March 18, 2019

Admissions Secrets Exposed: What a Lawsuit Against Harvard Teaches About Getting Into Top Schools

March 18, 2019

Admissions Secrets Exposed: What a Lawsuit Against Harvard Teaches About Getting Into Top Schools

There’s nothing quite as painful as reading “We regret to inform you” or “Unfortunately, your application was not…” when opening up a letter from your top school. Ranking first in your class and getting perfect scores on your SAT are no longer guarantees of becoming a student at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford or other elite schools. Competition has increased and schools are constantly changing the criteria required to be admitted.

There are roughly 1,600 available freshman spots available at Harvard and 40,000 students apply each year. For the 2019 Harvard class, 26,000 U.S.-based students applied and around 3,500 had perfect SAT math scores, 2,700 had perfect SAT verbal scores, and more than 8,000 had straight A’s. You would think perfect grades and SAT scores would get you into any school in the world, but when it comes to elite top 10 schools, in the large majority of cases they won’t.

So what does it take to get in? For years, we have made assumptions based on advice and stories from people who have worked in the admissions offices of top schools. But we have not had good, hard evidence until now.  

Thanks to a lawsuit filed by a group of Asian-American students against Harvard University, we now have concrete proof of Harvard Admission’s secrets. Here are our top 6 takeaways from the lawsuit:


Universities don’t only want the smartest students. They want a diverse base of students. Diversity does not only mean race. Harvard looks for diversity in a variety of areas, including applicants’ backgrounds, experiences, academic interests, occupations of parents, socioeconomic situations, and even viewpoints on issues.

Entrance Advisor Tip: Think about what you have to offer a school that few others can. Whether you specialize in playing a rare musical instrument or have experiences that other students don’t, build your application and essay around those experiences to show how you will bring diversity to that school.


Harvard begins by dividing the country into 20 “dockets.” These dockets are then given to admissions officers who know and understand each of those geographic regions.

If your area is underrepresented, you are likely to have an advantage over areas of the country where there is more competition for a specific school. If you are from Nebraska, you’re in luck; but if you live in the greater San Francisco Bay Area or New York City areas, both chock full of competitive students, you won’t receive any extra benefit.


Several Harvard Admissions Officers divide and rate applications in five categories: academic; extracurricular; athletic; personal; and “overall.”  They also rate teachers’ and guidance counselors’ recommendations.

Entrance Advisor Tip: When thinking about how to stand out from the thousands of other applicants, you should develop strengths in multiple categories, and then highlight those in your essay. The right college consultant can also help you find opportunities to show your value in each of these categories.


Harvard Admissions Officers award “tips” for certain items. Think of this like getting a 5-second head start in a race. According to the lawsuit, tips are given to “racial and ethnic minorities; legacies, or the children of Harvard or Radcliffe alumni; relatives of a Harvard donor; the children of staff or faculty members; and recruited athletes.” If you are one of these, you may have an advantage over others when applying to your top school.


Harvard values their Alumni and gives preferential treatment to their children. Many parents, to help their children’s chances of getting into their top school, will also volunteer to interview applicants to that school.


A perhaps unsurprising discovery in the lawsuit is that Harvard maintains a “Dean’s Interest List” made up of applicants who may not meet all of the academic requirements, but “include the names of candidates who are of interest to donors or have connections to Harvard.”

By showing your family’s ability and commitment to the school, getting on one of these coveted lists may be possible. But note that such practices are likely to change in the coming years due to lawsuits like the one filed against Harvard.

Every university has hidden criteria that makes their selection process unique. They want to find the best students for their student body and to diversify that student body in a variety of ways. They also want to increase donations and find students who will spread their school’s legacy. To get accepted, an applicant must stand out, and in more than just academics.

Need help getting yourself or your teen into a top school? Entrance Advisor will guide you through the process, keeping you on track to meet deadlines and increasing your chances of earning scholarships and getting that all-important acceptance letter. Contact us today.