Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How Harvard Sorts Through 30,000 Applicants

Usually, everything that the Harvard admissions office says is a lie. However, here is an account of the admissions process from a logistical point-of-view by the Harvard Crimson. It is interesting in that it describes the voting process by which applicants are admitted to Harvard.

Don't Touch That File

Even with online applications, in the file room, paper reigns supreme
Published On Thursday, April 30, 2009 1:10 AM

By the end of December, most high school seniors never want to see a copy of the Common Application again. But in the basement of the Harvard College Office of Admissions, a framed four-by-two foot copy of the dreaded application hangs on the wall.

The enormous application—an actual submission from a hopeful applicant—is complete with the student’s name, high school, and address, with rows of “Harvard” written across the header, with a miniscule “Yale” in the middle.

“The biggest kick was that he sent it with a giant paper clip,” says Ian Anderson, the office’s file room director—perhaps the most important cog in the well-oiled machine behind Harvard Admissions. “I think he ended up going to Yale.”

The Admissions Office, where 29,112 hopeful students sent their painstakingly crafted essays, letters, and applications to be reviewed this year, is the most exclusive in the country. Behind this machine are 70 people—from Dean William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 to recent alumni to current Harvard students—who together determine the fate of each applicant, with only 7 percent receiving the coveted acceptance letter earlier this month.


Once students click “send” on their computers or drop their applications into the mailbox, Anderson’s work begins. Physical and electronic versions of applications arrive in the basement of 86 Brattle Street, where Anderson leads a team of students and staff who organize the piles of paper.

The incoming documents—including the applications, secondary school reports, and teacher recommendations—then get scanned, a process that began this year as an electronic back-up system.

“It’s really a security device to make sure we have an electronic record of the applications in case the building burns down,” said Director of Admissions Marilyn McGrath-Lewis ’70-’73.

Every morning Anderson prints applications from the Common Application Web site—through which about 94 percent of the applications were submitted this year.

In addition to processing thousands of applications, the admissions office also receives gifts and trinkets from nervous applicants trying to differentiate their application from the thousands of others. Anderson pointed to handmade soaps, t-shirts, and a crocheted Harvard insignia on his office bookshelf. “The soaps made my office smell great,” he says, laughing.

“The most fun part about this job is the crazy things people send in,” says Elizabeth Adams ’10, who works in the file room. “I have a Crimson scarf in my room that none of the admissions officers wanted.”

All material must first be alphabetized, which is no easy task, according to Adams.

“The first couple weeks you’ll come in and say ‘Ian, what should I do’, but after a while you’ll come in ready to alph,” she says.

The alphabetized paper then gets made into applicant folders, for which Anderson has another “ingenious” system for organizing the thousands of applications, according to Adams, where each applicant has both a red and a manila folder in their file. The manila folder holds the official application, while the red, or “dummy,” folder, contains the student’s essential information and serves as a place holder when the application is being read.

Once the official application and secondary school report arrive, yellow barcode sheets in the folder get scanned. “It’s like working in a grocery store sometimes,” Anderson says. “Scanning tells the system we have the minimum requirement for the folder to be read.”

The students who work in the office create thousands of folders nearly each day.

“You make one mistake and it ripples through the whole run, so we tend to break it down into a much more manageable 900 or 1,000 at a time,” Anderson says.

“Actually, that doesn’t sound manageable,” he adds.


Once an applicant’s folder is made, it joins the nearly 30,000 other folders in the room that makes up the very heart of the admissions office: the file room.

The room contains 255 filing drawers, and the walls are completely hidden by the files, except for a small counter—which had to be cut in half last year to make room for still more files—used for alphabetizing and organizing. On top of the cabinets lie more boxes filled with overflow applications.

The sheer number of applications processed by the office cannot be fully understood until one is in the file room, according to Anderson.

“Every drawer gets so full that you can’t put anything in it,” he explains. “If you’re trying to file this one item, you have to pull out five folders to get one item in, and then jam all five back in.”

