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How Harvard Grades Applications

Learn How the Harvard Admissions Office Makes Admissions Decisions

December 21, 2019 by Veritas Essays Team | Ivy League, Harvard, Admissions File

Last year, I was able to view my actual Harvard Admissions file through a Student Records Request, and I have several friends who work/have worked in Harvard’s Admissions Office. Thus, I've been able to learn a ton of inside knowledge about the Harvard admissions process, as well as dispel some common myths propagated by college counselors, teachers, parents, and Harvard itself.

In this article, I'll detail everything I learned first-hand about Harvard's admissions process, and tell you exactly what goes on in the committee room when your application is being voted on.

Freshmen walk through Johnson Gate while moving into the Yard during Opening Days. (Image Source)

Though personal details below have been blurred out, you can get a general sense of what is on the one-page "summary sheet" that Harvard makes for every applicant in the image below. This summary sheet is given to every admissions officer so that they can quickly reference the overall strength of your candidacy when debating the merit of your admission in committee.

Screenshot of my actual Harvard Admissions file. Sections of the summary sheet have been annotated to describe what you will be graded on.

The Harvard Admissions committee will grade you on 4 metrics . They are as follows:

  1. Academics
  2. Extracurriculars
  3. Personal Qualities
  4. Athletics

For each of these metrics, you will be assigned a score of 1–6, where 1 is the best and 6 is the worst.

So which metric you should be optimizing for?

According to a friend who worked in the Admissions Office, it is the "Personal Qualities" metric that is the most underrated by applicants.

In fact, "Personal Qualities" actually ends up having the biggest impact on borderline admissions decisions.

View of Dunster House, a Harvard undergraduate dorm, from across the Charles River (Image Source)

The reason for this is simple — if you’re a 1 in any of the other categories, you’re most likely going to get accepted anyway. (1) Recruited athletes (with a 1 in “Athletics”) will receive a likely letter from their coach months before admissions decisions come out, and are essentially guaranteed a spot. (2) Academic superstars who’ve published papers, proven unsolved theorems, or won prestigious competitions are also a pretty solid lock to be included in the incoming class. (3) Finally, students who’ve excelled in leadership positions in intense extracurriculars , i.e. founding a company or leading a charity or getting elected to a national position of a high school organization, are also much more likely to be admitted.

Harvard’s overall acceptance rate has gone down every year for the past decade (Image Source)

So what if you’re not one of those kids?

Well, after throwing in spots reserved for the children of prominent politicians, billionaires, and mega-donors on the dean’s list, you now have very few spots left for amazing students who aren’t quite “prodigies.”

These students would be considered “very smart” and “Harvard material” in their high schools, but not labeled “prodigies” or “child geniuses,” and wouldn’t assume their admission is “guaranteed” by any stretch of the imagination.

According to the Washington Post, this ends up being the vast majority of applicants.

These students will get a handful of 2’s and 3’s across the four metrics. That puts them in the running for admission, but their profiles could be easily swapped out with another student who has 2’s and 3’s, and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

Harvard’s admissions process, according to the Harvard Admissions Office. (Image Source)

This is where Personal Qualities really stand out.

At this level, everyone is a great student, participates in extracurriculars, and has won some honors/awards. They can do the academic work at Harvard, no question.


  • Do they fit in at Harvard?
  • Will they be the change-makers of tomorrow?
  • Do they add something unique to the incoming class?

Screenshot from a Student Government campaign video that went viral earlier this year, with celebrities like Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, and Kerry Washington retweeting the video. The students who posted this video won a surprising, come-from-behind victory to take the Presidency and Vice Presidency for 2020. Watch the video here and read a CNN article about it here

As my friend who works in the Admissions Office likes to say, Harvard’s Admissions Office prides itself on building a community, not a classroom.

Harvard wants interesting people who will get along with others, bring unique perspectives to the table, and add something unique to the make-up of the class. If another applicant has the same personality/interests/motivations as you, then your spot will get taken by that applicant. Or the 10 others with identical essays about why they want to go to medical school or why they’re passionate about a certain subject or how they coped with a family member who went through a hardship.

