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What Harvard's Asian Admissions Lawsuit Reveals About How You Should Approach College Applications

Posted by Allen Cheng | Jun 29, 2018 6:01:46 PM

College Admissions



The hottest news in college admissions these days is the release of documents from the lawsuit filed against Harvard University for unfair admissions practices against Asian-Americans. For the first time in recent memory, an elite institution's opaque admissions practices have been laid bare. More than 90,000 pages of internal Harvard admissions documents have been made available for use in the lawsuit, with excerpts made publicly available in court filings.

In this article, I'll summarize what this lawsuit is about and what we learned about how top-tier schools like Harvard choose which students to accept. (Spoiler: most of it confirms what I wrote about in my How to Get Into Harvard guide. If you haven't read that, I suggest you open it in a tab right now, and read it after you finish this article).

Most importantly, we'll cover what this means for how YOU should be preparing for college admissions.

Caveat: Since this lawsuit (and admissions in general) has a lot to do about race, I'll talk about race explicitly here, understanding that these are triggering topics for many people. I suggest trying to focus pragmatically on what you can get out of these news.


What the Harvard Admissions Lawsuit is About

First, a very simplistic introduction. A subset of Asian-Americans are frustrated that they are possibly discriminated against in college admissions. More specifically, assuming the same academic achievements - SAT/ACT scores, coursework, and grades - Asians feel they are less likely to be admitted than white, black, and Hispanic applicants.

Disgruntled college applicant Michael Wang is a representative example. Despite being 2nd in his high school class, having a 36 ACT score, and several national-level awards, he was rejected by 6 of 7 Ivy League colleges in 2015. "I saw people less qualified than me get better offers...what more could I have done to get into your college? Was it based on race?"

Spotting an opportunity, Edward Blum of the Project on Fair Representation pushed a lawsuit against Harvard. The lawsuit alleges that:

  • "holistic admissions" is actually a cover to practice racial discrimination
  • Asian-Americans are discriminated against in admissions - meaning, lower admissions rates controlling for qualifications. In their words, "an Asian-American with a 25% chance of admission would have a 35% chance if he were white, a 75% chance if he were Hispanic, and a 95% chance if he were African American."
  • the % of Asian-Americans in Harvard's student class has stayed the same (~20%) despite increases in the qualifications of Asians, suggesting a strict racial quota

This echoes controversy in the 1920s with Harvard's discrimination against Jewish candidates

Now, why should the public care what a private institution like Harvard does? Because it receives federal funding (e.g. in research grants). And Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits racial discrimination in recipients of federal financial assistance.

(If you're interested in the legal aspects of this case, here's an insightful analysis.)

While Harvard is the sole defendant in the lawsuit, this is really an attack on admissions practices for ALL top-tier colleges like Princeton, Yale, and Stanford. Harvard, given its reputation and size, is just the juiciest target.

In response, Harvard generally defends its admissions practices as promoting diversity, promoting "opportunities to engage with and learn from classmates who come from widely different backgrounds and circumstances...which would leave students ill prepared to contribute to and lead in our diverse and interconnected nation and world." "A significant reduction in the number of African-American and Hispanic students on campus would inhibit...the benefits of a diverse student body and significantly undermine [Harvard's] educational mission."




How You Feel About This Doesn't Really Matter for Admissions Results

Like most matters dealing with race, this is controversial with a wide spectrum of opinions. You might think Harvard is totally in the right in how it does admissions. Or you might think that discrimination really is happening and the system needs to change.

Whatever you believe, the pragmatic question is this - what does this mean for you and YOUR college applications? If you or your child are in high school, you're relatively powerless to change the system in the time that it matters for you, no matter what you believe.

The first decision point for you is whether you want to play the college admissions game or not. In the extreme, this controversy might sound so outrageous to you that you become a conscientious objector, and you don't want to support the college admissions machine. This might mean you refuse to apply to possibly discriminatory schools. If so, all the power to you.

But most likely, you're likely not in this group. You still want to get into the best college you can because of its impact on your future. 

This means that you need to deal with whatever disadvantage you're dealt, and make the most of it. You need to learn the rules of the college admissions game, and you need to prepare yourself for the best chance of success.

That's what the rest of this article is about. I'm not going to opine on the morals of the situation, but rather objectively talk about how college admissions at places like Harvard works, and what it means for you.


