The 5 Types of Students that Get into Harvard

Who gets into Harvard, and why?

June 29, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | Harvard, Ivy League, Admissions

There are four main categories of students that get admitted to Harvard per Harvard's admissions policy.

Collectively, they comprise roughly 60% of every Harvard class.

Who makes up the other 40% of admits? The students who excel across the other 3 dimensions (Academics, ECs, and PQs) used to rank prospective students.

In this article, I'll walk you through each of the four main categories of Harvard students, then walk you through how the fifth category distinguishes themselves for Harvard's admissions requirements.


1) Recruited Athletes (20% of admitted students)

Harvard has the most D1 sports teams of any college in the nation — 42 — which means there are a lot of spots to fill.

Recruited athletes have a 90% acceptance rate and comprise 10% of the incoming class. (Source: The Atlantic) .

For perspective, the overall Harvard acceptance rate is below 5%.

Walk-ons comprise another 10% of the incoming class, and also get in at a much higher rate since coaches will “soft recruit” them. Harvard’s athletic recruitment process is detailed below.

Athletic Recruitment

2) Director’s List (10%)

The “Directors List” contains the names of top donors and influential families.

Students lucky enough to be on the Directors List have a 42% acceptance rate, and comprise roughly 10% of every class. (Source: The Crimson)

For example, Jared Kushner famously got in after his father donated $2.5 million.


3) Deferred (“Z-list”) Admits (3%)

Some students who would otherwise qualify for the Director’s List are not yet ready to begin college. Harvard will force these incoming students to take a gap year before coming to Harvard.

This is roughly 60 students every year, and is colloquially known as the “Z-list.”

On campus, the reputation is that Z-list admits tend to be less than qualified for admission.

As The Crimson reports:

Computer technicians in the admissions office coined the term “Z-list” because the group is the last to get admitted each cycle, after regular and waitlisted admits Students who are Z-listed must take a gap year before enrolling as freshmen the following year.

Faculty Club

4) Faculty Children (1%)

The children of Harvard faculty have a 47% acceptance rate, and roughly 20 students of faculty apply per year. (Source: The Crimson)

It’s a pretty funny sight to see the student of your professor copying off your homework for his dad’s class.


5) Legacies (15%)

A legacy is defined as an applicant with at least one parent who went to Harvard or Radcliffe College (Radcliffe was the women’s college that merged with Harvard).

Legacies are admitted at a 33% acceptance rate, and make up 15% of each class. (Source: The Crimson)

Harvard Yard

Assuming these groups don’t overlap much, that brings us to ~60% of Harvard’s admitted class.

Who makes up the other 40% of admitted students?

Those who excelled at the traditional 4 metrics used to rank every Harvard application.

They are, in no particular order:

  1. Academics
  2. Extracurriculars (“ECs”)
  3. Personal Qualities (“PQs”)
  4. Athletics*

*Athletics has already been covered in the 30% of recruited athletes and walk-ons, so we’ll ignore that.

This leaves us with 3 dimensions to rate applicants: Academics, ECs, and PQs.

Each applicant is rated on a scale of 1 (best) to 6 (worst) across each dimension, with +/-’s for more nuanced ratings. The scale is interpreted as follows. (Source: Harvard Admissions Procedures Internal Handbook)

Harvard Admissions Handbook

This image is taken directly from the Handbook given to Harvard’s Admissions Officers.

So, how do you get a 1 in each category?

The answers, quoted directly from Harvard’s Admissions Handbook, are as follows.


  1. Summa potential. Genuine scholar; near-perfect scores and grades (in most cases) combined with unusual creativity and possible evidence of original scholarship.

  2. Magna potential: Excellent student with superb grades and mid-to high-700 scores (33+ ACT).

  3. Cum laude potential: Very good student with excellent grades and mid-600 to low-700 scores (29 to 32 ACT).

  4. Adequate preparation. Respectable grades and low-to mid-600 scores (26 to 29) ACT).

  5. Marginal potential. Modest grades and 500 scores (25 and below ACT).

  6. Achievement or motivation marginal or worse.


  1. Unusual strength in one or more areas. Possible national-level achievement or professional experience. A potential major contributor at Harvard. Truly unusual achievement.

  2. Strong secondary school contribution in one or more areas such as class president, newspaper editor, etc. Local or regional recognition; major accomplishment(s).

  3. Solid participation but without special distinction. (Upgrade 3+ to 2- in some cases if the e/c is particularly extensive and substantive.)

  4. Little or no participation.

  5. Substantial activity outside of conventional EC participation such as family commitments or term-time work (could be included with other e/c to boost the rating or left as a "5" if it is more representative of the student's commitment).

  6. Special circumstances limit or prevent participation (e.g. a physical condition).

Personal Qualities (Essays, Teacher Recs, School Rec, Interview)

  1. Outstanding

  2. Very strong

  3. Generally positive

  4. Bland or somewhat negative or immature

  5. Questionable personal qualities.

  6. Worrisome personal qualities


  1. Unusually strong prospect for varsity sports at Harvard, desired by Harvard coaches.

  2. Strong secondary school contribution in one or more areas; possible leadership role(s).

  3. Active participation.

  4. Little or no interest.

  5. Substantial activity outside of conventional EC participation such as family commitments or term-time work (could be included with other e/c to boost the rating or left as a "5" if it is more representative of the student's commitment).

  6. Physical condition prevents significant activity.

For further reading, I recommend checking out this great article from the New York Times which interviewed several Harvard freshmen about why they got in.

And for another blog post analyzing one of our team member's own Harvard admissions file, after getting to view it as part of a FERPA request, check out this post .

If you're applying to a selective college (even if it's not Harvard!) we want to help! We provide 1-on-1 mentorship with experienced editors who can help you craft your application. Sign up here for a free 20-minute consultation .

Read More Great Content

Search Blog