This comprehensive guide for getting into Harvard and MIT shows exactly what you must do to significantly increase your odds of being admitted to these schools.
The AcademicInfluence.com staff includes graduates of both Harvard and MIT, so in describing how to get into these schools, we have direct experience as well as success. In this article, we’ll focus mainly on getting into these schools at the undergraduate level. Toward the end of this article, we’ll also turn to getting in at the graduate level.
Why Harvard and MIT? These are among the most selective schools in America, and indeed in the world. If you can get in at these schools, you can get in anywhere (Stanford, Berkeley, Caltech, Chicago, Yale, Princeton, etc.). Also, Harvard and MIT, though excellent in everything they do, have different emphases: Harvard offers a broader liberal arts perspective, MIT focuses more on STEM. So by showing you what you need to do to get into both, we show you also where you might be able to scale back if you want to get into one but not the other.
Is there really a secret to getting into Harvard and MIT? Isn’t getting into these schools a matter of common sense: be a superstar, the best of the best, and you’ll get in. Being a superstar will obviously help you get into these schools, but superstars are few and far between. In fact, most people admitted to Harvard and MIT are not superstars. Nor are most faculty at these schools superstars. What sets the Harvard and MIT faculty apart is that they are outstanding performers who lead their respective fields.
And that’s what Harvard and MIT want to see in the students they admit: the potential to be outstanding performers who will become leaders in their fields. The secret to getting into Harvard and MIT is therefore to convince their admissions people that you are well along the path to becoming one of these high-performance leaders—that this is your destiny.
Convincing them that you’re the student they’re looking for, however, won’t be easy. Harvard and MIT are elite institutions. What exactly is an elite institution of higher learning? The word “elite” has acquired bad connotations, such as snootiness and prestige, and in the present political climate, inequality and privilege. But the root meaning of the word “elite” has to do with picking and choosing and thus with being selective (“select” has the same linguistic root as the word “elite”). Elite therefore denotes a stringent selection process. Institutions like Harvard and MIT are elite, in both their faculty and their students, by being ultra-selective in the faculty they hire and in the students they admit.
The secret to getting into Harvard and MIT is therefore to know what’s behind these schools’ selection process. Given the overwhelming number of applicants to these schools, they need a way to dramatically cut down the applicant pool, narrowing their search to the exact type of student they are looking for. But what are they looking for? What criterion or criteria do elite schools like Harvard and MIT use to narrow their search and admit applicants?
In fact, Harvard and MIT (and the other elite schools) use but one criterion for admitting students: Is this the type of student that will make us look good? This criterion may sound simplistic, but it’s not, and it needs to be your guiding principle if you are serious about getting into these schools. At every point in your application, you need to be asking yourself whether the accomplishments you are listing and the ways you are presenting yourself will gratify these schools by making them look good should you be accepted. Harvard and MIT therefore seek to admit students that best reflect the values and accomplishments of their own illustrious faculty and alumni.
In essence, Harvard and MIT are looking to admit students who are younger versions of their older proven selves. When they see you, they want to be looking at a reflection in a mirror. Specifically, Harvard and MIT want to see in the students they admit a record of achievement as well as positive trendlines to suggest that these students will eventually match up, and ideally even exceed, the faculty and alumni that these schools regard as exemplary (e.g., US presidents, Nobel laureates, titans of business, tech entrepreneurs, thought leaders, public intellectuals). This, then, is the secret to getting into Harvard and MIT. The rest of this article offers practical advice for implementing this secret.
By reading this article and following its advice, will you be guaranteed to get into Harvard and MIT? It depends. Here’s a piece of advice that, if you are able to follow it, should guarantee you acceptance to MIT and also to Harvard: compete in and be one of the three winners of the International Science and Engineering Fair (till 2019 sponsored by Intel, and afterward by Regeneron). Here are the winners for 2020 (admitting any of them to Harvard or MIT would make these schools look good). Provided you are one of these winners and don’t have any bad skeletons in your closet (e.g., racist social media posts or a history of sexual misconduct), you should be a shoo-in, certainly at MIT with its STEM focus, and with high probability at Harvard as well.
Of course, following this advice to enter and win a big science competition is easier said than done. In fact, it will seem completely unrealistic to most prospective students wanting to get into Harvard and MIT. So the real question is whether we, in this article, can offer you actionable advice for improving your prospects of getting into these schools. Such advice will fall short of offering guaranteed admission. Its point, rather, will be to help you significantly raise your probability of getting into these schools. It should also try to set realistic expectations so that you don’t feel like throwing yourself off a building if you are not admitted.
In this article, we’re largely going to ignore the role that demographic differences, especially race, may play in helping or hindering your admission to Harvard and MIT (gender seems less of an issue these days in the admissions process). The data are readily available, and you can figure out if you reside in a demographic that is likely to raise or lower your chances of getting into these schools. You need to pay attention to these data because they bear directly on your probability of admission.
Harvard, for instance, has been involved in a very widely publicized lawsuit alleging discrimination against Asian Americans in its admissions policy. As it is, Harvard’s most recent admission statistics show 25 percent Asian Americans in its incoming student body whereas MIT’s most recent admission statistics show 42 percent Asian Americans in its incoming student body. The Harvard Crimson also reports that Asian Americans on average had higher SAT scores than other ethnicities.
