Applications, Essays, Where to Apply, Strategy, and More

How the Harvard Case Affects College Admissions

November 14, 2018
Written by Taylor

Harvard’s recent 2018 college admissions lawsuit unearths several common trends not widely disseminated outside of higher education circles before now.

College Admissions across the United States
Seven potentially-controversial student characteristics are seen as central to the admissions process at the nation’s most selective colleges and universities. These are:

  • High school attended
  • Race/ethnicity
  • State or county of residence
  • First-generation status
  • Ability to pay
  • Gender
  • Alumni ties


Additionally, the most important characteristics of a student’s application are the following, ranked in order of importance:

  1. Grades (all courses)
  2. Grades (college prep)
  3. Test scores (SAT or ACT)
  4. Strength of curriculum
  5. Essay or writing sample
  6. Demonstrated interest
  7. Counselor recommendation
  8. Teacher recommendation


In sum, the most important aspect of a student’s application is still overall academic performance. In addition, although test scores remain highly important to many schools, recent trends in admissions, such as University of Chicago’s switch to test-optional admissions, may indicate that their influence on admissions decisions will continue to decrease.

Another element that many students, parents, and admissions professionals often track is whether applying early gives applicants an advantage. The answer is a resounding yes. The average admissions rate for early decision programs is 62.3%, as opposed to a regular admissions rate of 50.7%, while early action programs admitted 73.6% of applicants, in contrast to a regular rate of 64.1%. The rising popularity of early programs is borne out by increased numbers of early applications, especially at schools whose admissions processes are the most competitive.

Finally, the most important recruiting strategies for first-time freshman applicants are email campaigns, school websites, and hosted campus visits, according to over 80% of the schools surveyed in this report.

Ivy League Colleges: The Rules Do Change
The above summary is important to remember when it comes to scrutinizing the findings that are coming out of the courtroom in the now-concluded Harvard lawsuit. While academic achievement, test scores, and rigor are certainly crucial to meeting the basic benchmarks for consideration by the country’s top schools, the most selective institutions do take other characteristics into account.

First, Harvard does take wealth into account, identifying applicants whose acceptance may bring major donations to the school. Thus, roughly 25% of the richest students in America attend an elite university, giving the wealthiest applicants quite an advantage over low-income candidates.

Second, athletes are admitted at higher rates than non-athletes. All other characteristics being equal, athletes receiving a 4 out of 6 on the Harvard academic scale are admitted almost 70% of the time, whereas nonathletes rated 4 are only admitted 0.076% of the time.

Third, legacy status gives a major bump to applicants, sometimes raising the acceptance rate to almost 40%.

Finally, we must remember that only 4% of college students in the U.S. are enrolled in schools that accept fewer than 25% of applicants. While the advantages of attending the most elite schools in the nation are substantial, the overall undergraduate experience and outcomes of attending less-selective institutions are often comparable, and may even be superior in some cases.

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