What the Lawsuit Has Revealed About the Harvard Admissions Process

I'll cut to the chase. Released legal documents show for the first time that Harvard application readers rate each applicant on a score of 1-6 on these categories:

  • Academic
  • Extracurricular
  • Athletic
  • Personal
  • Recommendation letters (2 teachers, counselor)
  • Alumni (interview) personal and Overall rating

1 is the highest possible score. Each score can also have a "+" or "-", just like A+/A- grades. We'll explain in a second how you get 1's on these categories, but I want to focus on the big picture for now.

From my reading of the legal documents, it seems like the first 4 factors are really the most heavily considered (since they're mentioned most often), with the recommendation letter and alumni ratings used as supplementary factors.

All of these ratings are combined by the application reader in an Overall rating, again from 1 to 6. This Overall rating is CRITICAL for admissions, as we'll discuss below.

The Overall rating is "not a formula" and doesn't involve adding up other ratings. It's a holistic grade. Harvard instructs readers to assign the score by "stepping back and taking all the factors into account and then assigning that Overall rating." (In reality, I suspect the grade is close to your top 2 scores - you can get a 1 on academic and personal and a 4 on athletic, and the 4 won't bring down your total score.)

The application is given to two readers to give ratings. Finally, a third, usually more experienced reader adjusts the ratings for accuracy. In one example, the first reader gave a student a 1, but the third reader adjusted it downward to a 2+.


How strongly does your Overall rating correlate with your admission rate? VERY strongly.

Here's a quote from legal documents: "Those who have an Overall score of 3- or worse are almost always rejected. Those who receive an Overall rating of a 1 are always accepted."

What are your chances of admission depending on your Overall score?

Here's more detail on admissions rates for all domestic applicants across 6 years, in the Classes of 2014 to 2019. This dataset includes only regular decision students (Harvard didn't have early action in years 2014-2015) and excludes special situations (athletes, legacy, Dean's list, faculty/staff kids) and international applicants.

Rating Population Population % Admit % Admitted Number
<3 56825 47.23% 0.02% 9
3 44472 36.96% 2.35% 1047
3+ 14289 11.88% 9.14% 1306
2+/2/2- 4674 3.88% 65.15% 3045
1 50 0.04% 100.00% 50


To explain the columns:

  • Population: number of applicants with that rating
  • Population %: % of total applicants who have that rating
  • Admit %: % of applicants with that rating who were admitted
  • Admitted Number: number of applicants with that rating who were admitted

Through all of this, remember that the total admissions rate is around 6%. Anytime you can beat this number, you have a better shot at getting in.

Here are the takeaways:

  • If you get an Overall score of 1, you have guaranteed admission. However, this is very rare - with 30,000 applicants in a year, you can expect only 12 students to get this score. These are truly exceptional people who stand out even among the incoming class.
  • If you get a score of 2+/2/2-, you have a 65% chance of getting in. Furthermore, this comprises the top 3.9% of all applicants - in a group of 30,000 applicants, 1,164 will get a 2 score. These are much better chances than average, and much more realistic than a score of 1 for us mortals.
    • I wish they separated out the 2+/2/2- from each other, but this wasn't available.
  • If you get a score of 3+, you start getting into the crapshoot. These get into the well-rounded, but not stand-out students. Even though you're still in the top 15% of all applicants, your admissions rate is just 9%, a bit above the overall average. Furthermore, you're competing against 3,000 other students.
  • If you get a score of 3, you're in the average. Average is bad for Harvard admissions. Your admission rate drops down to 2.4% (just 1 out of 40 people in this group get in).
  • If you get a score of 3- or below, you have nearly zero chance of getting admitted. This is also the most common category to fall into - nearly half of all applicants score a 3- or below.

This strongly confirms my framework of admissions for world-class students (from my How to Get Into Harvard guide). The 6% admissions rate is just an average, and it doesn't apply to everyone - the stronger your application, the more likely you are to be admitted.

For a select group of ~1,000 students per year, their admission is MUCH better than the average admissions rate. These students are likely to be standouts on a national or international level, not just on a state or regional level.

Again, I want to emphasize, this is likely more or less what happens at all elite institutions - including Princeton, Stanford, and Yale. The exact rating scales and criteria may differ, but this type of grading is a very common model in college admissions. Simplifying your application into a score allows for faster comparisons across thousands of applicants.

If you want to get into Harvard, Princeton, or other top-tier schools, you need to try to get into that select top 5% of applicants, with a 2 score. You do NOT want to be part of the masses in the 3+ and below group - this is where the crapshoot happens, and the crapshoot is a terrible place to be.


