Parkland survivor David Hogg, one of the most talented of that talented crop of activists, just got into Harvard. I’m happy for him. He was immediately attacked on social media by haters who called him unqualified. But he is a perfect example of Harvard’s long-standing admissions process, the “holistic” method they’re currently being sued over. That method is once again favoring a white kid. But it’s a reasonable and smart decision by Harvard.
The first thing to remember is that only about 10% of Harvard students are admitted strictly on academics. Most people assume it’s a hundred percent. It’s ten. (This figure is from Jerome Karabel’s excellent book, The Chosen. I should disclose that I do almuni interviews for Harvard, but am not using anything I’ve been told by Harvard itself for this post.)
Even that ten percent won’t necessarily have the best GPAs; Harvard turns down hundreds of valedictorians every year. A perfect GPA doesn’t hurt, but it’s not what Harvard’s looking for. Those ten percent are academically exceptional “in Harvard departmental terms,” meaning exceptional in a particular field of study. These are the students admitted to make the faculty happy. Some are strong in other areas as well. But some are “pointy, in admissions lingo, rather than “well-rounded.” Think of a physics prodigy who’s only a B+ student in English, or the future Pulitzer-winning historian who just gets by in calculus class. The ten percent of “scholars” are not the kids who always do everything they can to get a hundred on every piece of homework, but the kids who show some exceptional talent and might eventually help an academic field of study move forward.
Hogg’s application is private, and none of us know how it looks. But it’s not impossible that he’s in that ten percent. He intends to major in Government (what other schools usually call political science), and it may be that his hands-on experience in political organizing, and the skill with which he’s done it, is an asset that the Harvard Government Department wants in its classrooms. I am not saying that is the case; I have no idea.
Of course, the odds are nine out of ten that he’s in the rest of the admitted class. What are those people admitted for, beyond their grades? Things like “leadership” and “character,” which may sound like empty buzzwords but which schools like Harvard take deadly seriously. Harvard’s core business is producing future leaders. Business leaders. Political leaders. Leaders in the arts. Leaders of non-profits. Religious leaders, if they can. They are successful and rich because their alumni, as a group, are rich and successful. They are not joking about this. And they have spent a lot of time and money fine-tuning their strategies for finding kids who will be successful alumni some day.
They admit athletes in sports that will never make money, because they believe that leadership on the playing field prepares people for leadership in other fields. Does looking for future business leaders by recruiting the captains of prep-school fencing teams sounds crazy? Mark Zuckerberg was his prep school’s fencing captain. It sounds crazy, but it works.
Harvard admits kids who led a huge number of clubs at their high school; at various points their admissions office has referred to kids like this as “a wheel” or “Mr. School.” (Think “Mr. [Name of School].”) They’re not looking for kids who’ve just done a lot of extra-curriculars; they’re looking for kids who show the ability to engage and motivate others. They’re looking for people who are already showing leadership skills. They know it’s easier to develop students whose personalities incline them toward leadership roles than trying to teach “leadership” to students with very different personalities. Harvard has introverts, for sure, but there are a lot of extroverts on that campus.
Harvard also deliberately recruits students who’ve shown leadership in charity and volunteer work. There is, or used to be, a nickname for these applicants, too, taken from the building in Harvard Yard set aside for students’ charity work. Again, we’re not talking about the kids who participate in the annual blood drive, but about the kid who founded the annual blood drive.
Harvard also looks for kids with special artistic talents. If they took Matt Damon over someone with slightly better grades, that wasn’t a mistake. They did that on purpose. Did Yo-Yo Ma have the best GPA in his high school class? It could not possibly matter. Admitting Yo-Yo Ma was the right move and it has worked out beautifully.
(If you’re a role-playing nerd, or a recovering role-playing nerd, let me break it down for you: Harvard doesn’t just look for intelligence, or even for intelligence and wisdom. It looks for charisma.)
If a university obsessed with looking for signs of leadership gets an application from David Hogg, who has already shown enormous poise and leadership on a national stage, the outcome should involve exactly zero surprise. Harvard searches high and low for kids who might someday show the kind of leadership that David Hogg has been showing in public every day now for months. He is the closest thing to a sure bet that the Harvard Admissions Office will ever see. If you’re screening for leadership, that kid is a slam dunk, the surest bet the Harvard Admissions Office could have.
Politics has nothing to do with this. Harvard wants to produce leaders from every party. There are plenty of conservative senators who went to Harvard. And frankly, as a Harvard alum who wishes the school well, I couldn’t be happier about this choice. That kid has far too much potential to let Yale have him. I want him to be one of us. So, bravo, Harvard. And David: welcome to the family.