The point in noting that different demographics get differential treatment in the admissions process at Harvard and MIT is not to fault their admissions policies. The point, rather, is simply to make you aware of a factor that may affect your probability of admission so that you can use this factor to your benefit or else minimize its detrimental impact. The aim of this article is to help you get into these schools regardless of how your demographic, taken by itself, may affect your chance of admission.
As you embark on your quest to gain admission at Harvard and MIT, you need to be brutally realistic about your prospects for getting into these schools. Assuming that you’re not the winner of a big science prize, not the child of a US president or of some big donor (big donor, in this context, means a contribution of at least 8 figures), and not going to do anything underhanded (such as taking part in a fraud like the Varsity Blues college admissions bribery scandal), why should you think that you have a reasonable shot at getting into these schools?
Many people who apply to Harvard and MIT have a zero chance of getting in. They are applying simply because they’ve had some academic success and they know that these schools have impressive reputations. But they’ve laid no groundwork for getting into these schools, and their applications will get weeded out instantly. Just to be clear, the most recent statistics indicate that Harvard had 57,786 applicants for its freshman class, with 2,320 admitted (a 4.01 percent admission rate) and MIT had 33,240 applicants for its freshman class, with 1,365 admitted (a 4.11 percent admission rate).
The most important take-away from these huge application numbers is that the admissions people at these schools feel overburdened with the sheer number of applications and are looking for every conceivable excuse to ease their workload, and the quickest way to do this is simply to reject applications that don’t measure up in some obvious way. Test scores is one obvious place, but there are others. For MIT, and ignoring demographic variations, you don’t want to go much below 1550 on the SAT or 35 on the ACT. Harvard cuts you a bit more slack: 1500 on the SAT or 34 on the ACT. (Note that with Covid, many students could not take the SAT and ACT, and so Harvard and MIT are for now not requiring these tests; but as soon as Harvard and MIT require these tests again, they will also require the scores to be high.)
In logic, philosophers distinguish between “necesary conditions” and “sufficient conditions.” A necessary condition is one where if you don’t meet it, you’re out of the running. A sufficient condition is one where if you meet it, you’re all good. There are few if any sufficient conditions for getting into Harvard and MIT (winning the Intel or Regeneron science competition being an exception; there are other exceptions, such as being a medalist at the International Math Olympiad — good luck with that one also). But there are plenty of necessary conditions. GPA is obviously a necessary condition. Test scores, when required, also constitute such a necessary condition. Unless you can get into this rarified range of test scores, you will likely be out of the running.
But great SAT and ACT scores provide no guarantee of admission. One of our staff back in 2018 talked with an MIT admissions person who complained (this was right after early admissions were decided) that she needed to fend off parents who were upset that their children, despite perfect 1600s on the SAT, didn’t get into MIT. Great test scores are part of the challenge in getting into these schools, but only a part. They are a necessary but not sufficient condition.
The drive to get into Harvard and MIT has only intensified over the years. In 2020 Harvard admitted about 4 percent of applicants. For the class of 2025, whose acceptances went out in 2021, Harvard admitted less than 3.5 percent of applicants. MIT’s admission percentages are also expected to keep going down. As recently as the early 2000s, Harvard’s admission rate was about 10 percent. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Harvard’s admission rate was 16 percent. In the late 1970s it was 20 percent. MIT’s admission percentages were likewise much less stringent in times past than today.
More and more people are therefore trying to get a piece from the same Harvard and MIT pie. Success in doing so therefore requires leaving as little to chance as possible. For instance, it’s not going to help you if at the beginning of your senior year in high school you think to yourself, “Gee, it would be cool to go to Harvard or MIT, so let me apply and see what happens.” That’s not going to work.
Instead, when should you start the process of trying to get into Harvard and MIT? If you are serious about getting into Harvard and MIT, you and your parents will need to carefully lay the groundwork for getting into them much earlier than your senior year in high school. Often that means making crucial decisions about the application process for these schools in junior high or even earlier. If you’re looking to get into Harvard and MIT on the strength of your athletics, you may need to start even earlier than junior high.
Consider the high school that you attend. In your quest to get into Harvard and MIT, your high school’s strengths and weaknesses will prove extremely important. For instance, the CollegeBoard, which administers the AP (Advanced Placement) exams, reports to colleges and universities the number and type of AP exams given by individual high schools. Some high schools offer only a handful of AP classes — perhaps only one or none at all. Some offer a lot. Elite schools like Harvard and MIT want to see a lot of AP classes offered by your high school and they want to see you taking a lot of these classes. MIT in particular is concerned about whether you’re going to be able to handle all its required courses in math, physics, chemistry, and biology that they will be throwing at you. If your background in these areas looks weak, your chance of getting in goes way down.
But what if you are at a high school that doesn’t offer many, if any, AP exams? What if you are homeschooled? In that case, it’s probably best to try to get as many college credits at a local community college (or better yet, at a regular four-year college) as you can. But that is second best. The AP is a national exam, and if you do well on these exams (that is, get a 4 or 5, and for Harvard and MIT it better be a 5), your record of achievement is clear, which is to say that Harvard and MIT can be confident that you’ve mastered the material in question. Many community colleges, unfortunately, offer watered down courses, so if you take courses for college credit as a high school student and are applying to Harvard and MIT, you’ll want to make very clear in your application that you took rigorous courses and that the A’s you got actually mean something.