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More Data, for the Data Nerds

Here's the table again, this time including early action applicants and special situations (roughly 3,000 per year):

Rating Population Population % Admit % Admitted Number
<3 61707 44.43% 0.13% 79
3 51483 37.07% 3.97% 2042
3+ 18131 13.06% 13.40% 2429
2+/2/2- 7466 5.38% 74.00% 5525
1 94 0.07% 100.00% 94


The conclusions don't strongly change. By adding in early action applicants (who tend to be better qualified than regular decision ones), you see a higher % of 1 and 2 ratings. In a year with 30,000 applicants, there are 21 students with a 1 rating, and 1,614 students with a 2 rating. 

For fun, here are statistics on the # of applicants and admit rate for early action as compared to regular decision:

  Regular Decision
  Regular Applicant Special Circumstances
Year Applicants Admits Admit Rate Applicants Admits Admit Rate
2014 23,176 1,471 6.30% 1,200 515 42.90%
2015 27,016 1,408 5.20% 1,244 515 41.40%
2016 24,968 857 3.40% 728 155 21.30%
2017 22,963 754 3.30% 641 116 18.10%
2018 22,799 709 3.10% 591 108 18.30%
2019 24,134 690 2.90% 623 100 16.10%


  Early Action
  Regular Applicant Special Circumstances
Year Applicants Admits Admit Rate Applicants Admits Admit Rate
2014 0 0   0    
2015 0 0   0    
2016 2,982 458 15.40% 600 367 61.20%
2017 3,448 487 14.10% 663 460 69.40%
2018 3,272 520 15.90% 686 451 65.70%
2019 4,238 524 12.40% 755 467 61.90%


A few takeaways:

  • for regular applicants, the early action admission rate is higher than the regular decision rate - for class of 2019, it was 12.4% vs 2.9%.
    • a large part of this is student qualification - better students tend to apply earlier.
    • a minor part of this is signaling your interest - Harvard practices Restrictive Early Action (as do Yale, Princeton, and Stanford), meaning you can apply only to Harvard early action. Thus Harvard knows you're more likely committed to Harvard, and since they want to protect their yield rate, this increases admission rate a bit.
    • so while you might get a slight advantage from applying early through signaling interest, it won't be as large a boost as the early action admit rate suggests.
  • special circumstances students get a HUGE advantage over regular applicants. 
    • athletes are admitted at 86%. This group makes up about 230 students per year.
      • (Note this means recruited varsity athletes, not just having athletics as an extracurricular.)
    • legacy students are admitted at 33.6%. This group makes up about 774 students per year.
      • (Note these students are usually highly qualified in their own right - they may just get a second look and slightly preferable treatment.)
    • dean and director's interest list are at 42%.
      • (There seem to be no particular criteria for being included on this list, but they include applicants "encountered at recruiting events" and applicants "related to donors to Harvard." I believe this is not mutually exclusive with the other groups - ie you can be a legacy athlete on the dean's list.)

If you're reading this, you're most likely not a special circumstances student (nor was I). So you have to make up for it with a world-class application.



Matthias Neugebauer/Flickr


How Do You Earn a *1* in Each Rating?

Now the critical question - what do you have to do to earn a 1 in the Academic, Extracurricular, Athletic, and Personal ratings?

Luckily, as we learned from filings for the lawsuit, Harvard readers are given a rubric to grade applicants onThe judge redacted many descriptions of what specifically earns a 1 (Harvard said releasing this would cause people to manipulate admissions), but we can impute from what is left.

Remember that the Overall Rating is a holistic combination of the ratings, not a strict average. I would believe that if you earn a 1 in Academic and Personal ratings, you're likely to get a 2 or above in Overall rating. You only need to be world-class in one way, with a Spike.


Academic Rating:

1: [redacted portion] "In many circumstances, has submitted academic work of some kind that is reviewed by a faculty member."

2+: "An applicant with perfect, or near-perfect, grades and testing, but no evidence of substantial scholarship or academic creativity."

 This confirms what we already know - getting perfect grades and test scores is not impressive enough to be world-class in academics.

Legal documents reveal some useful details: out of 42,749 applicants for Class of 2022,

  • 8,000 had perfect GPAs
  • 625 had a perfect score on ACT; 361 had a perfect 2400 on SAT
  • 3,500 had perfect SAT math; 2,700 had perfect SAT verbal.

There are just too many students who perform at the top 1% of academics. With 4 million high school students per year, 1% is 40,000 students!

Within academic-type applicants, Harvard is looking for the leading future scholarsTo get a 1 in this rating requires demonstration of this in high school, likely through original research that is vetted favorably by a Harvard faculty member.