Your essays, teacher recommendations, and interview are incredibly important for Harvard. More so, in fact, than they are at any other Ivy League college (from what I’ve been told by friends in the Admissions Office).

If you have any more specific questions or want to see other parts of my Harvard application, feel free to message me and I’d be more than happy to answer questions.

To learn more about my Harvard admissions journey and the tips/tricks I’ve learned along the way, check out the other posts on our blog .

Or, if you want to learn these secrets yourself for your own college applications, check out the services we offer

Applying to the Ivy League for Computer Science

December 12, 2019 by Veritas Essays Team | Ivy League, Guide, Computer Science

I’ll give you two answers , the "conventional" one and then the "real" one.

1) The "Conventional" Answer

Your chance of acceptance will be the same as every other major.

When you apply to an Ivy League college, you don’t apply as a “computer scientist” or even as a “STEM major.” Rather, all applicants are lumped together into one centralized pool regardless of intended major.

There’s two reasons for this:

  1. These colleges know that you’re probably going to change your major once, twice, maybe even three times before deciding on what you actually want to study. That’s the point of a liberal arts education, and the point of college.
  2. Ivy League universities are not vocational schools. They don’t really care what you study so long as you are growing intellectually and developing critical thinking skills. Again, liberal arts.

2) The "Real" Answer

Your chance of acceptance will be higher than it would be when applying to a more technical institution (e.g. MIT, Stanford). According to CS Rankings , the highest ranked Ivy League school when it comes to CS is Cornell at #7, followed by Columbia at #12. Harvard and Yale aren’t even top 20.

Ranking of undergraduate programs by CS graduate job placement rates/wages (Image Source)

The Ivy Leagues are known to be weaker at CS, and they recognize this fact as well. Thus, they’re spending a lot of time and money (e.g. Harvard , Yale ) recruiting new CS professors and strong CS undergrads/grad students to improve their programs.

So yes, if you’re interested in CS and are applying to MIT and Harvard/Yale/Princeton, you probably have a much better shot at getting into the Ivies.

So does that mean you should apply to Harvard as a "computer scientist" since they need more CS? Unfortunately, the answer is a bit more complicated than that for 2 reasons:

A) Everyone programs

Everybody, it seems, has caught onto the fact that the Ivies want to improve their CS programs, and that CS is the future. As a result, the skill has unfortunately become commoditized.

The number of CS majors at elite colleges has grown almost exponentially. (Note: At MIT, 6.2 is Electrical Engineering & CS, 6.3 is CS) (Image Source)

High schoolers who taught themselves to code after-school and have built a dozen websites/love programming are a dime a dozen these days. This makes it incredibly hard to distinguish yourself as a CS applicant unless you do something truly exceptional (e.g. found a start-up, place at the USACO, do algorithms research, etc.)

B) Top-heavy field

Because CS is such a math/engineering-focused field, this means that it is much easier for the nation’s “top” CS students to distinguish themselves from the rest of the population.

This occurs in the same way that the nation’s "top" math students become fairly identifiable — there are objective measures for how well you perform at math (e.g. doing well in a competition, publishing a paper), whereas for fields like English, History, etc. it’s harder to objectively rank applicants.

Harvard’s admissions rate for students who declare different majors. CS is at the bottom, tied with engineering. (Image Source)

It’s therefore much easier for the admissions office to rank two CS applicants against one another than it would be had they declared their interest in a humanities or social sciences field. Thus, even if you’re not one of the “top” CS students in the nation, by applying as a “computer scientist” you’re basically asking the admissions office to lump you in the “CS” pool.

The US’s 2019 International Olympiad in Informatics team. To a certain extent, these are the students to whom your CS application will get compared. (Image Source)

This means you’ll be ranked against the pool of all other CS-interested applicants, which includes the top CS students in the nation.

And because there are somewhat more “quantifiable” or “standardized” metrics for comparing CS candidates than there are for comparing applicants with other intended majors, you’ll probably look relatively worse off because of it.

Starting a Club: Required for the Ivy League?

December 08, 2019 by Veritas Essays Team | Common App, ECs, Ivy League

Literally every other applicant has founded at least 20 clubs while being the President of 15 others. How is that even possible? Who are these people?

