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Are Ivy League Admissions a Sham?


An article the other day from The Gawker, written anonymously, provides a window on alumni interviews in the Ivy League.
While most of the article is a tirade against the “unfair” admissions systems at Harvard (when was it ever fair…see Jerome Karabel’s book, The Chosen:  The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton), the article does offer some backhanded advice to would-be Ivy applicants:

The Article

Yet for the last few years, it’s felt like the normal, inquisitive, relatively unfiltered teenager of the early 2000’s has been replaced by dozens of little Russell Wilsons. Gone are the hard edges and the unintentional flashes of personality that made it seem like I was actually getting something accomplished in the course of (most) of these interviews. Nowadays, I’ve gotten layers of carefully constructed defenses, designed to reveal only the most admission-friendly parts of the student.

Just once I would have loved to get an applicant who called out a stupid, predictable question for being what it is instead of dutifully reciting an impossibly trite, hand-wavingly general answer that cannot apply to all that many people. Someone who didn’t sound like Mitt Romney when trying to relate to the challenges faced by people without blue blood.

Instead, I’ve seen a boringly predictable, on-trend parade of general excellence, like eating a dozen cronuts for dinner. It’s interesting in the abstract, but the palate needs cleansing after a while. Hearing the liberal-upper-middle-class consensus view of the world (but with a twist, like backpacking through Southeast Asia!) certainly does not hurt an applicant. On the other hand, if I wanted that I would just sit on the toilet and listen to NPR.

Anonymous goes on to offer some more advice for young Ivy interviewees:

Otherwise, the official party line, as taken verbatim from Harvard’s longtime Dean of Admissions, William Fitzsimmons (class of 1963, dean since 1986) is that Harvard selects for “academic excellence, extracurricular distinction, and personal qualities.” And that sounds good—who doesn’t love excellence?—until you think about it.

What Dean Fitzsimmons really means is that he isn’t going to tell you anything substantial (that’s why he’s lasted for so long in his job). So I will tell you that in this context, measuring “academic excellence” really boils down to two things: Will this applicant graduate on time and happy?

Pure intelligence is one part, hence the focus on scores and GPAs. Harvard is difficult, and someone who has never seen a differential equation will probably struggle in the basic required math courses; someone who has never read a Steinbeck novel or a Shakespeare play will probably feel excluded from general English Lit.

But so is extracurricular activity. You might be smart, but do you have the discipline to keep going for four years? How do you respond to setbacks, challenges, opposition? Do you show signs of life in the wider world? In short: are you of sound mind?

The 4.0 student who just works the ball-washing station at the country club does not necessarily demonstrate great time-management skills. On the other hand, we’ll take the person who has an A-minus GPA but spends most of her free time in a research lab breeding generations of flies for genetic tests, thank you very much. This is why admissions officers will say “well-rounded” until they’re blue in the face. There’s nothing wrong with plain old eggheads—but let’s try and get out there once in a while, too.

My takeaway from this article is that students bucking for the Ivy League need to find ways to be interesting.  Real accomplishment and deep interest can’t really be faked.  You can prep and polish for an interview. But if you don’t have the substantive qualities the Harvard admissions office wants, you’ll not be accepted.

Oh, and the other takeaway?  If you’re looking for “fairness,” don’t look to Ivy admissions as a shining moral example.  It ain’t.

Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant


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