 and just 2,024 received letters prompting high-fives and teary phone calls.

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Although many selective colleges are known to engage in the same admissions tactics, Harvard’s lawyers lamented in pretrial papers that being forced to produce application materials would be like divulging trade secrets, and would allow students and college counselors to game the process, which is in full swing right now. The judge even likened Harvard’s formula to the recipe for Coke.

In the end, however, Harvard’s lead counsel, Bill Lee (Harvard Class of 1972), said this week that it had been necessary to spill some secrets.

“I’ve definitely not revealed the secret of Coke,” said Lee, who represented Apple in a patent suit against Samsung — another trial that exposed closely guarded secrets. But, he acknowledged, “you’re learning a lot about the admissions process that never would have been public otherwise. We want you to know. Once you understand it, you can understand how decisions are made.”

Some, but not all, of the secrets have buttressed Harvard’s elite reputation.

It casts a wide net for students, aggressively recruiting those in “sparse country,” predominantly rural areas that yield few applications. It considers a dizzying array of factors, from SAT scores (the higher the better) to athletic ability (recruited athletes receive a big advantage) to interviews (be “effervescent,” “fun,” but “mature”) and more. A lack of deep pockets won’t hinder a hopeful and might even help one’s chances, testimony showed.

But there were other disclosures suggesting that admissions decisions are somewhat arbitrary.

There is the special list for those whom the admissions dean has taken an interest in, some of whom are the relatives of wealthy donors. There is the vague “personal” rating, which can lift or hurt an applicant’s chances based on an assessment of character traits and background, from “outstanding” to “bland or somewhat negative or immature” to “questionable personal qualities.” And the trial this week has raised questions about whether unconscious bias affects the process, either on the part of admissions officials or the teachers and counselors who write letters on applicants’ behalf.

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More important than numerical ratings — Harvard uses a scale of 1 (top of the heap) to 6 (no chance) to measure the many aspects of a student’s profile — is “the description and the complexity of the description” provided by those assessing the applicant, Fitzsimmons said this week in testimony.

A rare look inside a student’s admissions file this week has shined a light on what that means. Harvard referred the court to Diep (Harvard Class of 2019), who had only middling test scores but was admitted to the college by showing a strong work ethic and “infectiously happy personality,” as his admissions file says. Diep, who was born in Vietnam, submitted part of his file in court to help Harvard fight charges of discrimination.

“Here’s a person who until the fourth grade was in another country and English was not his first language,” Fitzsimmons said.

Fitzsimmons quoted an admissions interviewer as saying that what was most striking about Diep was “his fun, casual nature, but impressive, understated maturity.”

Diep’s admissions file noted he would be a likely candidate for the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative, which offers full rides to low-income families. In summing up Diep’s personal essay, one reviewer highlighted his “immigrant Vietnamese identity” and that Diep was “grappling with sexual identity.” The reviewer mentioned a “filmmaking summit” as an extracurricular activity of note.

Other admissions files have offered insights into how reviewers distill personal traits from the accomplishments and activities listed. Erica Bever, an admissions officer, testified Friday morning about Chen, a student whose application she had reviewed. She went to a highly competitive high school, but her scores were “a little bit lower than many of her peers,” Bever said.

Her father was a chef, her mother a homemaker, which Bever said made her consider whether this applicant had had the same opportunities as some others. She played first violin in an orchestra and was student association president, both characteristics that Bever said showed leadership. She was doing research, mentoring and web design.

But what particularly moved Bever were the teacher and guidance counselor ratings, she said, one of which said that Chen was “a well spoken, ambitious and humorous person.”

Chen was admitted to the Class of 2019, and is on the witness list for this trial.

“We have to reject students who are exceptional,” Bever testified. “But we make choices.”

The group suing Harvard, Students for Fair Admissions, has also used application files as evidence, but points to what it says are patterns of stereotypical descriptions for Asian-Americans that bring down their personal ratings.

Harvard also looks at factors like parental occupation, which Fitzsimmons said offer clues about financial hardship, and intended major, to avoid having too many students with the same educational interests.

For instance, he said this week, there had been huge increases in would-be engineers and computer scientists, but Harvard had to be wary of admitting too many, because “a whole bunch” of them “will end up happily ever after at MIT or Caltech.”

“One thing we always want is humanists,” Fitzsimmons said, adding that there were “fewer and fewer” of them.

An applicant might also be given credit for baby sitting siblings, he added, “which I did myself.”

College-prep professionals and guidance counselors around the world are following the case, a veritable gold mine of insider information.

Belinda Wilkerson is a private admissions counselor in Fayetteville, North Carolina, whose very business involves getting students into schools like Harvard. She said that when working with Asian clients, she discusses with them a “perception” that there are too many qualified, and similar, Asian applicants — an issue at the core of the Harvard case. She encourages students to cast a wide net to avoid “getting so focused on a select few schools,” she said.

Harvard has testified that race, when considered in admissions, can only help, not hurt, a student’s chances of getting in.

Fitzsimmons said this week that one factor that could explain why Asian-American applicants get lower personal ratings may be the content of teacher and guidance counselor recommendations.

Mark Sklarow, chief executive of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, which represents private admissions counselors, said many guidance counselors are simply unable to get to know students in depth, and could very well introduce stereotypes. Indeed, one industry report found that in 2015, the typical counselor advised nearly 500 students.

“If a school counselor is spending eight minutes per year with a student, it’s so much easier for those biases to play in, because you don’t know that individual very well,” Sklarow said.

Fitzsimmons and other admissions officers testified that reviewers receive extensive training when they begin working for Harvard. But under questioning by the plaintiffs, they said that they did not receive written instructions on how to consider race.

Burroughs seemed to be looking for evidence of unconscious bias. “Are there times when you don’t realize that you’re tipping for something,” she asked Bever on Friday, “and you go to the data and you realize that there really is a tip that you didn’t intend or know about?”

“No, never,” Bever said.

Fitzsimmons emphasized that any advantage given to a candidate for their background would not outweigh all other application factors. “The committee never gives enough of a tip to admit an average candidate at the expense of a first-rate one,” he said.

One important aspect of a diverse class, he said, is that students learn from one another.

That is especially important today, he said, “in a country that is so segregated economically and, in some ways, with our social classes coming further apart.”