As Harvard Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons said,

"Several hundred of our admitted students each year have the kind of stunning academic credentials—well beyond test scores and grades—that our faculty believe place them among the best potential scholars of their generation. ..."

For this, it's not enough just to do research - thousands of students do this every year. It might not be sufficient either to be a minor co-author on a paper.

Ideally, you need to show original contributions and ideas, corroborated by your research supervisor (e.g. in a supplementary recommendation). You might also be nationally-ranked in a research competition like Intel ISEF or Regeneron STS.


Extracurricular Rating:

1: [redacted]

2: "Significant school, and possibly regional accomplishments: for example, an applicant who was the student body president or captain of the debate team and the leader of multiple additional clubs."

5: "Family responsibilities at home or very limited resources that make it unlikely that the applicant could participate in extracurricular or other activities."

They don't share what 1 is, but let's focus on 2 and then guess what 1 is. A 2 rating focuses on "school and regional accomplishments." To put it bluntly: big fish in a little pond.

Remember - there are over 37,000 high schools in the country. Not every school has the same extracurriculars, but just think - in the US every year, there are at least 20,000 student body presidents (and vice presidents, treasurers, etc.); 10,000 captains of the debate team; 50,000 captains of sports teams; 100,000 presidents of clubs.

There are a LOT of local achievers.

To be world-class, you have to do something on the national or international scale.

So I'm going to guess that the redacted section of 1, and a putative 3, says something like:

1: "Significant national, and possibly international accomplishments: for example, an applicant who placed in the top 5 in nationally prestigious competitions, or completed nationally noteworthy achievements."

3: "School and local-level participation without notable accomplishments: for example, a volunteer at a local hospital or member of school clubs."


Athletic Rating:

This is pretty easy, and unredacted:

1: "Recruited by a Harvard varsity team."

Similar to the scaling for Academic and Extracurricular Ratings above, I'm going to guess:

  • 2 is an accomplished athlete with national-level credentials, but is not recruited by Harvard
  • 3 might be a regionally accomplished athlete.

Personally, I was probably somewhere like a 5 - I got an A in PE and that's it. And Harvard still wanted chubby ol' me! Again, it's not about being well-rounded, it's about having a spike that makes you world-class.


Personal Rating:

Here it gets a bit tricky. Here are a few statements in the legal documents that I pulled out:

  • The personal rating "summarizes the applicant's personal qualities based on all aspects of the application, including essays, letters of recommendation, the alumni interview report, personal and family hardship, and any other relevant information in the application."
  • Characteristics include "applicant's humor, sensitivity, grit, leadership, integrity, helpfulness, courage, kindness," whether the person is an "attractive person to be with" and is "widely respected."

This is a more subjective category than the other 3 ratings. It's based on the student's background, how the student presents herself (in the essays and interview), and how others perceive the student (recommendations).

Note that just like having an Academic Spike, it's possible to have a Personal Spike too. A student might get a Personal rating of 1 (say, for having overcome tremendous difficulties and showing outstanding personal character), while getting non-1 scores for Academic, Extracurricular, and Athletic scores. And this might be sufficient to get the student admitted.

Here's the rubric description, which is not super helpful except for the bottom ratings:

1: Outstanding

2: Very Strong

3: Generally Positive

4: Bland or somewhat negative or immature

5: Questionable personal qualities

6: Worrisome personal qualities

This is why the interview is important - no matter how much of a genius you are, Harvard doesn't want jerks in its community. And if you can't suppress being a jerk for an hour-long interview, you certainly won't behave well for 4 years of college.

Nearly all applicants who are admitted went through an interview - as the document says, "those who do not interview are rarely admitted."

(FYI: The personal rating is where the lawsuit alleges Asian-Americans are punished. Despite having higher academic and extracurricular scores than any other racial group, Asians received the lowest score of any racial group on personal rating from Harvard admissions staff.


What % of Students Get What Scores?

Now that you understand what it takes to get these scores, what % of students actually get these scores?

