Wednesday, December 09, 2009

So, you are a Harvard reject?

A lot of students are crushed because they failed to get into their college of first choice. In the English speaking world outside of the United Kingdom, Harvard is by far the premier object of desire, sans pareil among college bound students.

In a famously ego crushing survey done by the NY Times a few years ago (here) Harvard came out way ahead of everyone else, including its closest academic rivals -- Yale and Princeton.

Mind you Yale, Princeton or for that matter, a host of other colleges such as Amherst, Williams or Chicago would deliver as good an education, some say better, than Harvard.

75% of students if accepted by both Princeton and Harvard would go to Harvard. Princeton, if you believe the US News Annual college survey, was often ranked number 1 over Harvard.

65% would prefer Harvard over Yale.

Yale, Princeton, Columbia and a few others reject at least 9 out of 10 of all applicants. Those applicants are normally already self-screened for being high probability candidates to enter any of those colleges.

What students who got rejected by their college of first choice should remember is that the rejection/acceptance is more a draw of luck than a statement about the applicant's ability or lack of. It is impossible really for the Admissions Office to make a Soloman's choice.

The following blog by Harvard professor Georg Mankiw provides, to my eyes, an accurate picture of how impossible it is to choose who should get in, who should not.

Though his example is about his freshman seminar, the same applies to college admissions.

Or the years I have told countless parents and their college seeking kids that to get rejected should NOT be borne as a scar nor should they consider that a judgement about their capability. A rejection by the college of your choice is definitely not a predictor of what the future would hold for the applicant.

The process of selection remains mysterious, putting it kindly.

I was once a "spotter" and a "gatekeeper" for one of the most selective colleges with an admissions rate of less than 9% based on last year's figures. I have also spent serious time at Harvard, Oxford, Princeton and Columbia as a visiting scholar with extensive contacts with students at each of these universities.

I met many brilliant students. But I also met students who did not seem obvious to me they were so extraordinary compared to any other smart students at, say, University of North Carolina or Virginia or any of the great pubic universities. Nothing wrong with being a normal kid without perfect SAT scores, by the way. Many of "perfect" scoring students crash and burn after college. Remember the "brilliant" Harvard graduate, the Unibomber?

After a few years serving as my alma mater's "gatekeeper" in Hong Kong, I quit in disgust and wrote a strongly worded protest letter to the Admissions Director.

Why? All my enthusiastic recommendations were rejected by the admissions officers and all my B to B minus recommendations got in. I knew then this so-called "brain wrecking" selection process at elite US colleges was often nuts without any earthshattering significance.

Consider this. I had interviewed all those candidates, sometimes twice. I had my own business. I had to hire staff. I was considerably older and more mature than the Admissions folks. I knew that because they listed their years of college graduation. I had vast international experiences working, living, traveling around the world, in cultures these admissions folks normally had scant first hand knowledge of. Yet, they thought they knew better than me in selecting talented students. I doubted that.

I don't know how Professor Mankiw finally arrived at his decisions, but I bet you a good meal if you pelled him with enough 1989 claret, he is likely to admit he decided more by the seat of his pants than by some seriously serious selection criteria. Here was an excerpt from his blog.

An Impossible Task

I am teaching a Harvard freshman seminar this semester (in addition to ec 10), and one of my first tasks is to choose the 15 students. About 200 applied. That means that getting into my seminar is about as hard as getting into Harvard--except that you first have to get into Harvard before you can even apply!

Having spent much of yesterday reading through the applications, I fully recognize how difficult and somewhat random such admissions processes are. I could fill almost the entire seminar with kids with perfect SAT scores (2400), but I won't, as there is more to life than test scores. I am looking also for passion about the subject, interesting life experiences, and a balance among the group of students to promote good discussion. But judging that from a few brief essays is very, very hard. To those students I do not pick: I am sorry, and it is my loss as well for not having the opportunity to get to know you better.

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