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Last updated May 11, 2023

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The Harvard Admissions Lawsuit and What It Means for You

Key Takeaway

The Harvard admissions process was revealed during a lawsuit in 2018. Scores are given in four categories: athletic, academic, personal, and extracurricular. To earn the highest rating in academics, applicants must showcase "substantial scholarship or academic creativity" that can be "reviewed by a faculty member." Improving academic scores is one of the most effective ways to boost chances of admission.

Wouldn’t it be nice to know how admissions officers at top schools judge your application? To get just a tiny peek into the black box? Well, during the Harvard Admissions Lawsuit case held in 2018 at the U.S. District Court in Boston, Harvard was required to submit evidence. This treasure trove of Harvard documents—detailing their admissions criteria—was made public and provides a rare glimpse at their top-secret process.

In this blog post, we’ll show you a breakdown of the categories that Harvard uses to judge applicants, their internal rating system, a little analysis based on admissions data, and a tip on how you can use this knowledge to focus your own application efforts.

How Harvard rates your college app

Harvard admission officers use a set of scores to gauge how well an applicant would fit into their academic program and campus community. This is a good time to mention that these scores obviously don’t measure your worth as a person. These scores are only meant to measure how likely you are to thrive at their school and contribute to its culture. We want to remind you of this because being reduced to a series of numbers can feel dehumanizing.

The paradox is that Harvard uses these scores in an attempt to get to know the student as a “whole person”— beyond their GPAs, SATs, and/or ACT scores. They also use it for the practical purpose of efficiency. Thousands of candidates for Harvard apply with perfect or near-perfect grades and exam scores. Because Harvard needed more varied metrics to narrow down candidates, they created them.

The ratings are given in 4 categories: an academic rating, an extracurricular rating, a personal rating, and an athletic rating. For each category, they give a score from 1 to 4, 1 being the very highest score (which very few receive) and 4 being, contrary to the actual number, the lowest score. Typically less than 1% of all applicants (that’s less than 500 students out of 57,786 applicants in 2020) receive a score of 1 in any given area.

Which category matters most?

Here’s a chart that tells you exactly how many applicants received the highest score, a 1, in each category and their admission rate. As you can see, “athletic” had the highest percentage of 1s and admission rate, and “academic” was the second highest. So let’s look at each of these four factors and determine which one could help you out the most.

Athletic: While statistically, it may seem easier to score a 1 on athletic abilities, for most non-varsity students, this route remains out of reach. For top athletic candidates, admissions officers want to see a continued commitment to a sports team or program so if you’re just now getting started, this category might be tough to conquer

Personal: According to the chart above, it is virtually impossible to get a 1 as a personal rating, so let’s just ignore this one.

Extracurricular: The chances of getting a 1 here are a bit better and there are many ways to improve this score. But because the admission rate for a 1 in extracurricular is the lowest (48%), let’s move on to academics, the area with the second-highest admission rate after athletics.

Academics: We’ve already established that many of the Harvard applicants are acing their classes and AP exams. And doing that is actually enough to get you an academic score of 2. But it’s not enough to get you a 1. Why? Maybe Harvard knows that high school grades are often terrible predictors of future success. Just look at Sir John Gurdon, the Nobel Prize winner in Medicine who ranked last out of 250 in his year group in biology. Similarly, test scores, AP exams, and summer camps with a set curriculum give students little opportunity to showcase their academic creativity and intellectual rigor.

So what can you do to get that elusive academics rating of 1? You need “substantial scholarship or academic creativity” that is able to be “reviewed by a faculty member.” According to Harvard, “if the applicant has submitted material that Admissions Office staff believe would be best evaluated by a Harvard faculty member, such as an academic paper or a recording of a musical performance, the application may be sent to a faculty member [...] for review and assessment.” You need, in other words, a “tangible indicator of [your] passions: a project, experiment, portfolio, or an endeavor on which [you] spent substantial time learning, tinkering, or creating,” as a former Cornell admissions officer Nelson Ureña put it. That tangible evidence is what can get you that highest academic rating and a 68% chance of Harvard admission.

What tangible evidence looks like

In practical terms, what might this thing to be reviewed by a faculty member look like? While the word “research” evokes white lab coats and pipettes, it can be done on any subject, anywhere, and in any outfit, as long as it is approached with intensity and thoroughness.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Creative research. Take a deep dive into a work of literature, philosophy, anthropology, or music and create a new take on the previous body of work, revitalizing it through new insights.
  • Review papers. Research past work in a given field and provide a comprehensive overview by describing past achievements and identifying outstanding research questions.
  • Exploratory research. Whether using instruments to quantify phenomena or reading ancient texts to uncover new details about the past, exploratory research helps to expand the horizons of our imagination.
  • Constructive/applied research. Define and solve real-world problems through engineering or design solutions, such as the development of algorithms, frameworks against preset benchmarks, or prototypes in a maker portfolio.
  • Empirical research. Here’s that lab-coat-and-pipette research that uses reproducible experimentation to measure phenomena, formulate concrete theories, and draw conclusions.

Why aim for a 1

Now that you know that an independent research project could qualify you for an academic rating of 1 and what it might look like, here is why the 1 rating matters so much at Harvard. As students’ academic ratings rise from 4 to 1, their chances of getting in increase exponentially. Below is a chart that shows your odds. The respective probability of acceptance rises from 0.07% (essentially no chance of admission) to 3.9% (consistent with the overall admission rate) to 8.6% (close to double the overall admission rate) to 68% (2 in 3 chance).

Beyond Harvard

DNA, radar, game theory, and the Google search algorithm were all discovered at top research institutions, such as Cambridge, MIT, Princeton, and Stanford. Research at these top R1s institutions is a collaborative effort between professors, graduate students, and undergraduates. This is why these schools look for students who are capable of doing high-quality independent academic work. A research project is by definition a unique and highly personal achievement that allows you to showcase your intellectual abilities.

Art colleges have been looking at independent portfolios since their inception. But for liberal arts, engineering, and science colleges, this is a relatively new thing. It really kicked off in the fall of 2013 when MIT added a new supplement to its undergraduate application. Called “Research and Maker Portfolios,” it gave students who had created an individual project—a computer program, a sculpture, a rocket—a place to describe their efforts in detail.

The program was a huge success. In the first two years alone, more than 2000 students shared “maker” projects, “from surfboards to solar cells,” and more than 3000 submitted “Research Portfolios.” Many other schools followed suit. Yale, Columbia, the University of Chicago, and of course now Harvard are among those prestigious universities that explicitly mention “Research Projects” in their supplementary application materials. Facing a seemingly unending flow of high-achieving applicants, schools have identified independent research as an effective measure to distinguish those with exceptional academic curiosity and grit.

The final takeaway

If you can get an academic rating of 2 (only 42% do), you can pretty much double your chances of a Harvard admission. If you can get an academic rating of 1 (only a few hundred per year), you can come close to guaranteeing it. Improving your chances of getting a 2 or a 1 on your academic score is one of the most effective ways to boost your chances of Harvard admission (or admission to other top schools with similar admission practices). And to get the highest academic rating and have that 68% chance of admission, you must submit an academic paper or another portfolio item that showcases your ability to carry out substantial academic scholarship.

One final thought. As test-optional admissions take over in the wake of a lingering global pandemic, independent student research will only gain importance in college admissions. In an environment where grades and test scores no longer suffice, project-based learning is the new way for you to stand out and let your intellectual vitality shine.


This project was adapted from the original white paper by Janos Perczel, PhD; Jin Chow; George Philip LeBourdais, PhD; Oasis Zhen

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