Don't even bother applying to Harvard. Here's why...

If 5.3% of 37,305 applicants to Harvard were accepted overall, and 16.5% of 5919 were accepted early, what was the regular decision acceptance rate? This problem might be a little tricky, but the trickier question is why colleges never advertise regular admission rates, if they publish them at all. Instead, we just get the early rate and the washed-down aggregate rate for the entire pool.

As a college counselor and SAT tutor, I needed to know what the regular decision rates were and what they meant, but few of the press releases I scoured coughed up the magic number. Overall acceptance rate? Yes. Early acceptance rate? Sure. But just the regular decision rate? I used a calculator. It didn’t take long before the advertised overall admissions rates began to feel pretty high. 5.3% overall for Harvard? That’s about one out of every twenty—a lot better than the 3.2% rate I calculated for regular decision alone.  

Quickly I realized it was worse than I had imagined—I had neglected those who were deferred from the early round to the regular decision pool! I looked deeper and found that the most prestigious school had crunched the number itself. Harvard’s true regular acceptance rate? 2.8%.

(Early admission rates used in chart found here. Overall admissions rates used in chart found here. Please note that overall acceptance numbers have just been released and can be slightly inaccurate. Additionally, actual regular decision acceptance rates are lower than indicated on chart as chart excludes early admission candidates who were deferred to the regular decision pool.)

Now I was confronting an SAT problem: By what percent is Harvard’s early action acceptance rate greater than its regular decision acceptance rate? 489%.

In the fall of 2011, Harvard, Princeton, and University of Virginia reinstated the Early Action option, giving students the opportunity to apply by the November deadline and hear back before January. The three universities had previously eliminated the early round in 2006, hoping that this move would level the playing field among applicants from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Just five years later, Harvard President Drew G. Faust explained that the return to early action was “consistent with our bedrock commitment to access, affordability, and excellence.”

Out of those buzz words I’d say “excellence” holds the most truth. After all, a single-choice early action option that prohibits students from applying elsewhere in the early round doesn’t seem particularly conducive to access or affordability. But excellence is a no-brainer. These top schools want the best of the best, and by the numbers, it seems those students must be applying in the early rounds.  

But at a 489% greater rate? The idea that early applicants are that much better sounds farfetched.  Of all the applicants, “13,500 had a score of 700 or higher on the critical reading section of the SAT and 16,100 scored 700 or above on math.” In contrast, 5,919 applied early action total (83.5% of whom were rejected or deferred). Again, I’m discounting those who were deferred early and ultimately accepted in the regular admission pool. If you consider that group, applying regular decision looks even bleaker.

But why hide the number? After all, these schools are all about “holistic” admissions. In explaining 2019’s record-breaking number of applications, Harvard’s Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons said it himself: “It isn’t about your yield rate and it isn’t about your admit rate; it’s all about the excellence and the character.”  

Sure, excellence and character are important factors. But I’m curious about how the singular pursuit of these largely subjective qualities indirectly results in Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, for example, perennially boasting the lowest acceptance rates, the highest yield rates, the highest endowments, and all of the other valuable metrics that dictate a school’s ranking on US News and World Report. And I wonder how the decision to advertise only the overall acceptance rate (and not the regular decision alone) factors into these calculations.

I’ll go ahead and say it. As these numbers continue to dwindle, applying to Harvard (or any of these top schools) may seem like more and more of a lottery ticket that’s not worth buying for most students. “Seem” is the key word because, when you look at the real acceptance rate for regular admissions, it truly is a lost cause for most applicants.  

But many of us don’t quite realize it yet. Before rejection letters were sent out, thousands upon thousands of high school seniors were all innocently thinking: “Hey, maybe I have a chance? I’m a bright kid. I did pretty well on my SAT’s. I know my math teacher wrote an awesome recommendation. My grades are pretty decent. Why not me?”

The idea that top universities are businesses is nothing new, but perhaps we’re not quite grasping the implications. College rankings? They’re more like a list of Fortune 500 companies. If you base the rankings on endowment size per enrolled undergraduate, you’d have a near identical list. Early decision? Early action? A way to secure the best?  More likely an effective method of increasing yield rates and ensuring a healthy mix of unbelievably impressive applicants, legacy applicants, and athletic recruits. Why else is MIT the only one in the chart whose early and regular admission rates aren’t miles apart? Is it mere coincidence that it’s the only one that doesn’t consider legacy or recruit heavily for athletics?

But that’s just speculation. What’s safe to say is what Harvard’s Dean of Admissions Fitzsimmons puts best: “Harvard is more concerned that students apply at all than that they apply early.”


Ian Siegel is the director of Streamline Tutors, an innovative education technology, test prep, and college counseling company based in Baltimore, MD.  Learn more by visiting streamlinetutors.com.