Before you embark on this journey of trying to get into Harvard and MIT, you need to ask yourself if you really want to pay the personal cost that getting into these schools may entail. This has nothing to do with money and everything about what you are willing to pay in blood, sweat, and tears to gain admission. Maybe you love academics and taking lots of AP courses is your idea of a good time. In that case, go crazy and take as many AP courses as you can. But what if you really don’t like taking these courses? What if you don’t get into Harvard and MIT even after taking all these AP courses? Will you feel cheated? Will you feel that you’ve wasted your time and that you should have focused on other things that truly interest you? Is attending a high school that offers lots of AP classes something that you even want to do?
What other sacrifices are you willing to make to get into Harvard and MIT? And are you going to feel like an idiot if you make sacrifice after sacrifice to get into these schools and then still don’t get in? Much healthier, of course, is to do things that make you a better person and student so that you will feel like what you’ve done is worthwhile even if at the end of the day you don’t get into Harvard and MIT. One colleague who attended Harvard as an undergrad and Yale as a grad student would often describe getting into these schools as a “crap shoot.” You need to take seriously the possibility that you won’t get in, and you need a plan for living a productive life in case neither Harvard nor MIT admit you. Harvard and MIT are always “reach” schools (which for most people means they’re “out of reach”), so you always need to apply to “target” and “safety” schools.
If you find yourself during your high school days doing more and more things that you’d rather not be doing simply to get into Harvard and MIT, you need to pause and reflect. Doing things that you don’t believe in is a recipe for disaster. It makes for what psychologists call moral licensing. Moral licensing results from doing things that are supposed to be good and make you look good, but where, because you don’t really believe in doing them, you then give yourself permission (i.e., the moral license) to do some really rotten things. Moral licensing tries to make up for the deprivation you feel from doing things you don’t really believe in. Exercise followed by binge eating is an example. Public officials who claim to work for the public interest and then abuse their assistants are another. To get into Harvard and MIT, don’t make sacrifices that you resent and that may lead you into toxic places.
Another key question that you need to answer when trying to get into Harvard and MIT is this: Who wants you to get in? It’s one thing if you, the prospective student, really really want to get into Harvard and MIT. If attending these schools is your dream, then do what you can to make it happen, but make sure you also realize that whatever you do may not be enough to gain admission. Have a plan B.
But what if it’s not you that really really wants to get into Harvard and MIT, but somebody else, such as your parents? Are other people going to be living their dream through you by you getting into Harvard and MIT? Is it that they want to feel proud, having bragging rights, bask in your reflected glow, turn you into a trophy? That’s not a good reason to go through the effort, and often pain, of trying to get into these schools. If you’re trying to get into these schools simply to please others, you are in a deeply unhealthy place and our best advice to you is to seek admission elsewhere.
Inscribed at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi are the words “know yourself.” If you are serious about attending Harvard or MIT, you and the people trying to get you into these schools need to start answering that question, and sooner rather than later. Knowing yourself, however, is not a snapshot. It is a video. We all grow and change in real time. The moment you decide you want to get into Harvard and MIT, you are at point A, and your goal is then to get to point B, your official acceptance into these schools. In the process you are going to do a lot of new things and see a lot of changes, both in yourself and in the way the world reacts to you.
Consider your preparation for the SAT or ACT. Test prep organizations have a reasonably good record of increasing SAT scores by 200 or so points and ACT scores by 5 or so points. To get in the right range for Harvard and MIT, you’ll therefore need to start around high 1300s for the SAT or around 30 for the ACT, without a lot of undue effort or preparation on your part. If, on the other hand, you’re starting around 1200 on the SAT or around 25 on the ACT, it’s going to be asking a lot to get into the range where you’ll be competitive at Harvard and MIT. It’s not impossible, but it’s not going to be easy. In that case, you’ll need to look inside yourself and ask whether it’s worth even trying to raise your scores to the norm for these schools.
But let’s say you’ve got competitive test scores, outstanding grades, great teacher recommendations, and plenty of AP or college-level classes. In that case, you’ve got the basics down. Are you now good to go to get into Harvard and MIT? Without the basics, unless you have something off-the-charts special working for you (like being the first teen into space), you should think that your chance of admission to these schools is dim. But let’s say you’ve got all the basics working for you. In that case, you’ve still only satisfied the necessary conditions for admission, which all your serious competition for getting into these schools likewise knows about and is working hard to satisfy. You’re now in good company but you haven’t risen above it. To be truly competitive, you therefore need something more, something extra.
Extracurriculars are anything you do outside your standard academic work. Because you’re trying to get into Harvard and MIT, your standard academic work comes with high expectations: you need to be taking rigorous courses, holding a high GPA, scoring great on standardized tests, and the like. But extracurriulars go beyond the standard academic work that’s going to appear in your high school transcript and in the transcript of every other applicant that the admissions people at Harvard and MIT will see.
Extracurriculars can be academic, as when you join a math club to prepare for math competitions or a public speaking club to compete in debates. Many extracurriculars are organized by your high school, but because they’re extracurriculars, they don’t lead to a grade or entry on your transcript. Artsy stuff like singing, dance, band, and theater are often high-school sponsored. So too brainy stuff like chess clubs and reading groups. And of course, sports is a big extracurricular that is high-school sponsored. Sports is in fact such a special category of extracurricular that we deal with it in two separate sections.
