Research paper

Why does Harvard Scrutinize Personal Life in Admission?

Today, college admission criteria are different from before. Having good GPA, many Advanced Placement classes, and high-test scores may get an applicant’s one foot into university’s door, but it is not enough to guarantee a seat in the Ivy League and other top universities. Harvard, a top Ivy League university, already begin to scrutinize applicants’ personal experiences. Malcolm Gladwell stated that, starting in the fall of 1922, admission directors begin to “elicit information about the ‘character’ of candidates from ‘persons, who know the applicants well,’ and so the letter of reference became mandatory.” (Gladwell, 2005) As a result, applicants have to mention their extracurricular activities, write a personal statement essay, and describe their talents.

Why does Harvard scrutinize personal life in admission? For Harvard, these statistics, such as SAT score, ACT score or GPA, are just numbers and only can prove to admission officers that the applicant is book smart. However, being book smart is not enough for the student to succeed in the college life and after college. The applicants with less superior statistics might spent the extra study time in sports, community service, working, pursuing a talent or hobby, or dealing personal and family issues. These facts about the applicant’s personal life can demonstrate the responsibility, matureness, and creativity of the applicant and point out possibly understandable circumstances that caused the student to be not great on the numeral statistical part of the application. To ensure the fairness of the admission process and quality of the new students, admission officers must take personality and talent into estimating the applicant’s success potential.

First of all, SAT score is not a fair criterion. If people use a ratio, the score divided by the time the student spend on studying, to measure if the student is good, it will be fairer. Due to the difference between the properties of students’ families, students arrange their time differently. In the rich family, children can spend more time on studying; of course, they can get good grades. For the poor families, the children might need to do part-time jobs to make a living and not able to afford test prep books. Therefore, even if they tried their best to study, these factors limited their grades, understanding that most people are not born genius. However, if students can focus on studying and do it as better as they can, they can be excellent students. One article wrote by Sean F. Reardon in “The New York Times” mentions this phenomenon. He stated that, today, the average gap of the score in SAT between a child from a wealthy family and a child from a needy family is approximately 125 points. Furthermore, Reardon also pointed out this gap is larger now than “it was 30 years ago.” (Reardon, 2013) In the following parts of his article, Reardon mainly analyzed this phenomenon. At the beginning of two children’s education, it is already different. The rich families can afford the better kindergarten. “This difference in preparation persists through elementary and high school,” Reardon said. (Reardon, 2013) Also, the rich families increasingly pay attention to the importance of the education. When the graduate degree cannot guarantee the desired job or the high income in the future, they will put more time and money on education. The poor families also do so, but they could not do as quickly as or as deeply as the rich families did. Reardon also mentioned the economists Richard J. Murnane and Greg J. Duncan stated that from 1972 to 2006, the rich increased ‘investment’ activities for their children by 150 percent, “while the spending of low-income families grew by 57 percent over the same time period.” (Reardon, 2013) Apparently, the gap is growing large. It is unfair to the poor families’ children. They also try their best to study, but the economic condition impedes their grades. Scott J. Cech mentioned the admission process of Yale University. “Instead, hours are spent mining students’ personal histories to find stories or details that might explain why their grades aren’t so hot, but why they’d be great students once they get to college.” (Cech, 2008, P.23) Thus, to ensure the equality in the admission process and the enrollment of the best students, Harvard also focus more on students’ personal life and experiences. That is why Harvard is always a top university.

