Securing admissions into highly selective US colleges has been getting increasingly difficult in the last few years. Based on the admissions statistics released by Harvard University, over half of the applicants to Harvard College received a highschool unweighted GPA of 4.0 and scored within the 99th percentile of the SAT (that’s 1530+ for those who are curious). Furthermore, according to an ex-dean of admissions at UPenn, “half of the applicants we receive every year will succeed academically at Penn. So, it boils down to who we want to invite to spend the next four years together.” Both of these universities have admit rates of less than 10 percent (3.19% for Harvard Class of 2026 and 5.68% for Penn Class of 2025; Penn opted to not publish their admission rate for the incoming class of 2026). So, who gets in?
The answer, which may infuriate many anxious applicants and parents, is: it depends.
For years, US universities have practiced ‘holistic review’ of applicants, promising a comprehensive inquiry of each individual in the context of their background, academics, activities, and personal story, among several other factors such as financial need and profiles of other applicants applying that year. This complicates the admissions process, and this is the reason why sometimes getting perfect scores may not always equate to getting into your dream schools. Here, we break the holistic admissions process down into three dimensions:
Review in Context
Underprivileged students and international students are often concerned about whether their application would be read fairly, given their lack of access to opportunities domestic US students may have. The holistic review process addresses those concerns, assessing student profiles in the context of their opportunities and background. For example, an 85-average student from Taipei First Girls High School would not be disadvantaged for not having APs or IBs in her curriculum, or for not having a 90’s average as the Taiwanese grading scale is different from that of the US. Conversely, Taipei American School students may be ‘expected’ to take several APs or enrolling in the IB diploma program to remain competitive in the admissions game, as their school offers ample resources in the academics area.
Colleges will also review applicants’ personal background and factor that into their contextual analysis. For example, the SAT scores of a first generation applicant coming from an under-resourced highschool may be viewed in a different light compared to those of an applicant from wealthy doctorate-holding parents.
A Holistic Incoming class
Many families confuse the term holistic with ‘well-rounded’. In fact, colleges are not looking to admit students who are exceptional in all categories (which, if you really are, you probably don’t even need a college degree). Instead, they are looking for star players in various fields to assemble a ‘well-rounded incoming class’. This means that they are looking to fill each class with diverse candidates: while Harvard admissions may value admitting science-fair winners, they equally value poets, avid violinists, all-star tennis players, painters, future educators, passionate environmentalists, and all other types of students who are among the top in their respective niches. Moreover, with the applicant pool changing year to year, there is never a way to tell what the competition pool looks like each year. So, the best way for you to shine is to embrace your passions and climb to the top of your own niche. Although that may not be a guaranteed golden ticket into Harvard, Yale, or other Ivy League schools, that is definitely the best way to stand out among other applicants.
Lastly, colleges seek to fill their incoming class with students who fit their needs. That means, students who demonstrate means to pay for full tuition may be sometimes prioritized, similarly students and families who may contribute to the university’s future reputation or who fit the college’s mission may be prioritized over other applicants with better scores. Oftentimes, admission teams may also look for applicants who may fit certain needs of the year, such as an oboe player for the orchestra, football varsity players for the school team, or competitive debaters. However, these needs may vary each year, so whereas Princeton may admit two flute players the previous year, they may not need any flute players the following year.
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