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Bradshaw: Competition grows for elite admissions

Gerald Bradshaw

Gerald Bradshaw

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Updated: June 29, 2012 9:01AM



Mr. Bradshaw —How do top colleges decide who gets admitted?

I plan to apply to Harvard, Yale, MIT and Stanford next year. I’m worried about the role of demographics. — Concerned student

Dear student — There is no question it is getting more difficult for all students to get admitted to an elite college or university. The admissions rate at all top colleges is tightening, approaching single digits.

First, let’s look at how things used to be. Ted Kennedy and George W. Bush made it into Harvard and Yale, respectively, mainly because their fathers were famous alumni. Although one might not call them the “best and the brightest” of their generations — to borrow a term — they were born into rich, famous families and were white males. It should be noted there were no diversity regulations in those days.

Many students are turned away from Harvard, Yale and Princeton, while less-qualified legacies are admitted. The number of admitted legacies is falling, and lawsuits are expected to put an end to this historic practice. Almost every student must now meet the same academic standards.

Other changes have made white males less dominant at top schools. Males must compete against female applicants, and most schools are at parity with male and female admissions.

Elite colleges steadfastly have refused to expand the freshman class to accommodate the growing number of qualified applicants. The faculty opposed Harvard’s past president, Larry Summers, when he wanted to increase freshman enrollment. Harvard’s new president has been mum on this issue.

Admission preference is given to under-represented demographic groups. Students typically admitted under this policy generally have lower academic qualifications than students admitted under regular standards. According to Harvard and other top schools, about 25 percent of the student body is in this category — about the same number that legacies used to be.

There are increasing numbers of well-qualified applicants in every admissions category. High schools do a good job of preparing students for top colleges. The number of students taking Advanced Placement classes and scoring in the top 5 percent on admission tests has increased two-fold over the 1980s, according to a recent issue of U.S. News and World Report.

No matter which demographic category you fall into, the competition is getting tougher.

So what is the defining factor? Top grades and test scores still count the most. Your extracurricular involvement is also important.

In my 15 years interviewing candidates for Harvard, I always found there was “something about” the students who got in that stood out, no matter what category in which they fell.

When the interviews were over and I wrote my evaluations, the one defining quality that set some students apart was, the high scorers seemed to have a grasp of the big picture and concrete career goals.

The top students wanted to succeed in the world, not just in a small community. This is what sets you apart and puts you at the head of the admissions list.



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