This was the thought that nagged at me my entire senior fall while applying to colleges. I remember scrolling through Reddit and College Confidential and reading Chance Me after Chance Me, becoming extremely discouraged by all the other amazing applicants' lists of infinite ECs.

I'm sure you've had similar thoughts about your own candidacy. I know I did.

But what happens if you haven't founded a club at your school -- Are your dreams of getting into an Ivy League school hopeless?

The answer is an emphatic No.

And, as I learned after getting into Harvard, even if you had founded a club it probably won't matter in your admissions decision.

There are 3 main reasons for this:

Memorial Church at the center of Harvard Yard. (Image Source)

1. The numbers game

Think about this from a numbers perspective — there are ~40,000 high schools in the US.

If one student at every high school started a club, we’d have 40,000 students who’ve started clubs v. about 2000 spots at each Ivy League university. Even after filtering out students who didn’t found clubs, we’d still be left with 20x more "qualified" students than spots.

Unless the club you start becomes a nationally recognized charity, starting a club is almost never a defining factor in a Harvard app simply because 20 other students have also done the same exact thing.

Admissions letters (Image Source)

2. The journey is the reward

"If founding a club doesn’t help, then why do people who found clubs get into Harvard so often?"

The answer is a bit nuanced. Let me speak from my personal experience with Harvard admissions.

Harvard grades applicants across 4 metrics:

  1. Athletics
  2. Academics
  3. Extracurriculars
  4. Personal Qualities

Founding a club doesn’t help with 1, 2, or 4. That leaves us with just #3, Extracurriculars. So at best, founding a club will impact only ¼ of the scores that sum up to provide your overall application score.

You don’t "need to start a club" to get into Harvard or Stanford. In fact, it likely won’t help you — a million students found clubs every year in high schools around the world.

Rather, what will get you in is demonstrating how the act of founding a club showcased some unique combination of leadership, intellectual curiosity, initiative-taking, and personal qualities.

Don’t think of "starting a club" as a little checkmark on your resume, that once you’ve checked that box you’re suddenly Ivy League material.

Instead, think of how starting a club plays across the entire application. Instead of it just increasing your Extracurricular score, think about how it might increase your Personal Qualities and Academics scores.

Your essays are where this should really shine through, and showcase how the act of founding a club shapes your entire application and improves all of the 4 metrics on which you’re being graded.

  • What difficulties did you face starting your club? (Extracurricular)
  • How were you able to inspire others and gain the critical mass needed for the club to self-perpetuate? (Personal Qualities)
  • What did you learn about yourself through this process? (Personal Qualities)
  • Did your club compete in any competitions, and if so how did you perform? (Academics)
  • etc…

Starting and/or leading a club is definitely preferable to just showing up for meetings. But starting a club is, pardon the pun, just the start.

What matters is not just what you did, but also how you did it and why. That is what will distinguish your application from every other applicant, not the mere act of starting a club.

Factors that go into your admissions decision. (Image Source)

3. There are a ton of other (more common) ways to get in

If you’re a recruited athlete, no one cares whether you started a club at school or not. You’re getting in.

If you’re a certified genius, then you’re getting admitted for your academic prowess.

If you are a leader of an organization (e.g. your school’s Student Council, Youth in Government, a political campaign, etc.), it doesn’t matter whether you founded it or not — serving as a leader is impressive in its own right.

There are a ton of ways to get into Harvard. Every student’s path is unique, and there’s no single way to get in.

To put this in perspective, most students I know at Harvard never started anything in high school. What got them in were those aforementioned intangible characteristics that truly distinguished their applications.

How to Write a Good College Admissions Essay

December 02, 2019 by Veritas Essays Team | Essays, How To

Here are 5 tips that helped me when I was struggling to write the essays that ended up getting me into Harvard:

1. Read your previous school essays/assignments.

No one understands you better than your past self. Though you’ve probably matured as a writer since sophomore or junior year, you may be surprised by how well you were able to write on school assignments.

This was how I personally ended up coming up with my college admissions essay to Harvard. I had written a short essay in my English class about a fairly personal event that had recently happened in my life, and my teacher said she really loved it.

