Question: How does Harvard decide whom to admit? Are there objective criteria?

Answer: (The important parts are in BOLD)

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William R. Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard College for more than two decades, answers reader questions.

Answer: (The important parts are in BOLD)

Our goal in admissions is to attract the best students to the college. Many people believe “best” ought to be defined by standardized tests, grades, and class rank, and it is easy to understand why. Such a system, another Harvard dean of admissions, Bill Bender, wrote in 1960, “has great appeal because it has the merits of apparent simplicity, objectivity, relative administrative cheapness in time and money and worry, a clear logical basis and therefore easy applicability and defensibility.”

While we value objective criteria, we apply a more expansive view of excellence. Test scores and grades offer some indication of students’ academic promise and achievement. But we also scrutinize applications for extracurricular distinction and personal qualities.

Students’ intellectual imagination, strength of character, and their ability to exercise good judgment — these are critical factors in the admissions process, and they are revealed not by test scores but by students’ activities outside the classroom, the testimony of teachers and guidance counselors, and by alumni/ae and staff interview reports.

With these aspects — academic excellence, extracurricular distinction, and personal qualities — in mind, we read with care all the components of each application.

Efforts to define and identify precise elements of character, and to determine how much weight they should be given in the admissions process, require discretion and judiciousness. But the committee believes that the “best” freshman class is more likely to result if we bring evaluation of character and personality into decisions than if we do not.

We believe that a diversity of backgrounds, academic interests, extracurricular talents, and career goals among students who live and learn together affects the quality of education in the same manner as a great faculty or material resources.

These considerations are guidelines that are neither comprehensive nor absolute.

We proceed with care, discretion, and humility because we know we are working with imperfect information and that no one can predict with certainty what an individual will accomplish during college or beyond. While we are heartened by the fact that Harvard’s graduation rate of 96 to 98 percent is always at or near the top of America’s colleges, it is clear that making admissions decisions is more of an art than science.

Harvard admissions officers, who serve as area representatives, read every application from their assigned areas. They record all data, contact the applicant and school for missing materials, and comment on the application’s strengths and weaknesses. Some applications receive as many as four readings and each reader checks factual data recorded and, more importantly, offers additional interpretations of the folder.

The standing committee on admissions and financial aid of the faculty, which includes about 30 members of the faculty of arts and sciences, formulates and implements policies on admissions and financial aid. Members of the standing committee also review applications that are representative of the entire pool — and those which present unusually strong scholarly credentials, demonstrate exceptional creativity in the arts, or raise questions of admissions policy.

Working under the guidelines established by the standing committee, the admissions committee makes decisions on individual applicants. The admission committee is comprised of the standing committee of the faculty augmented by about 35 staff members from the office of admissions and financial aid.

The admissions committee is divided into 20 subcommittees grouped by geographic region and representing approximately an equal number of applications. Each subcommittee normally includes four to five members, a senior admissions officer, and faculty readers.

Once all applications have been read and the subcommittee process begins, the area representative acts as an advocate, and summarizes to the subcommittee the strengths of each candidate. Subcommittee members discuss the application, and then vote to recommend an action to the full Committee. Majorities rule, but the degree of support expressed for applicants is always noted to allow for comparisons with other subcommittees.

Subcommittees then present and defend their recommendations to the full committee. While reading or hearing the summary of any case, any committee member may raise questions about the proposed decision and request a full review of the case.

Many candidates are re-presented in full committee. Discussions in subcommittee or in full committee on a single applicant can last up to an hour. The full Committee compares all candidates across all subcommittees, and therefore across geographic lines.

This rigorous comparative process strives to be deliberate, meticulous, and fair. It is labor intensive, but it permits extraordinary flexibility and the possibility of changing decisions virtually until the day the admissions committee mails them.

Personal qualities and character provide the foundation upon which each admission rests. Harvard alumni/ae often report that the education they received from fellow classmates was a critically important component of their college experience. The education that takes place between roommates, in dining halls, classrooms, research groups, extracurricular activities, and in Harvard’s residential houses depends on selecting students who will reach out to others.

The admissions committee, therefore, takes great care to attempt to identify students who will be outstanding “educators,” students who will inspire fellow classmates and professors.

While there are students at Harvard who might present unusual excellence in a single academic or extracurricular area, most admitted students are unusually strong across the board and are by any definition well-rounded. The energy, commitment, and dedication it takes to achieve various kinds and degrees of excellence serve students well during their college years and throughout their lives.