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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

What do colleges like more: GPA or ECs?

November 17, 2019 by | GPA, ECs, Regular Decision, Common App, Spike

Let's say you had the choice between 2 options:

Option 1) A high GPA (4.0) with little to no extracurriculars (ECs) beyond clubs at school and regional awards

Option 2) A relatively mediocre GPA (3.6) with significant extracurricular involvement and awards (at the state or national level)

While you may be tempted to argue that Option 1 shows evidence of a much more intellectually capable and hard-working student, you'd be wrong.

Option 2 is preferable for college admissions, but not for the reason you’d expect.

The most common way to get into a selective college is to have a “spike,” i.e. a world-class talent in one specific area, or several notable (non-world-class) talents in multiple fields.

Colleges want students farther to the right of this spectrum. (Image Source)

If being “well-rounded” is being above average at everything you do, being a “spike” means being great at one or two very specific things and average/above average at everything else.

For example, winning an International Math/Physics/Bio Olympiad, placing 1st in the country at the national debate championships, or writing and publishing a novel would be “spike” attributes that give your application the eye-catching pop that admissions officers love.

Ivy League Admissions statistics for the Class of 2020 (Image Source)

Colleges want to know that the students they accept will go on to change the world and make their college even more famous. Applicants who’ve already changed the world through their “spiky” talents are often the safest bets.

Option #1 clearly does not qualify as a “spike.” Simply running the numbers reveals this:

There are roughly 40,000 high schools in America. That means there are 40,000 valedictorians in the US alone every year, and 400,000 students in the “top 10” of their class.

Have a high GPA? Great, get in line behind these other 400,000 students.

Thus, Option #1 will never be the primary reason why an Ivy or highly selective college selects you. Having a high GPA is the first hurdle you need to clear to get accepted into a selective college — it isn’t what gets you in.

If you’re just a GPA, then, unfortunately, you have virtually no shot at a highly selective college — it just doesn’t differentiate your application.

Average high school GPA of admitted students to all 8 Ivy League schools. (Source)

However, all hope is not lost.

Based on my experience with admissions, high-GPA-only students have gotten into Harvard, but it has always been through the strength of the other aspects of their application — (1) teacher and counselor recs, (2) essays, and (3) interview.

Unfortunately, you have no direct influence over your teacher recommendations, and the interview can be a crap-shoot depending on how well you click with your interviewer.

Thus, the essays are your best chance to frame your application in the best light possible and convey why you and only you can add something uniquely meaningful to the incoming class.

As Logan Powell, Dean of Admissions at Brown University, once said:

“The essay is one of only two places where the student can tell us exactly who they are, in their own words (the other place is the interview).”

If you want additional personalized feedback on your essays and direct help from current Harvard students, check out the services we offer .

That leaves us with Option #2.

Though “low GPA” could be disqualifying in and of itself, if “low GPA” is meant relative to the typical Ivy League applicant (i.e. a 3.6–75), then it is definitely still possible that you could qualify for admission.

However, having “many extracurriculars, high grades in standardized tests…and honors in several prestigious competitions” doesn’t actually matter.

Simply participating in many student clubs or doing charity work for 5 hours a week doesn’t count on a college application. Anyone can put minimal time and effort into many different activities. Unless you have a leadership role, started the extracurricular you’re involved in, or grew it substantially, it doesn’t really count — imagine how many “debate team captains” there are in the US.

Annenberg Dining Hall at Harvard, where freshman eat their meals. (Image Source)

Similarly, having “high grades in standardized tests” won’t get you in anywhere. Having bad scores is disqualifying, but the opposite is not true. 10,000’s of applicants have great scores.

Finally, having “honors in several prestigious competitions” doesn’t mean much unless these are well-respected competitions and your honors occurred at the state, national, or international level.

Personally, if forced to choose, I would much rather be in Option #2. Obviously, it would be ideal to be the complete package.

Importantly, though, what will tip an application stuck in Option #2 towards either acceptance or rejection will be the rest of your actual application — teacher and counselor recommendations, interview performance, and essays.

In order to stand out, you must work extremely diligently on your essays.

As David Jiang , an Admissions Officer at Dartmouth College, has written:

"As an admissions officer reading hundreds of applications and essays in a short period of time, it takes something unique or memorable for an application to stand out at the end of the day.”

These three factors determine the “Personal Qualities” rating of your application.

They add a human dimension to your application that can help set you apart from the stack of nameless papers on an admissions officer’s desk.

They are your best chance to make the case for why your unique combination of personal qualities, interests, and motivation makes you especially well-qualified for the incoming class and can be the difference between acceptance and rejection.

Tl;dr: While Option 1 has no real chance without an incredible application, Option 2 could be a promising candidate. That, however, assumes the GPA is not too low (relative to the average admit of the college) and the essays, recs, and interview go well.

What is it Like to be a Princeton Student? Hear from a Princeton Undergraduate

November 12, 2021 by Veritas Essays Team | Princeton, Student Life, Undergrad

From evening runs along Carnegie Lake to getting ice cream out on Nassau Street, here is a glimpse into a day in my life as a student at Princeton University.

8:30 AM - Wake Up!

My first alarm goes off, and (spoiler alert) it won’t be my last.

My roommates and I call this 8:30 alarm our “aspirational alarm.”