Nonetheless, personality and talent can reflect the quality of the new students. When the admission directors focus on those numbers, SAT score or ACT score, they ignore the student’s other talents. Indeed, the test score can reflect some abilities of about studying. However, people cannot only judge a student by grades. The factor making a person successful is not only about studying but also other talents or personalities. For instance, although Elon Musk, the CEO of Space X and Tesla, had a high grade in the SAT, can only one score prove he will be successful in the future? According to the “14 traits ripped straight from the headlines that make Elon Musk a master upstart,” Michael Del Castillo listed Musk’s 14 traits that are making him successful. Among those traits, the most impressive one is that “he doesn’t back down from a fight.” (Castillo, 2015) Elon Musk is a man who can build the rocket! How did he compete with other companies built by a nation? The U.S. Air Force, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin have been founded for around 187 years, but they did not scare Musk away. Elon Musk won in this cruel market with his 12-year-old Space X. His braveness and persistence shaped the present success. Obviously, the high-test score cannot reveal these traits. Harvard needs to investigate the applicants’ background and  experiences to be familiar with them. Besides, a university is not only filled with students good at studying. The Harvard University wants to be a diverse university. Therefore, the admission directors need to enroll many students, who own different talents. Maybe some students are born for basketball; some students can draw excellent paintings; some students can compose music like Beethoven. After enrollment, these talents belong to the quality of the new students. For example, Margarita was famous in my friend’s high school due to her talents of playing the piano and painting. When she was young, she already got Grade 8 in piano. More so, on every Sunday, she would go to the church and play free for people. Last year, she was enrolled into Harvard University because of her talents. In college, she has good grades and participates in school organizations. Thus, to enhance the quality of students, Harvard pays more attention to the applicants’ personalities and talents.

Admittedly, some people suspect the reliability of the personal life because applicants can make up their personal statement and experiences. Even a student, who did not do activities or not have any talents, can make up a brilliant story to appeal to the directors’ attentions. For instance, my friend, Kevin, found a frim that could help applicants write personal statements. Those “instructors” knew what admission directors like. After they finished his personal statement, I was shocked. His stories were totally faked. He did not go to Affrica to be volunteer; he did not research the famous Chinese novel ever; he did not make a film by himself. However, those things were all mentioned in his personal statement. Although his “experiences” were excellent, he was still not be enrolled by Harvard because Havard has another procedure to pick theri wanted students. It is the interview. In “Toughest Questions HBS Asks Applicants,” John A. Byrne said there are usually more than 2000 applicants interviewed for admission to Harvard MBA program. (Byrne, 2013) During a 30-minute interview, directors need to know if they have Harvard materials. Interviewers will ask students some questions related to their experiences written in the personal statement. For instance, “Why do you want an MBA degree? Why do you want to come to Harvard to get it? Walk me through your resume. What are your strengths and weaknesses?” (Byrne, 2013) If the students made up their experiences, they could not explain or describe clearly, because these events did not happen to them. Their perceptions are fake. In case that some students prepare for the interview, Harvard admission directors come up with surprised questions. John A. Byrne gave audiences some examples: “Explain to me something you are working on as if I were an eight-year-old? What is the one thing you will never be as good at as others?” When students face these “surprised questions,” if they do not accumulate many experiences or have special talents, they cannot answer the questions well. “Surprised questions” reveal genuine personal life.

In conclusion, the reason Harvard scrutinized personal life in the admission is that it promotes the fairness of the admission and the quality of new students. When admission directors look through those personal stories, they can discover a person’s success potential. Is his grade limited by a family’s economic condition? Will he be a good student in college? Can he make Harvard better and more diverse? Does he have some important traits? Analyzing the student’s personal experiences can solve those questions. Additionally, Harvard arranges an interview with applicants before making decisions. A sophisticated interviewer can quickly distinguish whether a student is honest, which totally can increase the reliability of students’ stories. Today, Harvard still stands on the top among the universities in the United States. Its reasonable admission criteria must be a factor. However, only the best students from such reasonable criteria. In the future, I wish schools that still regard SAT or ACT as an important factor can put more attention on students’ personality and ‘character’. Then, all of the students can accept education that is more understandable.



Gladwell, M. (2005, October 10). Getting In – The New Yorker. Retrieved November 19, 2015, from

Reardon, S. (2013, April 27). No Rich Child Left Behind. Retrieved November 19, 2015, from

Castillo, M. (2015, February 12). 14 traits ripped straight from the headlines that make Elon Musk a master upstart. Retrieved November 19, 2015, from

Byrne, J. (2013, July 24). Toughest Questions HBS Asks Applicants – Poets and Quants. Retrieved November 19, 2015, from

Cech, S. (2008, September 17). Education Week. Vol. 28 Issue 4, p23-25. 3p. 3 Color Photographs. Retrieved November 19, 2015.