From all appearances, this 18-year-old senior seemed destined for Harvard. He will graduate in the top 10 percent of his class of 550 students, has 2,350/2,400 SAT scores and near 800s on four SAT Subject Tests. He was class president his junior year, captain of the debate team and had eight AP tests scores of 5/5. His goal is to become a bio-technology researcher or medical doctor. He is an advocate for underprivileged children and may eventually earn a law degree in addition to a doctorate and bachelor's degree.
However, he was rejected by Harvard as his first-choice school just before Christmas. He had applied for Early Action, which has an 18.2 percent admissions rate, and was referred to regular action, which has a 4.2 percent admissions rate. His application will be reviewed again, and he is looking at it as a second lease on life.
How can such an outstanding student with a stellar academic profile and extracurricular activity record be rejected? Statistics show that Harvard rejects dozens of high school students with similar backgrounds every year. While rejecting him in Early Action admission, the school decided he was strong enough to give him another review under Regular Admissions.
But why did he not get an early admit? I have read hundreds of applications similar to this student's and my suspicion is that it was his GPA. Being in the top 10 percent of your class is good but not outstandingly impressive with this level of competition. You are competing against students who have perfect or near perfect GPA's that match their test-taking ability. A 4.0 looks better than a 3.75 or even a 3.9. And, when push comes to shove, top grades impress colleges like Harvard more than anything else.
Grades measure hard work and test scores give a slight advantage to wealthy kids who can afford expensive tutors. And admissions people, being human beings, suffer from application fatigue and are likely to err on the side of a perfect GPA when making a decision.
I also wonder about the quality of his essays. If the first few sentences are boring and predictable you can count on top schools downgrading his admissions score. All things being equal, essays are nearly always a deal breaker. Recommendations are also important but the one common denominator in most successful applicants is their ability to write insightful and interesting essays. That means no "favorite teacher" or "the biggest stress in my life was preparing for the debate competition" stories.
This student's application was strong enough to give him a second chance. Harvard is like most top schools that spend considerable time and money reviewing each application. While there is always a chance they missed something the first time around, a second review means that they think this student has what it takes to be heard again.
I always counsel my clients to give serious consideration to several options when making their college selections and not to pin their hopes and dreams on one school. There are many excellent schools that will be perfect in preparing you for your chosen field and may indeed be a better fit.
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