Harvard admissions process
(Korea Times, November 9, 2012)
Outstanding Korean students who are now agonizing over the college admissions process at top North American universities should take a moment to curse Abbott Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard University from 1909 to 1933.
Concerned that there were too many Jewish students at Harvard, Lowell first tried to implement a quota. Later, he and the Harvard Board of Overseers agreed on a more subjective standard that included recommendations, interviews, and “geographic diversity” (thus, reducing the number of Jewish students from New York).
The admissions process that is so common today has a sordid history ― and it bedevils Korean students applying to Harvard and other top universities. A few years ago when I looked into the statistics, about 5 percent of Korean students who apply to Harvard College were getting accepted (compared to about 7-8 percent overall for others).
Although I am a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education who declared at graduation that “I’m done with school,” I recently joined a conference call with the dean of admissions at the Harvard Graduate School of education from Cambridge and interested people here in Seoul. I joined because so many Koreans ask me for tips about getting into Harvard. I wasn’t surprised by the response that the admissions dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education gave to my question: What’s the most common mistake that Korean students make when they apply to Harvard?
He highlighted two main issues that would have delighted Lowell. One is the Statement of Purpose. That’s the short essay where students are given the chance to brag about themselves. As the dean noted, by the time a student is applying, it is too late to do much to change grades, test scores and experience. Students do have control over the Statement of Purpose to explain what they can contribute, how they can make a difference and what can make them attractive to Harvard.
My guess is that while that applies to students overall, it is a special problem because for so many years Korean students have been test taking machines, getting their essays polished by tutors and essay specialists. Based on the essays I have seen, their Statements of Purpose read like a “spec” tour from hagwon to hagwon, a checklist that doesn’t add up to much. The lessons learned sound all too similar, fitting within a format developed over the years by tutors and experts.
A second problem the admissions dean mentioned: recommendations. It isn’t enough to have a recommendation from someone famous or even someone who went to Harvard. The reference should know the person. Back when I was at Harvard, I heard a story, perhaps an urban legend, about a student who had a recommendation from a former U.S. president, who signed something like, “Casey Lartigue is an outstanding young man, I’m sure he will do well in life,” and signed his name.
That doesn’t explain to Harvard (or any university) why you will offer something different (although it would be interesting to have a reference from the U.S. president). They are looking for a recommendation that lets them know why you are special and why you are likely to proudly represent the university.
The admissions dean may not agree with this point I would tell my students when I was a college counselor a few years ago: Recognize that the admissions game is a game. The Harvard process, and that of other universities, is not logical or scientific. Volunteering at a soup kitchen is apparently more valued than working at Pizza Hut, although youngsters working at Pizza Hut are more likely to learn real skills about dealing with others, although you may feel better at a soup kitchen.
Certainly it is important to have good or great grades but the subjective process leaves a lot of discretion for admissions committees who don’t explain to students why they were rejected (and they don’t explain because students would quickly adapt). A rejection letter doesn’t mean you are unworthy of being at a top university ― it means, in the case of students with similar academic backgrounds competing for a handful of spots, that others played the admissions game better.
So that means that Korean youngsters who do desire to enter top universities and graduate schools in the U.S. need to have their own strategy to better position themselves. Of course there are no guarantees, even when you master the rules of the game. And for that, Korean students can thank Lowell for trying to reduce the number of Jewish students at Harvard nine decades ago.
Original Korea Times link November 9, 2012)