Many extracurriculars also occur outside your high school. These can be academic or non-academic. Perhaps you can get an internship, even as a high school student, working at a local university lab in a research area that interests you. Such an internship would clearly be academic. Or perhaps you can get an internship, also as a high school student, working on a state senator’s staff or for a non-profit concerned with sustainability, hunger, or civil rights. Such an internship would be less directly academic but still carry weight in your application to Harvard and MIT. And then of course there are hobbies.
How many extracurriculars should you be involved in to look attractive to Harvard and MIT? That’s the wrong question. It’s not how many extracurriculars you have that determines how attractive Harvard and MIT will find you. Sure, you need some extracurriculars. Between your coursework and extracurriculars, there should be enough variety so that you seem well-rounded. But well-rounded doesn’t mean doing so many different extracurriculars that observers begin to question your sanity for taking too many things upon yourself. Nor should observers be asking whether you are doing so many extracurriculars simply to get into an elite school. The extracurriculars need to make sense in light of your interests and life path. And there needs to be a balance: not too few, not too many, just right.
With extracurriculars, there’s something even more important than being well-rounded, and that’s having at least one extracurricular in which you do something really well. Well-rounded is about going broad, but doing something really well is about going deep. In fact, it’s more important to go deep than broad (though better still to do both). Going deep relates back to our fundamental secret for gaining admission to Harvard and MIT, which is that these schools want to see themselves in you. In other words, they want to see in you someone on the path to becoming a high-performance leader. But you can be a high-performance leader only by going deep in a field and so becoming excellent in it. To go deep, it’s typically irrelevant if you also go broad. Going broad, or being well-rounded, just ensures that you’re not a freak (and for the record, Harvard and MIT prefer not to admit freaks). Going deep and becoming excellent at something, on the other hand, puts you squarely in the Harvard and MIT ballpark.
In going deep to become good at something, choose something that’s interesting, challenging, and perhaps even unusual. Maybe you make great cupcakes. But so do lots of other people (nothing against cupcakes). Get good at something that distinguishes you. Have a look at the Harvard Crimson (TheCrimson.com) or the MIT Tech (Tech.MIT.edu) for ideas about what skills and talents are valued at these schools. Harvard, for instance, has a long history of liking bagpipe players, as this Harvard Crimson article confirms.
If you are solid academically and really good athletically, then sports may be your ticket into Harvard and MIT. It’s no accident that in the Varsity Blues cheating scandal, the way parents cheated to get their kids into elite schools was by falsifying their kids’ athletic achievements. The parents, and the college consultants they used, simply invented a record of athletic achievement for high school students in some sport even if they had not played it a single day of their lives. Parents and their college consultants would then lie to or bribe coaches at the elite schools where they wanted these students admitted. The coaches would then in turn make the case to the admissions committees that they really needed/wanted these students for their teams.
Admissions committees listen to coaches, even at Harvard and MIT. Sports are an important part of these schools even though these schools are best known as intellectual rather than athletic powerhouses. It bears repeating the secret to getting into these schools: students are admitted who will make the schools look good. It’s not that these schools are all that great athletically. Neither Harvard nor MIT belong to one of the Power Five conferences, which tend to dominate sports at the collegiate level nationally. But Harvard and MIT do want to field teams that won’t embarrass them in their respective conferences: the Ivy League for Harvard, the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) for MIT. In consequence, students who are solid academically will often get into Harvard and MIT provided that a coach at these institutions likes and wants them. So long as a student’s academics are solid, the word of the coach is often enough to secure admission.
All scholarship aid at Harvard and at MIT is need based, so these schools don’t offer athletic scholarships. That may be bad news if you are an athlete looking to excel at your sport, take it to the highest collegiate level, and hopefully even go pro. But in that case, you wouldn’t be looking at Harvard and MIT even if they offered athletic scholarships. Harvard and MIT’s appeal is to lesser athletes, yet the appeal is real. Given how competitive it is to get into these schools, sports provide a springboard for gaining admission that might otherwise be unavailable.
If you’re really good at a sport, it can buy you a lot of forgiveness on the academic end. You’ll still need to convince Harvard and MIT that you can handle the course work, but that’s easier than convincing them that you’re destiny is to be a high-performance intellectual leader and that your record of accomplishment to date shows an unwavering commitment to becoming such a leader. MIT, for instance, likes to see its incoming students spending summers on science projects and technical workshops. But if you are busy honing your athletic skills for your sport during the summer (such as by playing AAU basketball), such a demand will be largely waived. In this way, sports becomes the ultimate extracurricular. It can open admissions doors at these schools that no other extracurriculars can.
The Harvard Crimson have 42 teams that compete in NCAA Division 1 and the MIT Engineers have 22 teams that compete in NCAA Division 3. Both Harvard and MIT have football, baseball, and basketball for men, and both schools have basketball, soccer, and volleyball for women. The Wikipedia articles on Harvard sports and MIT sports provide convenient listings of all the sports offered by these schools.