I wasn’t feeling that tied to any of the Common App essay drafts that I had written and was revising at that point. So, I decided to limit myself to an hour and try to re-tailor my English essay for the Common App.

Even though I had spent less than 1/10th the amount of time on that essay as the other Common App essay drafts I’d been laboring over for the past month, there was something about this essay that just clicked.

I brought the reworked essay into my college counselor the next day, and thankfully he absolutely loved it.

The key lesson I learned from this experience is that there’s absolutely no downside to leveraging work you’ve already done for your college essays — rather, it can actually help shortcut the ideation and essay writing process.

A lot of people come into the college essay writing process thinking they need to create something entirely new from scratch, something that will be so unique and expertly crafted that it was destined for greatness from the moment the pen hit the paper.

That’s an unrealistic expectation, however, and sets you up for failure by forcing you to start your college essay from the most intimidating part of the writing process — staring at a completely blank page without anything to build off of.

Build off your past success and take advantage of your previous hard work. Take inspiration from the 3 years of hard work you’ve already done during high school.

And, last but not least, basing your college essay off of a school assignment also comes with the additional benefit of having already submitted and received feedback on that writing, which gives you a head-start in refining and revising your message.

2. Look over your resume, or any previous academic/job applications you’ve written.

It’s easy to forget how much you’ve done and accomplished over the years. Thankfully, a condensed, one-page summary of all that information has already been created — it’s your resume.

Your resume tells the story of your professional and academic life. Leverage it to find inspiration for your college essays — oftentimes we forget some of the most interesting things we’ve done, or fail to draw connections between our life experiences until they are literally sitting on a page directly under our nose.

If you do not have a resume yet, don’t fret — going through the process of creating a resume can also be an invaluable exercise in reviewing and reflecting on your accomplishments throughout high school. Crafting your resume could be a valuable first step in deciding on the personal story that you want to convey in your admissions essay.

50 Successful Harvard Admissions Essays

3. Find inspiration in others’ essays.

I would definitely recommend 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays . It is a book published by Harvard’s student newspaper, The Crimson, and contains 50 essays that actual students used to get into Harvard.

Around the web, this excellent post by PrepScholar contains 120 essays for 14 schools, along with expert analysis, while this article by College Essay Guy contains another 21 free examples of essays that worked.

As easy as it is to read someone else's successful essay, however, it's 100x more important to get someone else to read your essay. It's like the difference between watching sports on TV and playing professionally.

It is essential to get as much feedback from as many experienced people as possible while you're crafting your essays, and is something I am very glad I prioritized when going through the process myself.

Which brings us to...

4. Ask family/friends/teachers/counselors for suggestions.

Your close friends, family, and teachers know you best, maybe even better than you know yourself. They have also seen you at your most impressive and can probably tell when you’re putting your best foot forward.

Don’t be afraid to ask for advice if you’re feeling stuck on your essays. And when you’ve completed a draft it can be extremely helpful to get a second set of eyes on your writing. Getting an outsider’s perspective can be extremely helpful in refocusing your essay for a broader audience.

Especially if your essay covers a more personal or intimate topic, you’ll definitely want to get someone else to read it before submitting since you may be too close to the topic to give it a fair read/interpretation, and won’t be able to tell how your story impacts another person.

And if you don't feel like you're getting the quality feedback you need, don't miss your chance to get a team of Harvard student editors to read your essays and provide direct, personalized feedback.

Take a break

5. Take a break.

Taking a break can be a great way to reset your mental state and give yourself a more clear-eyed view of the messages you’re trying to convey in your essays. Continuing to spin your wheels aimlessly can be counter-productive and just add to your frustration, further clouding your judgement.

If you find yourself unable to concentrate or put words on the page after staring at your prompt for more than 10 minutes, go outside and take a walk or stretch or move on to your other school work for the day.