After his years of running this essential part of the process, Anderson is familiar with everything that could go wrong—and has a preemptive solution for it.

“You don’t want to have too many drawers open at once, because it tips,” he said. “Once it starts tipping, the drawers slide open and then you can’t catch the cabinet...these things weigh a ton.”

Anderson’s office, which adjoins the file room, contains the tools he needs to keep track of the thousands of sheets of paper for which he is responsible every year. He has a log book—dating back to the eight years that he has worked in the office—that he carefully fills out every day with a running count of the folders made, and the number sent out to readers, or “cleared.”

“See here in July and August,” he says, pointing to his records, “these are the kids who are very anxious and applied before their senior year even started.”

Anderson’s job requires balance, organizational skills, and even working through the winter holidays.

“We are sometimes clearing 2,000 folders on certain days,” he says. “It’s just about keeping every piece moving, you can’t ignore any of it because then you are in deep trouble.”

“I’ve been here long enough that I’ve gotten used to the stress. When you see a lot of things getting done at once, its very fulfilling,” he adds.


Anderson hires about 40 Harvard college students every school year to help in the file room. Students alphabetize, file, and “scrutinize” about once a month, after they have put together many applications.

“We sit at a file drawer and look at every single piece of paper to make sure it’s in the right place,” says Adams. “We check to make sure the drawer is in alphabetical order, and in each folder the names are correct. You cannot do it for more than two hours without losing your mind.”

Over winter break, Anderson leads a team of students from the Boston area who work full time to put 14,000 folders together in four weeks.

Anderson, who was responsible for more than 40 fellow soldiers when he served in the army before coming to Harvard, says the leadership style demanded by his current responsibilities is comparable but that the people he “commands” here have different expectations.

“Here I spend a lot more time explaining why students are doing what they are doing and the steps they must take to remain organized,” he says, comparing them to soldiers who were more ready to simply carry out the tasks he gave them without question.

And though the student workers have full access to applicants’ materials, they are trained in non-disclosure laws and Adams says they rarely look twice at any of the information.

“You’d think it’s this really glamorous thing where we have all this insight, but when you see the sheer number of materials that we are working with,” she says, “it just turns into paper, almost.”

But despite the monotony, Adams says she thinks it’s valuable to have undergraduates filling this role.

“I think it’s important to have people who care about future of this school, and understand where students are coming from to work in the admissions office,” she says.


Once Anderson and his team’s work is complete, the folders are distributed to the admissions officers’ boxes to be read.

The office employs about 40 admissions officers, who each are responsible for up to four or five geographic areas, or up to 1,500 folders, McGrath, the director of admissions, explains.

“It’s a process of gathering widely and sort of winnowing as comparisons occur over a ten week process,” she says.

The area subcommittee chair advocates for the applicant, “as if he were at a trial and he were the student’s attorney, in a sense,” says Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions.

In the more widely-known part of the process, admissions officers create a reader sheet for each application, which rate the student on their academics and extracurriculars.

After the subcommittee process, all the readers meet in full committee for about three weeks, and go through every school and every person, “asking again if we are sure this is a person we want to accept on April 1st,” Fitzsimmons says. “As far as we can determine, there is no other college that spends as much time in committee as we do.”

Once the full committee votes on each applicant, in a “one person one vote” process, the decisions are made, and the applications return to Anderson in the file room.


Students who are accepted and decide to matriculate have their applications held at the Freshman Dean’s Office where they later form the “nucleus” of what eventually becomes the student’s college record, McGrath says. Once students graduate, the folders go to the University’s archives. Applications from rejected students are kept for three years before they are shredded.

Anderson has a sheet of paper posted on his office fridge, listing the application numbers for the past eight years and the percent increase for each year. “It’s fun to look at,” he says. “When I started [working here] we were at 19,000 applicants, and here we are at 29,000.”

But once the yearlong process finishes, it starts again immediately. There is already one lone box containing applications for class of 2014, waiting to be alphabetized and filed.

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