If the large number of varsity sports at Harvard and MIT is not enough to convince you that sports may be your best ticket into these schools, consider also that lots of Harvard and MIT students play varsity sports — it’s not a tiny minority. As the Harvard Crimson reports: “Nearly 1200 students — roughly 20 percent of the student body — participate in one of Harvard’s 42 varsity teams, the most offered among NCAA Division I colleges.” At MIT the percentage is even higher. As MIT’s Division of Student Life reports: Approximately 25 percent of undergraduates participate in varsity athletics.”
In fact, these percentages underestimate the role of sports in the application process to Harvard and MIT because by the time students reach their junior and senior years, some will have dropped out of varsity sports entirely, preferring to focus on academics. Because Harvard and MIT offer only need-based and no athletic scholarships, they can’t kick you out if you decide to drop out of a sport. Of course, we’re not advocating that you use a sport simply to get into Harvard and MIT and then promptly refuse to play it your first year on campus. Sports are a great way to enrich your college experience, building community and making friends, so if you have the opportunity to play a varsity sport at Harvard or MIT, go for it. But student athletes do drop out of their sport, and we estimate that the percentage of student applicants to Harvard and MIT who use sports as their ticket into these schools is probably closer to 30 percent.
If you are serious about using sports as your ticket into Harvard and MIT, you need to do the following six things:
Harvard and MIT celebrate diversity and proclaim diversity as a prime directive in their admission of students. That said, in navigating the admission process for Harvard and MIT, you need a sober understanding of what diversity at these schools really means. If you look at the undergraduate student body at Harvard and MIT, you will not see a representative sample of the US population, even controlling for academic success and personal accomplishment. It’s not that Harvard and MIT are simply taking the best and brightest but keeping everything else constant.
Consider income inequality, which is very much in the news these days. Harvard and MIT are immensely wealthy schools, and they are able to cover the full costs for all their students (circa $75,000 annually for tuition, fees, room, and board at the time of this writing in 2021). And in fact, no student admitted will be unable to attend these schools for lack of money. Notwithstanding, how do the Harvard and MIT student bodies actually break down by household income?
It turns out that 20 percent of Harvard students get full rides because their annual household income is below $65,000. All the rest pay something, with 45 percent of Harvard students getting no need-based scholarships and thus paying the full sticker price. At MIT, 26 percent of students get full rides because their annual household income is below $90,000. All the rest pay something, with 40 percent of MIT students getting no need-based scholarships and thus paying the full sticker price.
Even families earning $200,000 a year are getting about half their costs covered by these schools. Do the math, and the 45 percent paying full sticker price at Harvard and the 40 percent paying full sticker price at MIT are pulling in very sizable annual incomes — we estimate around $400,000 to $450,000 annually. According to the Economic Policy Institute, that puts 40 percent of students at both schools in households with incomes in the top 2 or 3 percent.
Yet at the same time, the proportion of students whose household income is at the national median (i.e., $61,000 annually, so by definition 50 percent of the US population has that income or less) will have an even smaller than 20 percent representation at these schools. Harvard and MIT therefore embody income inequality however much their financial aid packages try to circumvent it. Bottom line: rich kids far outnumber poor kids at Harvard and MIT.
The failure of diversity at Harvard and MIT, however, does not simply relate to income. These schools engage in a form of diversity that is narrow and nothing like what a common-sense understanding of diversity would suggest. Common sense tells us that true diversity should exhibit proportionate representation for all natural groupings of people. But instead only certain groupings get proportionately represented at Harvard and MIT but not others. We’ve already seen such a failure of diversity with income, but it holds at these and other elite institutions much more widely.
In place of a true diversity, these schools practice what may be called a “stratified diversity.” The term “stratified diversity” is used in the biological and anthropological literature, but we’re using it here in a specific sense to describe diversity that’s applied to certain groupings or strata but not to others. Thus, one diversity stratum for Harvard and MIT is race, with different races represented to display diversity. Another stratum is sex, with different genders represented to display diversity. Another stratum is geography, with different states and countries represented to display diversity.
But stratified diversity leaves out much that belongs to true diversity. Take two young people who show themselves to be roughly as strong academically (same standardized test scores, same GPA, similar courses of study). Let’s say one worked on a farm over summers to help support himself and his family and comes from a small rural high school. Let’s say this student had some weighty responsibilities, such as building grain bins and vaccinating livestock. Now let’s say the other student worked in a science lab over summers and even got a peer-reviewed paper published from the work at that lab. Let’s say this student also attended a large city high school with a richer set of course offerings than the rural school, and that this student took advantage of the richer course offerings. All our anecdotal evidence suggests that if these are the only differences between the two students, the student who worked in the lab will get into Harvard and MIT before the student who worked on the farm.
When it comes to a host of politically contentious issues (see our article series on controversial topics) Harvard and MIT students tend to align on one side of each issue whereas a good chunk of the US population will line up on the other side. This is not to say Harvard and MIT are wrong to admit students who align themselves in this way. But it is to say that there are limits to their diversity, and that if you think diversity of diversity’s sake is going to help you get into these schools, you need to think again.
The secret to getting into these schools is to make them look good in the way that they want to look good. Harvard and MIT embody a certain cultural ethos, and they look for students who likewise embody that ethos. Much of true diversity doesn’t fit that bill. This is another place where you need to be brutally realistic.
Much of what follows is common sense and some of it overlaps with other things we’ve already said in this article. Still, it’s good to get these practical reminders in front of you so that you don’t inadvertently deep-six your application process to Harvard and MIT.