  • Read your previous school essays/assignments for inspiration. You’ve already done the heavy lifting of coming up with the idea and writing out these essays, you’ve already revised and reviewed them, and you’ve already gotten feedback on them. Why let all this good work go to waste?
  • Look over your resume or any previous job applications you’ve filed, for these have already succinctly captured your professional/academic experience and can serve as a valuable reminder of what you’ve accomplished.
  • Find inspiration in previously successful students’ essays. There are dozens of books and websites online that offer free essay examples of admitted students.
  • Ask close friends/family/teachers/counselors for guidance. They know you better than you know yourself in many ways, and by providing an outside perspective may help you view your life in a novel way.
  • If all else fails, take a break. When you’re in a hole it does no good to keep digging. Trust your abilities enough that you can take a break without irrevocably interrupting any momentum you had while writing your essays.

How I Got into Harvard

December 01, 2019 by Veritas Essays Team | Harvard, Admissions File, Hindsight

"You'll never get into Harvard," I remember my English teacher chuckling.

It was if my expression of interest in the university had been the punchline of a joke.

Yes, it was devastating to hear. But it was the motivation I needed.

Less than a year later, I was fortunate enough to open up a letter from Harvard Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons informing me that I had been accepted to one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

I was completely floored as I read the words "Congratulations" at the top of my letter. I couldn't believe my luck, and was certain they had made a mistake.

That nagging doubt constantly lingered in the back of my mind during my freshman year at Harvard.

Why had I been chosen over thousands of other students who probably deserved this more than me?

Who made the decision that I belonged at Harvard?

What was I supposed to uniquely add to the incoming class?

What was the secret to my acceptance?

As a Harvard student, you are allowed to view your admissions file by submitting a Student Records request . I did this out of curiosity, and was shocked by what I saw.

In this post, I'll share what I learned about my own personal admissions journey, as well as the metrics that Harvard uses to evaluate and rank candidates. Hopefully this gives you a better sense of how you'll be evaluated, and sheds some light on this mysterious process.

But first, some context:

Harvard assigns each applicant a numerical score (1–6) across four metrics (Academics, Extracurriculars, Athletics, and Personal Qualities), your teacher and school counselor recommendations, and your interview performance.

A score of 1 is the "best," while a 6 is the "worst." See this Quora post from an alumni interviewer for more context on what scoring a “1” means/how rare it is.

According to my admissions file, it was my interview and my essay that distinguished my application and secured my acceptance to Harvard.

A) Interview

A screenshot of my Harvard Alumni Interview write-up is below.

Interview write-up

My interview went extremely well, way better than I could have possibly dreamed.

At the time I didn’t think much of it — the conversation had flowed naturally and I thought I made a good impression, but I didn’t realize just how well I had done until looking at my admissions file several years later while a student at Harvard.

Overall, my interviewer remarked that I was probably the “most exceptional” candidate she’d seen in almost a decade of interviewing, highlighting in particular my “intellectual curiosity, internal drive, and creativity.” There were three main themes she highlighted in her write-up:

(1) Structure: In particular, I think that she liked the structured way I answered her questions. I had spent the week prior practicing how to walk through my resume by telling a story, linking everything I’d done into one coherent narrative.

Multiple times in my write-up, she remarked how impressive my “structured thinking and organization” had been during the interview. And while she did note that this could come across as overly rehearsed, she thought that the enthusiasm I showed meant that this structure served me well during the interview.

(2) Coherent Narrative: She also highlighted my ability to synthesize the various fields I was interested in or had done in high school (e.g. debate, research internships at national labs, academic summer camps) into Harvard-specific goals.

For example, I had done a lot of debate and STEM research in high school, and so one of my goals was to work at the intersection of technology and policy after graduating. Tying this back to Harvard, I mentioned the Berkman Center for Internet and Policy as a resource I’d love to take advantage of, as it is one of the foremost research centers on Internet policy in the nation.

She highlighted my ability to “synthesi[ze]” my interests, future goals, and past experience as “especially stand-out,” and I think this ability to tie my life’s story up to that point into one big arrow pointing at Harvard was the key in earning such a favorable rating.

Interview write-up

(3) Easy Flow of Conversation: By keeping the conversation constantly flowing and turning the interview into a dialogue with my interviewer, I was able to keep her engaged and invested in our conversation.

For example, I had looked up my interviewer beforehand, so I knew that she worked in healthcare policy. So, when she asked me about my interest in statistics and math, after answering her question I then flipped it and asked her how these subjects factored into her day-to-day work on health policy.

