Harvard admissions and meritocracy

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source: Information Processing

Motivated by Steve Pinker’s recent article The Trouble With Harvard (see my comments here), Ephblog drills down on Harvard admissions. The question is just how far Harvard deviates from Pinker’s ideal of selecting the entire class based on intellectual ability. Others raised similar questions, as evidenced by, e.g., the very first comment that appeared on The New Republic’s site:

JakeH 10 days ago

Great article. One quibble: Pinker says, based on “common knowledge,” that only ten (or five) percent of Harvard students are selected based on academic merit, and that the rest are selected “holistically.” His implication is that “holistic” consideration excludes academic merit as a major factor. But that’s surely not the case. Even if Harvard only selects ten percent of its students based on academic factors alone, it seems likely that academic and test score standards are high for the remaining 90 percent. We don’t have enough information on this point, because, I suppose, it’s not available. (To solve that problem, I join Pinker’s call for a more transparent admissions process.)

I don’t know exactly how Harvard admissions works — there are all sorts of mysteries. But let me offer the following observations.

1. Pinker claimed that only 5-10 percent of the class is admitted purely on the basis of academic merit (see more below). The 5-10 percent number was widely reported in the past, including by scholar Jerome Karabel. No one knows what Harvard is up to at the moment and it’s possible that, given the high demand for elite education, they have increased their academic focus over the years.

2. IIRC, the current SAT ceiling of 1600 (M+CR) corresponds to about 1 in 1000 ability (someone please tell me if I am mistaken). So there are at least a couple thousand US kids per cohort at this ability level, and several times more who are near it (“within the noise”). A good admissions committee would look at other higher ceiling measures of ability (e.g., performance in math and science competitions) to rank order top applicants. The 800 ceiling on the math is not impressive at all — a kid who is significantly below this level has almost no chance of mastering the Caltech required curriculum (hence even the 25th percentile math SAT score at Caltech is 770; in my day the attrition rate at Caltech was pretty high — a lot of people “flamed out”). The reduced SAT ceiling makes it easier for Harvard to hide what it is up to.

4. My guess is that Harvard still has a category, in the past called S (“Scholar”; traditionally 5-10 percent of the class, but perhaps larger now), for the top rank-ordered candidates in academic ability alone. Most of the near-perfect scorers on the SAT will not qualify for S — it is more impressive to have been a finalist in the Intel science competition, written some widely used/acclaimed code, made (or nearly made) the US IMO or IPhO teams, published some novel research or writing, etc. Harvard sometimes boasts about the number of perfect SAT scorers it rejects each year, so clearly one can’t conclude that a 1600 on CR+M alone qualifies for the S category. Along these lines, one even reads occasional stories about Harvard rejecting IMO participants.

5. In remaining categories Harvard almost certainly uses a more holistic approach that also weights athletics, extracurriculars, etc. Some of the people who score high on this weighted measure might not have qualified in S, but nevertheless are near the ceiling in SAT score. It has been reported in the past that Harvard used a 1-5 scoring system in academics, sports, leadership, music, etc. and that to have serious consideration (outside the S category, which is for real superstars), one needed to have two or more “1” scores — e.g., valedictorian/high SATs + state-level tennis player + …

From the comments above, it should be clear that one can’t simply use the percentage of near-perfect SAT scorers in the class to determine the size of the S category.

See here for discussion of meritocratic test-based systems in other countries. For instance, the Indian IIT, the French Ecole Normale Superieure, and the Taiwan university entrance exams, have in the past explicitly ranked the top scorers each year. (The tests are hard enough that typically no one gets near a perfect score; note things may have changed recently.) I know more than a few theoretical physicists who scored in the top 5 in their entire country on these exams. Mandlebrot writes in his autobiography about receiving the highest ENS score in France.

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.
Stephen Hsu

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