The old expression “nothing in excess” should be your guide. You don’t want to come across as extreme or obsessive. More is not always better. Even with AP classes, there’s a limit to how many you should take. The more of these classes you take, the less time you’ll have for other things. You need to go both broad (be well rounded) and deep (get really good at something). But you need to project a life that is thriving, where you are on a happy course, and where you’re not doing so many disparate things that you come across as a chicken with its head chopped off.
Don’t come across as arrogant. And put a lid on bragging. If your praises need to be sung, let others sing them, such as the people writing your letters of recommendation. Sure, you don’t want to hide your light under a bushel, so don’t minimize your accomplishments. But be straightforward in how you present yourself. Don’t oversell or undersell yourself. And understand that unless you’re the reincarnation of Newton or Einstein, you’ve got some stiff competition. To that point, have a look at the 40 finalists (not winners) of the Regeneron science competition. They’re an impressive blunch. If perusing this list doesn’t sober you, then you are not paying attention.
In everything you do to advance your prospects of admission at Harvard and MIT, don’t go in blind but rather do your homework and know what you can expect. If you’re taking a standardized test, prepare for it. Yes, with the SAT and ACT, you have opportunities to take it again, but don’t let even the first opportunity to take it see you unprepared. Take at least a few practice exams and be clear about what items you missed and why you missed them. Also, the PSAT, which is used to determine National Merit Scholars, often just sneaks up on students. There’s only one opportunity to take it, and if you blow it, you won’t be a National Merit Scholar. That may not matter for Harvard and MIT, which focus on the SAT and ACT and don’t offer academic scholarships. But doing well on the PSAT and being a National Merit Scholar can prove important if you don’t get into Harvard and MIT, but do get into a school that is happy to admit and reward you with scholarship dollars based on your performance on the PSAT. In any case, take the entire admission process seriously and always be prepared. That doesn’t mean hunkering down and doing a lot of preliminary work. But it does mean doing enough so that you are never caught unawares.
Suppose you come from a rich family and you’ve done a lot of luxury things, like visit exotic places or hobnob with the rich and famous. Good for you, but don’t revel in these things, and don’t even cite them unless you are able to make a clear and unforced connection with the rest of your life in a way that is not self-aggrandizing but rather of benefit to others. Don’t come across as self-absorbed. If you come from privilege, wear it lightly.
Harvard and MIT want the students they admit to be real human beings that care about the world and others, who do good things without the need for extraordinary resources but rather by engaging in ordinary circumstances and challenges using the ordinary means at their disposal. Thus Harvard and MIT like to see the students they admit take on community problems (such as addressing bullying at school or helping to clean up a public place), build bridges with diverse groups in the community, and care for members of their own family, especially those who are ill or with special needs. Don’t do good things simply to score points with Harvard and MIT (that’s just going to get you in trouble with moral licensing — see above). Do them because you’re a good person who cares about others.
If it were up to us, we would counsel avoiding all posts on social media in the lead-up to your applications to Harvard and MIT. Even seemingly innocuous posts can be misinterpreted and get you in trouble. Anything you say on social media will leave a permanent record. You may be joking with classmates and make a post that is ironic or satirical. Someone may see it, distort what you were saying, and the admissions people at Harvard and MIT may see it and use it against you. Worse is if you are goaded by peers to make some ugly post on social media. Remember that even if you are admitted to Harvard and MIT, the schools may rescind your admission after the fact if they find social media posts by you that they deem as unacceptable. In this age of cancel culture, the naiveté of youth offers no cover.
Sometimes it takes high school students time to get their bearings. Perhaps they lack interest in the courses they’re taking in their freshman year. Even very bright students may do poorly because they are bored with the curriculum, not doing the required work at all or doing it so slipshod that they get penalized. If that’s you and you want to get into Harvard and MIT, you’re going to need to turn the ship around and get your enthusiasm and grades up. Often getting back on track is enough, especially if you hit it out of the park your junior and senior years. Harvard and MIT are willing to apply some forgiveness if your academic success was less than stellar early on but if the trendlines are sharply up and to the right, indicating that you are well on your way to becoming stellar. As long as your trendline is positive, that’s good. What you need to be concerned about is if your trendline is headed down. An even trendline (neither up nor down) is fine provided you started out strong. But you don’t want to come across like a business stock that is past its prime and trending down.
If you are serious about getting into Harvard and MIT, you need to talk to a college admissions consultant. That’s not to say that you should hire such a person or organization on an ongoing basis. But it would be good to get a competent college admissions consultant to look over your application plans and indicate what they might do to help you. If they lay out some great ideas and a plan that you find compelling, then that may be reason to hire them. But it would be worth at least giving them a listen.
A decade or two ago college admissions consultants were essentially in the test-prep business, preparing students to do well on the ACT and SAT. As schools like Harvard and MIT became much more competitive to get into, the services of college consultants expanded, essentially guiding students and parents through every step of the application process and making sure that the students under their direction built up their record of accomplishment so that they would look attractive to Harvard and MIT. Thus, a high-priced admissions consultant might go so far as to map out the course of study and the extracurriculars of students, even arranging posh internships for their students while they were still in high school.