After she mentioned a research report on health insurance, I piggy-backed on her comments by mentioning a few news articles I’d read recently about the same topic, and we had a great back-and-forth on how her time at Harvard shaped her desire to go into health policy, and what she wished she had done more of as an undergrad to prepare her for her current role.

Doing research beforehand was incredibly valuable, as it ensured that I would always have something to say/ask her about whenever there was a lull in conversation. Above all, however, my main advice (in addition to researching your interviewer beforehand) is to just be a normal, social, affable human being like you normally are.

B) Essays

Interview write-up

I was very proud of my Common App essay, as I thought I did an effective job of capturing why I was interested in both Statistics and the intersection of technology with law/public policy.

If you want direct feedback on your essays from Harvard students, or want to work 1-on-1 with an experienced mentor to craft your application, visit us here.

I purposely tried to make my supplemental essays much more light-hearted/humorous to showcase that aspect of my personality, and I think that helped round me out as an applicant, especially as someone applying with a more traditional STEM background.

I wrote, edited, and revised my essays over the span of about 6 months.

The first 4 of those months were spent writing a dozen or so drafts that I ended up scrapping completely, but going through that process and getting feedback on my essays was essential for channeling the mindset of an admissions officer and making sure that I hit all the right notes in the final version I submitted.

What is the Ivy League?

December 01, 2019 by Veritas Essays Team | Ivy League, Guide

In this post, we'll clear up your confusion about all things Ivy: the Ivy League, Potted/Little Ivies, Public Ivies, and how Stanford/MIT fit in.

1. The Ivy League

The Ivy League is an athletic conference comprised of 8 private universities located in the Northeast.

Listed roughly in order of prestige, they are:

  1. Harvard
  2. Yale
  3. Princeton
  4. Columbia
  5. University of Pennsylvania
  6. Dartmouth
  7. Brown
  8. Cornell

These schools are all highly selective, have huge endowments , and have a reputation for being the best universities in the US. Brown has the smallest endowment at $3.6 billion, while Harvard has the largest at $38 billion.

Their graduates go on to become Presidents, Supreme Court Justices, Nobel Prize winners, celebrities, media titans, and billionaires.

They are also some of the most historic colleges in the US - all were founded before the US was even a country with the exception of Cornell (1865). In fact, Harvard was the first institution of higher learning established in the US way back in 1636, over 100 years before the Revolutionary War.


MIT and Stanford are equally as competitive as the most prestigious of Ivy League colleges. (Image Source)

There are also colleges that are not technically "Ivy League" but have a reputation for being equally as good, if not better than, the true Ivies.

You’ll frequently hear "HYPSM" being used to refer to the 5 "best" colleges in America. The “HYP” is Harvard/Yale/Princeton, while the “SM” are:

  1. Stanford
  2. MIT

3. "Public" Ivies

The original list of "Public Ivies" published in 1985. (Image Source)

Additionally, there are several public state colleges known as "Public Ivies" due to their strong record of research and academic excellence.

They are also often cheaper for in-state applicants than the Ivies. The term was first coined in 1985 by UCSC Dean of Admissions Richard Moll to describe the following schools :

  1. University of California
  2. University of Virginia
  3. College of William & Mary
  4. University of Michigan - Ann Arbor
  5. University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill
  6. University of Texas - Austin
  7. Miami University of Ohio
  8. University of Vermont

4. "Potted" or "Little" Ivies

Like the Ivy League, the Little Ivies are all located in the Northeast. (Image Source)

Finally, the "Potted/Little Ivies" are a collection of small liberal arts colleges located in the Northeast.

While a step down from the Ivies in terms of reputation, they are still very strong academically, and are known to be more student-focused than Ivy League colleges due to their smaller size.

They belong to their own athletic conference , the NESCAC, and are as follows:

  1. Amherst College
  2. Bates College
  3. Bowdoin College
  4. Colby College
  5. Connecticut College
  6. Hamilton College
  7. Middlebury College
  8. Trinity College
  9. Tufts University
  10. Wesleyan University
  11. Williams College

Hopefully this helps shed some light on what other students, parents, and college counselors mean when discussing the "Ivies."