Getting Into Harvard

Jan 16, 2020 by

Jack Plotkin

CEO, Cardinal Solutions

Most Harvard graduates have, at some point in their lives, gotten the question: what’s the hardest thing about going to Harvard? I don’t know about the others, but for me the answer to this question has stayed the same: the hardest thing about going to Harvard is getting in.

Ivy League admissions have always been competitive and have only gotten tougher with time. With each passing year it seems like there are more applicants who are better prepared and more informed about the admissions process. The pressure for certain parents has become so overwhelming that some made the unfortunate decision to break the law, engaging in bribery to improve the odds of admissions for their kids, as we learned when the Operation Varsity Blues investigation was made public last year.

While I could not disagree more strongly with their actions, I can empathize with these parents’ desire to get their kids into the best possible schools. In truth, while getting into Harvard is incredibly challenging it is certainly not impossible. In addition to my own acceptance, I have helped both family and family friends with college applications and have gotten to know the process well enough to offer a few tips and a couple shortcuts that have the added benefit of being completely legal.

Big picture, there are two types of kids that get into Harvard: stars and polymaths. The stars are extraordinarily good in some one area. Olympic athletes, Hollywood actors, Broadway singers, national talent winners, teen business moguls, and science geniuses are all examples of stars. The problem is that becoming a star, in and of itself, is significantly harder than getting into Harvard in the first place. Consequently, planning for stardom is not a practical strategy for Ivy League admissions.

Unlike stars, the polymaths are well-rounded across academics, extracurriculars, sports, and community service. The polymath bar is lower and can be achieved by many kids who are willing to put in the time and effort. It is the most common way of getting into Harvard.

For parents that want to give their kids the best possible chance of getting into Harvard, the polymath transformation should start well before high school. Special emphasis should be placed on reading, writing, math, and test taking as these skills are critical throughout the high school academic journey and directly applicable to standardized exams. Interest in sports, extracurriculars, and community service should be cultivated to identify specific interest areas that can be sustained and fortified throughout high school.

A good high school academic program, strong grades, and top percentile standardized test scores are the starting point. These are table stakes for Harvard admissions. Getting in requires erecting an additional extracurricular superstructure atop this foundation.

If Harvard is the goal, it may be worthwhile to look at sports like golf, squash, crew, hockey, and lacrosse. The Ivy League colleges are known for recruiting for these sports, yet a lot fewer kids play them than football, basketball, baseball, tennis, or soccer. As a result, it is easier for someone with the same level of athletic ability to excel in one of these sports at the state or even national level.

For extracurriculars and community service, the objective should be to trailblaze. Like most universities, Harvard looks for diversity in its incoming class. A student that started her own school radio station or traveled to the North Pole to raise money for a good cause is likely to catch more attention than yet another school body president or school newspaper editor. When it comes to high school organizations, remember a basic rule of thumb: joining is good, getting elected is better, founding is best.

In addition, it is valuable to nourish a creative side, whether it be acting, singing, playing, dancing, writing, filming, composing, or choreographing. Not only does the creative side bolster a student’s candidacy, it also provides an opportunity to send in a supplement to the admissions office that goes beyond the narrow confines of the common app. For example, some applicants send in a short video. Beyond providing a talent showcase, such a video creates a vital human connection. It’s a lot easier to turn down an applicant number on a page than a living, breathing human being looking at you from the screen and telling you how much they want to attend your university.

Finally, take a copy of the common app before the student starts high school and play it forward. Every single question is a chance to shine. What do you want the answers to be in four years’ time that will provide unmistakable differentiation against other applicants? With thousands of applications to process, an admissions officer has limited time, so your application must represent an immediate highlight and clear stand-out.

The essays provide an extraordinary opportunity to go beyond the test scores, course grades, and club positions, and offer real insight into the applicant as a living, breathing human being. Use it. Generic essays that are well written but offer nothing by way of personality or emotion are one of the biggest reasons why otherwise well-rounded candidates fail to gain admissions. If the essay does not move a casual reader, then it definitely will not register with an admissions officer who reads thousands of essays each year.

To conclude, an important point: while the advice presented here works, it requires not only tremendous time and effort, but also interest and desire. Getting into Harvard is not worth a student’s happiness or sanity. This playbook is not for everyone and no parent should try to force it on an unwilling child. Keep a healthy perspective and remember that a vast majority of highly successful people not only did not attend Harvard, but never even applied.

Jack Plotkin is a Harvard graduate and the CEO of Cardinal Solutions, a boutique advisory and investment firm based in New York City. He has more than two decades of experience at the crossroads of business and technology and has advised more than a hundred Fortune 500 firms across virtually all major industries.

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