If high-priced college consultants are beyond your range, not to worry: the advice in this article will take you a long way toward getting you into Harvard and MIT. Instead of tutors to help you with test prep, you can get the relevant books from Amazon and work through them. So too with the other services that college admissions consultants offer — you just need to be more of a self-starter and find the help you need in books and through online resources as you move through the application process.
To that end, we’ve produced a growing number of video interviews here at AcademicInfluence.com on the college admissions process. Included among these interviews are two with the dean of admissions at MIT, Stuart Schmill. Schmill spoke with us about (1) whether you should get a college advisor/consultant and (2) how to write your college essay. Refreshingly, Schmill advises that you just call the admissions people at Harvard and MIT if you feel stuck or need clarification. As he put it: “Most admissions offices that I’m familiar with, and that’s certainly true in our office, love talking with students and are very happy to talk about the way our process works.”
If money is no object, then by all means hire a college admissions consultant, but vet them to make sure they have a good track record of placing students in elite schools like Harvard and MIT and that they are truly competent. At AcademicInfluence.com, we’ve ranked college admissions consulting agencies and provided a by-state listing of them. Regardless of your resources, however, we would urge that before you make any long-term commitment to a college admissions consultant, you first take a test drive: have a preliminary meeting or two with the college consultant to make sure that they really are offering you good advice and effective services.
One last point about college admissions consultants: Beware of consultants who charge a very high price for their services and then offer to refund much of that price if they don’t get you into Harvard and/or MIT. We’ve heard of college consultants charging in the six figures for their consulting services and offering to refund 90 percent of their fee in case the student doesn’t get into the desired school. This may seem like a terrific guarantee, but in fact some of these consultants are happy with the 10 percent they get to keep on the six figures they were originally given. We would therefore urge transparent payment for clearly defined services, and with no performance incentives or disincentives.
So you want to get into Harvard and MIT. But why, really? Sure, there’s a superficial appeal. These are prestigious institutions and attending them gives you bragging rights. But bragging rights quickly become stale. If you get into these schools and attend one of them, very quickly you’ll be with students who have the same bragging rights. When everyone has the same bragging rights, they lose their luster. So why do you want to attend these schools, really? Is it because the teachers are the best? Harvard and MIT have worldclass scholars and researchers, but these are often not the best teachers. If you really want outstanding personalized teaching, you may be better off going to a 4-year college that’s strong in the liberal arts and science (such as Swarthmore).
The real reason you should want to attend Harvard or MIT is to rub shoulders with the other students there. As the expression goes, “iron sharpens iron.” Thomas Jefferson, in founding the University of Virginia wanted an “academical village” in which students learned as much from each other as they did from their professors. Harvard and MIT have provided students with wonderful mentors over the years (such as Nobel laureate Jack Szostak serving as the dissertation advisor to Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna). But especially at the undergraduate level, it’s the student-student interactions that are key. It’s the fellow students that make or break the place.
This is the main reason you need to be sure to visit Harvard and MIT, preferably early in the application process, but especially if you are in the enviable position of having been accepted to either or both schools. The ethos of the student bodies and the flavor of the two campuses, even though they are only two miles apart, is quite a bit different. Harvard has a more expansive arts-and-sciences feel. MIT, by contrast, feels more like a trade school for nerds. Of course, in so characterizing these schools, we’re engaged in a bit of shameless stereotyping. Yet there’s often some truth to stereotypes. The bottom line is that you may feel yourself palpably attracted more to one school rather than the other, and you need to respect that feeling because it can make all the difference to your college experience.
Because the students you will be interacting with are absolutely key to your happiness and success at these institutions, it’s vital that you bear in mind one final caveat: relative deprivation. Relative deprivation denotes the inability to keep up with your peers even if in absolute terms you are doing okay. Suppose you get into MIT and you get through its science and engineering curriculum, but it’s a painful slog. Your grades are passable, and you are perhaps even learning more than you would at the flagship state university of your home state. But you find yourself essentially at the bottom of your class and struggling to keep up. Whereas you used to excel in academic settings, you now feel overmatched. In that case, you are experiencing relative deprivation. That’s not a place you want to be.
Unless you are confident that you can hold your own with the students at Harvard and MIT, you are probably better off going elsewhere. How will you know that you can hold your own with them? Visit the campus and talk to students there. Ask questions and gauge where you stand. Doing so becomes especially easy if you play a sport and are on a recruiting visit to the Harvard or MIT campuses. On such a visit, you’ll have opportunities to talk with established players and fellow recruits. You’ll quickly get a sense of whether you fit in or are in the wrong place. And the issue may not even be a matter of academic strength. Every school has its own ethos or campus culture, and what you find on a given campus may not be your cup of tea.
Let’s say that you’ve got a bad feeling that getting into Harvard and MIT isn’t going to work out for you. But let’s say that these are institutions where you still think you need to be and where you think you can thrive. Suppose your academics are strong, but it would have been better if you could have done another year of more of advanced coursework (maybe your high school simply didn’t offer an extensive and rigorous course of study and your dual enrollment opportunities at the local community college weren’t all that impressive either). If you are serious about getting into Harvard and MIT, one option is to attend an elite high school for an extra senior year, getting a (second) diploma from that school. The schools in question are elite boarding schools (prep schools). They’re not that easy to get into, but nowhere near as hard to get into as Harvard and MIT. At AcademicInfluence.com, we’ve compiled a list of the best of these boarding schools.