A tour group outside of the famous Nassau Hall

Unlike high schools, colleges tend to give you a lot more flexibility when scheduling your classes.

Thus, virtually the entire student body has come to the conclusion that one should never sign up for a class before 10AM.

Nights are often buzzing with social activity on campus, with many of the extracurricular activities running late into the night -- it’s not uncommon for student dance groups to end practice around 1am.

So, hopefully you can understand when I press snooze for another 30 minutes.

9:00 AM - Breakfast at My Eating Club

I get up and start the day with a walk across campus to Prospect Street or, as it's known on campus, simply “The Street”.

Prospect Street is populated with numerous mini-mansions that serve as a unique facet of Princeton social life - eating clubs.

What is an eating club?

Eating clubs are social clubs where upperclassmen students take their meals, study and spend time with their friends, and are the site of weekend “nights out” aka parties.

I happen to be a member of the Tiger Inn or “TI,” for short.

The front of the Tiger Inn eating club

While each eating club is known for attracting students with a certain type of personality, I would say TI is composed largely of outgoing students, with a large proportion of student-athletes, who don’t take themselves too seriously and are always looking to meet new people. That translates to our dining room policy of taking the empty seat next to whatever group is already eating at one of our long tables, as opposed to sitting at a new table.

At TI, the company is superb and so is the breakfast. One of my favorite things about TI is that there is always an abundance of fresh berries and homemade french toast in addition to our omelette bar.

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day!

10:00 AM - 1st Class: Environmental Policy

After breakfast, I head to my first class of the day - a course covering environmental policy.

It is taught through the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, formerly known as the Woodrow Wilson School.

In the fountain directly outside of the building you can often find people taking a moment to relax or, during events known as “lawnparties,” actually taking a dip in the fountain.

A picture of SPIA fountain

11:00 AM - 2nd Class: Practical Ethics

Next, I head to my second class of the day: "Practical Ethics," taught by the world-famous moral philosopher Peter Singer.

Taking this class is almost a right of passage for undergraduates.

The material covers various approaches to a host of topics in ethics, ranging from animal rights to bioethics. The class is taught in McCosh Lecture Hall , a building that hosts many of the large introductory lectures familiar to Princeton students (such as Macroeconomics 101).

McCosh Lecture Hall, not to be confused with McCosh Health Center

11:50 AM - Coffee Break

After pondering a few ethical questions, I head back over to “The Street” for an uneventful lunch before going to get coffee at Small World (a local coffee shop frequented by Princeton students).

Many senior theses have been powered by the delicious smell and caffeine rush of Small World. I can assure you that the line is well worth the wait.

Line for coffee at Small World

12:50 PM - Back to Campus

I slowly make my way down Nassau Street (the main street in front of the university) back towards the main entrance to campus through the FitzRandolph gates.

FitzRandolph gates

As you can see, students try to avoid passing through the main entrance of the FitzRandolph gates. Student lore has it that if you pass through the center gate, you will not graduate.

A view of Nassau Street

1:00 PM - Studying in Firestone Library

I soak up a few sun rays before hunkering down to study for a few hours in Firestone Library.

By the time graduation rolls around, every student will have chosen a favorite location to study on one of this library’s many levels and extensive corridors of study rooms.

A glimpse inside Firestone Library

3:00 PM - Sports Practice

I row for Princeton's varsity women's crew team, and spend many hours outside of class each week practicing for races.

Twice a week we have a training lift that starts at 3:30pm, and it’s a bit of a hike down campus so I make sure to get an early start on walking over.

However, the hike is well worth it in order to have the privilege to row in such a beautiful location.

The boathouse also holds a special place in all Princeton rowers’ hearts for the community that it fosters with four rowing teams (Women’s Openweight, Women’s Lightweight, Men's Lightweight, and Men’s Heavyweight) all practicing in the same place.

Shea Rowing Center

7:00 PM - Dinner

After a nice, long row, stretch, and shower at the boathouse, I make the trek back up campus towards Tiger Inn for dinner.

There, I get a chance to catch up with friends whom I hadn't been able to see that day.

8:00 PM - Study Time, Part 2

No matter how much you study, there's always more studying to do. At least it sometimes feels that way.

After dinner, I find a cozy place to study by the fire in one of the Tiger Inn common rooms known as “the green room.”

9:00 PM - Club Meeting

Once I finish submitting the homework due that night, I head to a meeting for the campus organization Athletes in Action , or “AIA” as it’s commonly referred to.

AIA is a community oriented Christian group composed of varsity student-athletes and meets once a week, where we take time out of the day to reflect on the role of faith and service in our lives.

An AIA meeting

Regardless of your individual interests, with over 300 active student groups and clubs on campus there is bound to be one that can help you find your sense of community at Princeton.

9:55 PM - Ice Cream!

After the AIA meeting ends, a couple of friends and I dash over to a nearby ice cream shop to satisfy our sweet tooth.

I say “dash” because nearly everything in the town of Princeton closes at around 10pm, so either good planning or speed-walking are highly necessary skills.

10:30 PM - Bedtime

Ice cream in hand, I finally head home for the day to catch up with my roommates about the day’s events and get a bit of sleep before doing it all over again tomorrow.

If you're interested in potentially joining me at Princeton or learning more about how to get into a university like Princeton, feel check out our 1-on-1 college admissions mentoring services here !