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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.

How to Create Your College List

January 28, 2022 by Veritas Essays Team | How To, Applications, College List

With over 3,982 degree-granting colleges and universities in the U.S. alone, it can be difficult to know where to start when it comes to crafting your college list.

Some of the most common questions we get from students are:

  1. How many schools should I apply to?
  2. How do I know if a school counts as a safety, target, or reach for me?
  3. How can I use my college list to increase my chances of getting into the right school for myself?

In this blog post, we cover all of these questions and give you the inside scoop on constructing the optimal college list that allows you to aim for your dream schools while still providing plenty of solid options as a Plan B.

Many people refer to admissions to top universities as a “crapshoot.”

This term refers to people wagering money on an unpredictable dice roll.

While it’s true that there is never any guarantee of admission to top universities, it’s a little more nuanced than random chance. You can certainly stack the deck in your favor by writing better essays, getting good recommendation letters, and getting good grades.

But even the best student is not guaranteed admission to her top school, and thus you need to use your college list to “hedge” against the risk of rejection at top schools.

A well-crafted college list should provide you with a strong balance of safety, target, and reach schools. This ensures you will have at least a few options for college that you’ll be happy with regardless of how the admissions process goes.

Before we explain how to craft a college list out of these three types of schools, we’ll first define each of them below.

1. What is a Safety School?

In a broad sense, safety schools are schools where you are highly likely to be admitted given your academic and extracurricular qualifications.

Your GPA should be well above that of the average admitted student, and your ACT/SAT score should be above the average for the school as well.

While the overall admissions rate for a safety school can vary widely, a school with an admissions rate below 20% should never be considered a safety school regardless of the academic standing of the student, as many highly-qualified students will be applying every year.

2. What is a Target School?

Target schools are colleges where you are directly on par with the average admitted student’s grades, GPA, test scores, etc. It’s not guaranteed that you will be admitted, but the odds look good (although slightly less promising than your safety schools).

These schools should be at least as good as a coin flip in terms of whether you expect to get in or not.

3. What is a Reach School?

This category is where Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, and other high-ranking colleges would fall in your college list. Reach schools are schools with highly selective admissions rates.

What will be considered selective for you will vary depending on your academic credentials – a 25% acceptance rate could be a reach for some students and a 10% acceptance rate could be a reach for others.

How to Craft Your College List

When bucketing schools into these three categories, pay most attention to the school’s acceptance rate, average admitted students’ GPA, and average admitted student’s test scores (e.g., SAT/ACT). These statistics will give you the clearest, most quantitative sense of how competitive the applicant pool will be, and how you might stack up against the other candidates.

Your college list should be a balance of schools within each of these three categories; the exact number of each depends on how many schools you are applying to, and how happy you’d be getting into your safety v. target v. reach options.

So how many schools should you apply to?

The answer depends on the student but it is generally advisable to apply to between 12-15 schools in total.

When crafting your college list, it is important to keep in mind that you may have to write numerous supplemental essays for each school to which you choose to apply, so make sure to choose wisely!

It is far better to send in 12 high quality applications than to send in 15 weaker ones.

As an example, let’s say you choose to apply to 12 schools with a 3.8 GPA, a 1450 SAT, and a decent amount of extracurricular involvement. Then your college list might look something like the following:


  • Arizona State University (ASU)
  • University of Alabama
  • Louisiana State University (LSU)
  • Washington State University


  • Middlebury College
  • Lehigh University
  • Lewis & Clark College
  • New York University (NYU)


  • UCLA
  • Princeton
  • University of Washington
  • Cornell

Keep in mind that this is just an example and should not be considered a suggestion as to where you should apply yourself!

Regardless of which particular schools you decide to bucket into the safety/target/reach categories for yourself, you should put significant time into researching each school’s program offerings and the unique opportunities available at each.

While statistics such as acceptance rate, average GPA, and average test scores can give you vital information on your chances of acceptance to a particular school, the most important consideration is that you will actually want to attend the school if you get in. If you’ve done your college list right, then you’ll be happy wherever you end up!