How Our Daughter Accidentally Got Into Harvard

Our daughter got into Harvard without planning to, without years of careful decision making to build the right high school resume, without a professional college admissions counselor and without parents who have any connections worth noting to an institution looking to add a new building. In fact she spent three years of high school working toward admission to the school of her dreams – Columbia University.

I feel guilty about sharing this because it could have a direct impact on our already strained economy. At last count listed 1,474 results for the query “get into Harvard”, “get into Ivy League” will yield 507 additional results. Professional college admissions counselors as a group must represent an income revenue rivaling that of a small country’s GNP.  Attending college, for this generation, has become de rigueur. As a group who have been wearing designer clothes from birth, they want the best and when it comes to colleges Harvard is the gold standard. The belief that admission can be bought, or that  a student can be marketed to become the ideal, guaranteed to be accepted candidate allows the industry surrounding college prep to flourish. Much like the furor over the  boy who said aloud that the emperor wore no clothes, no one benefiting from this inaccuracy wants this truth to be told. 

 I would imagine Harvard as an institution smiles that wry smile unique to the Crimson tribe as it allows this free marketing campaign boosting its elite status to thrive.  Is Harvard exacting in its standards?  Absolutely. Do they populate their school with the best and the brightest with an extended list of equally good candidates on a waiting list or rejected? Absolutely. Do they need this cottage industry of king and queen makers? Not really, but creating mass desire for a product that realistically can only ever serve a small amount of people is the point of luxury marketing and in this case Harvard is getting that benefit for free. Perhaps the factor affected most is the annually reported ratio of those applying versus those admitted – I believe the number of applications would be smaller if so many didn’t buy into the idea that a book or a consultant is all that you need to get in.

So how did she do it you ask? Obviously preparing to get into Columbia didn’t hurt, oh and the fact that she is an incredibly bright young woman was probably an asset. She attended an amazing public high school and had all of the curricular gymnastics covered (APs, college level courses, NHS, founding the Human Rights Club and the GSA). However, this same student was rejected by Columbia. In an effort to understand and to help her move past this disappointment we spoke to a few people in the know of how the selection process at various schools work.  In essence, there is no specific rhyme or reason. Sometimes it is more about the mix the school is hoping to achieve, or a niche they are trying to fill than the applicant with the highest GPA or perfect SAT scores.  Perhaps the tennis team is depleted and a certain ethnic group is underrepresented – if you belong to that group, played varsity tennis and applied you just won the Ivy lottery! Conversely if you are a white woman from Westchester county right outside the New York City home of Columbia you are not unique.  The sheer number of applicants with that demographic limits the number who will be offered a spot. How do they decide? Do you play tennis???

Given this information we encouraged her to apply to any other Ivy outside of New York State just to see what happens when you are in a different demographic grouping. My husband especially pushed her to do this, not only to see how the wheel of collegiate fortune would spin, but to get her to move forward and work herself out of the funk that thin letter from the upper west side had caused.  As she wasn’t thrilled with the idea, and didn’t necessarily need to apply anywhere else as she had been accepted to every other top university she had applied to, she took my husband’s suggestion (and our application fee check) and applied to Harvard. As any fearless leader might say, to quote her dad, “why the hell not!”.

Here is where the secrets start to be revealed! Step One – take the hardest level  of courses your high school offers. Imagine you are on the receiving end of applications from literally all over the world, you need to have some criteria to narrow down the lot. Here is the part where those grades and numbers truly do count.  Do they only keep perfect scores? No, but they probably aren’t holding onto a lot of B averages either. Across the board these students took the toughest curriculum path their high school offered and most likely supplemented that with interesting and unique summer educational experiences. Take both the SAT and ACT if offered and know that you have the option of sending one or both to be considered.  If you aced the ACT lead with that, but don’t withhold your perfect verbals on the SAT.  Know that schools on the level of Harvard will most likely not accept the college credit you received from the state school or local community college that sponsored your college level course, but if you did not make the effort to take that course you may not be considered among your peers applying who did. Ditto for your AP courses, while you most likely will not receive credit you most probably won’t be considered without them.

Once you have cleared the first obstacle, move on to Step Two: The Personal Interview. Do not pass up this opportunity for a representative from the school, most likely an alum, to get to meet you. And here is where the tricky part comes in – the point of the interview is not to impress this person with how wonderful and brilliant you are. This is the big leagues here, everyone is wonderful and brilliant.  The key is despite being wonderful and brilliant are you a decent person? Can you greet someone by shaking their hand and looking them in the eye? Do you have interests beyond academics and the portable nuclear reactor you are considering building in your shed? Do you like music, art, tv shows, theatre? Do you travel, cook, have a cool hobby? Do you pay attention to current events outside your specific field of interest? Have you been to the movies recently? Do you have chores, a job, siblings, a pet? What makes you tick and will you be an interesting add to the mix the school is putting together? This is what the interview is about and the only way you ace this part is if you have humility, manners, a sense of humour and some good stories.

Step Three – Visit the Campus/Attend Accepted Freshman Activities. You absolutely need to physically visit the school and attend activities with your potential classmates to get a sense of the “feel”, the “vibe” or whatever you call your non-tangible sense that you can see yourself being happy somewhere.  Just because it’s Harvard doesn’t mean it’s for you, regardless of the aura attached to the name or what your parent’s expectations are. College is hard, competitive universities are hard and the stressors of living away from home for most likely the first time are added into the mix. Unless you really want to be somewhere, and when you are there amongst your peers you see yourself fitting in, you owe it to yourself to explore other options. We had visited NYU where our daughter was offered a Dean’s scholarship and she did an overnight stay. We thought she, the city loving New Yorker, would be in heaven – it was hell.  She just didn’t see herself there, the dorm set up wasn’t for her and the topping on the experience was being “sexiled” on her sleepover (don’t know what that means, get your a** in gear and google it as well as many other phrases if you are the parent of a young adult about to start college!). One look at her face the next morning and we knew it just wasn’t for her, we waved the scholarship good bye and set off for more expensive pastures. This is about your child, their education and their well being. If those aren’t your priorities and you aren’t willing to walk away from an elite school or a scholarship because you know the fit just isn’t right you need to rethink this whole endeavor.  Don’t get attached to the car window sticker until you see where your child will thrive and grow.

The pre-frosh weekend we spent at Harvard was absolutely the deciding factor. Our daughter saw where she would fit in, she met a variety of people and understood that there was a place for her among them. The curriculum interested her and the opportunities outside the classroom were extensive and impressive. That intangible became clear to her and the heart wrenching process was done. She came to these decisions on her own that weekend as we walked around the the campus amazed, overwhelmed and proud  that two people who came from somewhat humble beginnings raised a child destined to be a Harvard grad.

If I had a dollar for every time a person has asked me how our daughter got into Harvard I would be a very happy woman – my answer applies not only to Harvard but to any school and more importantly to life. Have a work ethic, be yourself, have manners, take an interest in the world, make time to give back in some way. That pretty much sums it up – seem too simple, we have the diploma and the debt to prove otherwise!


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