You might wonder what’s in it for these schools in bringing students who’ve just graduated high school on for another year. By the time a class reaches the senior year at a boarding school, it will have shrunk. In bringing on talented students to add to the senior class, these schools not only make up for attrition but also add students that can enrich the community and can especially enhance their athletic programs. These students are a year older and, other things being equal, therefore more physically and intellectually mature. The schools see it as a win-win. They get some accomplished students that make the school look good and the students get an additional year of seasoning as well as a springboard into the elite reaches of higher education.
Granted, this may sound too good to be true. And there are some caveats. These schools are expensive, though they do have some need-based scholarship aid. Also, even though some of these schools (such as Phillips Exeter and Phillips Andover, usually called simply Exeter and Andover) have a great track record of placing students into Harvard and MIT, it’s important not to come across as simply using these schools to do a “mulligan” (i.e., a do-over or second chance to be admitted to Harvard and MIT). In fact, if you go the route of attending a boarding school to do an extra year of high school, it may be preferable not to apply to Harvard and MIT during the senior year of your ordinary high school (so that they don’t see you applying twice and failing to get in the first time).
Also, you will need to convince Harvard and MIT that when you apply to them from an elite boarding school, you did this “gap year” because you felt that your previous high school education left you less prepared than you would like to get the most out of a Harvard and MIT education. Be careful not to bash your high school and not to criticize your own preparedness. This is about getting the most out of a Harvard and MIT education, not about you or your high school being substandard.
And indeed, places like Exeter and Andover can help you get the most out of a Harvard and MIT education. These schools are high-powered educational institutions in their own right. The URLs for their domains end in “edu,” just like colleges and universities. And they offer coursework that goes well beyond the AP exams, well into the sophomore year at most colleges and universities.
Consider the following disciplinary areas in which Exeter offers courses (taken from Exeter’s 2021-22 course instruction catalog):
The modern languages offered are Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, and Spanish. Classical languages offered are Greek and Latin. Except for Arabic, all these language offerings go deep. For STEM fields, such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and computer science, Exeter’s offerings would be the envy of many smaller colleges. And this from a high school whose student body is under 1,100.
To see precisely how doing a gap year at an elite boarding school works, go to the postgraduates page on the website of Phillips Exeter Academy, which AcademicInfluence ranks as the second most influential boarding school in US behind Phillips Andover. As is explained on Exeter’s postgraduates page: “Each year we admit into the senior class students who have completed 11th grade in another school and postgraduates who have already earned a high school diploma. Approximately 15 percent of the senior class is new to Exeter each fall, and the majority of our one-year seniors are postgraduates.”
All the details about becoming an Exeter postgraduate are available from this page and from other pages and contacts listed there. Other boarding schools have similar programs that are readily tracked down by visiting the schools’ websites or calling the schools directly.
How likely are you to get into Harvard and MIT if you spend an extra year in high school at a place like Exeter? So long as you are not perceived as gaming Harvard and MIT by attending such a postgraduate program, your probability of admission should go up significantly. Some of these high schools have a terrific track record of placing graduates at elite colleges and universities. But do your due diligence: not all boarding schools have Exeter’s exemplary track record.
To see just how good Exeter’s track record is at placing students in elite colleges and universities, have a look at Exeter’s college matriculation figures for 2018-2020. The Ivies and elite schools like MIT are heavily represented. Phillips Exeter places about 30 percent of its graduates in the Ivies. Interestingly, there are some private day schools that place as high as 40 percent of their graduates in the Ivies. For a window into this world of elite high school education, see our boarding schools and private high schools rankings.
Even if this section on doing a gap year at an elite high school sounds completely out of reach for you, it is not irrelevant to your quest to get into Harvard and MIT. Indeed, this section contains an important lesson for you, namely, that students from such schools will be among your stiffest competition in getting into Harvard and MIT. What will you do to keep up with them? Notable recent alumni of Exeter include Andrew Yang, Roxane Gay, Mark Zuckerberg. It’s no accident that all three went directly from Exeter to Ivy League schools: Yang to Brown, Gay to Yale, and Zuckerberg to Harvard.
Getting into Harvard and MIT at the undergraduate level is the bigger challenge. Getting in at the graduate level can be tough, but the challenge in that case is to have done some really good work as an undergrad and gotten the notice of some professor or professors who are known to Harvard and MIT faculty and who can make a way for you there.
Unlike high school students aspiring to be undergraduates, who must pass the admissions process of a university-wide committee, undergraduates aspiring to be graduate students must prove themselves to a given department through their undergraduate course of study (and often that means convincing just one professor in a department to get behind the candidate). Provided you’ve done really well as an undergraduate and done so at a school with a solid reputation (good state schools, good liberal arts colleges, and even good religious schools count), Harvard and MIT will both be live options.
Once you’ve reached the graduate level, however, some of the mystique that Harvard and MIT command at the undergraduate level will disappear. As a graduate student, you’ll be more concerned about working with the best faculty person or lab in your field of interest. Harvard and MIT have many fine faculty members, but depending on your particular interest, you might in fact do better by going elsewhere. Princeton, for instance, has a stronger math department than Harvard or MIT, and the most influential mathematician at the present time is Terence Tao, who is on the faculty of UCLA.