How to Get Into Harvard

Simple advice from the president of America's most venerable university
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ASPEN, Colo.—Everyone knows how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. But what about how to get into the nation’s most venerable university?

For ambitious high-school students today, the formula for getting into that reach school can seem just as simple. The conventional wisdom is that keeping your head down in the single-minded pursuit of qualifications is the path to success. It makes every election for every tiny organization a heated battle and makes classes almost an afterthought. Every hour not spent in class is spent building a formidable resume: student council, National Honor Society, captaining the football or volleyball teams, and joining a dozen other student organizations. Of course, that isn't to say that a 4.0 with a raft of AP classes isn't still essential. 

Do all of that and you'll get into Harvard, right? Well...

“We could fill our class twice over with valedictorians,” Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust told an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival, sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, on Monday. That means admissions officers rely on intangibles like interesting essays or particularly unusual recommendations to decide who comprises the 5.9 percent of applicants who get in. 

Faust's top tip for raising a Harvard man or woman: “Make your children interesting!”

For parents and students alike, that’s both good news and bad news. The bad news is that of course it’s much easier to say that than to actually make it happen, though Faust recommended encouraging children to follow their passions as a way to develop an interesting personality. It’s much easier to complete a checklist, however daunting, than to actually be interesting.

But the good news is that when colleges use this set of criteria, kids can focus on shaping their teenage years in a way that isn’t just about trying to build up resume line after resume line, and instead focus on a more holistic sense of self. That seems like a far more sensible way to move through high school than spreading oneself too thin trying to get a slew of positions one can’t really ever concentrate on. That encourages a dilettantish approach to learning and society that is just the opposite of what the liberal arts have traditionally tried to encourage.

And there’s another bonus piece of good news: If Junior can get in, he probably doesn’t need to work a job on the side. A full 60 percent of Harvard undergraduates receive financial aid, Faust said, and they’re paying an average of $12,000 per year, against the almost $60,000 tab for tuition, room, and board. That's part of an increasing trend in elite universities. For years, a few dozen have said they meet 100 percent of demonstrated need, but in recent years a few have begun offering completely free tuition to students with family incomes below a certain level. That means that even as the sticker price of attending school has risen to ever-more-dizzying heights, fewer and fewer students are paying that sticker.

These two changes mean that while college education isn't what it was two generations ago, it's also not quite as cutthroat or as unaffordable as it might seem.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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