We'll show you the data below, but here are some trends to keep in mind:

  • getting a 1 in even just one section is rare (<1% of applicants get it)
  • if you get a 1 in any section, your chances of admission are between 50-70%.
  • getting a 2 in any single section is much more common (20-40%) with a much lower chance of admission (between 12-26%)



Academic Rating

Academic Rating 5 4 3 2 1
Applicants 5969 17690 58061 60468 650
% of Population 4.2% 12.4% 40.6% 42.3% 0.5%
Admitted 4 175 2429 7500 450
Admit rate 0.1% 1.0% 4.2% 12.4% 69.2%


Extracurricular Rating

Extracurricular Rating 5 4 3 2 1
Applicants 952 4639 102784 34038 425
% of Population 0.7% 3.2% 72.0% 23.8% 0.3%
Admitted 52 187 3957 6147 215
Admit rate 5.5% 4.0% 3.8% 18.1% 50.6%


Personal Rating

Personal Rating 5 4 3 2 1
Applicants 24 604 112513 29660 37
% of Population 0.0% 0.4% 78.8% 20.8% 0.0%
Admitted 0 1 2846 7687 24
Admit rate 0.0% 0.2% 2.5% 25.9% 64.9%


Some interesting things to note:

  • Extracurricular and Personal Ratings have a huge mass of people at 3 (above 70%). Per the rubric above, this likely means:
    • their extracurriculars weren't anything special - school-level participation without any major distinction
    • their personal qualities were positive but not extremely strong - of the "top 25%" of the class type
  • Academic Ratings have a smoother spread, with roughly 40% scoring both 2 and 3. 


Letter of Recommendation Rating:

So far I haven't seen a rubric for the letters of recommendation. But on the Common App teacher recommendation form, there is already a rubric:


As a reminder, "Top Few" is shorthand for "One of the top few encountered in my career."

I'm going to guess that a 1 rating for recommendation letter means all of the below:

  • recommenders rated student as "Top Few" in most categories
  • recommenders are credible and have seen a lot of students (i.e., not rookie teachers)
  • the reader may be familiar with the recommender's historical quality of recommendation
  • the school is a top-tier school (so the student has tough competition for being outstanding)


Overall Rating:

Let's come back to the Overall Rating, because the lawsuit revealed something interesting about well-rounded students:

"Harvard readers use the label 'Standard Strong' to characterize an application that had strong qualities but not strong enough to merit admission."

For example, an admissions reader wrote of one Standard Strong student (who was Asian): "busy and bright" but "will need to fight it out with many similar to him." 

This reminds me of the classic problem with well-rounded students. They're definitely not off-putting - but they're not particularly impressive either. Like thousands of toy balls in a bargain bin, they all look the same. This is where the crapshoot is - the committee has to tear their hair out choosing the last 500 applicants among 10,000 qualified ones. 

Don't know how to make your college application world-class?

We can help. PrepScholar Admissions is the world's best admissions consulting service. We combine world-class admissions counselors with our data-driven, proprietary admissions strategies. We've overseen thousands of students get into their top choice schools, from state colleges to the Ivy League.

Learn more about PrepScholar Admissions to maximize your chance of getting in.

Get Into Your Top Choice School




What Do You Do With This Information?

Let's put it all together. The Harvard lawsuit has revealed these takeaways about top-tier college admissions:

  • applicants are scored based on how impressive their academic, extracurricular, athletic, and personal achievements are

  • the highest scores are reserved for people who are world-class, distinguishing themselves as some of the top in the nation (or even the world) in what they do

  • the overall rating is NOT an average of all your scores. Most likely, it's weighted toward your most impressive achievement. Therefore, you don't need to worry about being very well-rounded.

  • the higher the score you get, the higher your chance of admission. At Harvard, the average admissions rate is 5% to 6%. But students getting the highest score of 1 have a 100% admission rate; students getting 2+/2/2- have a 70% admission rate

  • personal qualities are important and cannot be ignored. Ideally you are likable, charismatic, honest, kind, and funny - and this shows in your essays, your recommendation letters, and interviews.

All of this means that as you become a stronger world-class applicant, your chances of admission become less like a random lottery.

You need to spend LESS time trying to be well-rounded, trying to cover all your bases. If you try to be an equally good athlete, musician, debater, scientist, and volunteer all at once, you will be mediocre at them all. There are other people who focus on their area of greatest talent and interest who will achieve far more than you can.

If you want to increase your chances of getting into Harvard, you need to develop a Spike.

For a deep dive into how to do this, read my How to Get Into Harvard guide. I guarantee you'll learn something new that will change how you prepare your college apps. 


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Allen Cheng
About the Author

As co-founder and head of product design at PrepScholar, Allen has guided thousands of students to success in SAT/ACT prep and college admissions. He's committed to providing the highest quality resources to help you succeed. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and earned two perfect scores on the SAT (1600 in 2004, and 2400 in 2014) and a perfect score on the ACT.

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