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How to get into Harvard… or any other great college

HarvardSo you think you know what it takes to get into Harvard? There’s the perfect 4.0 GPA, the 800 SAT scores, the long list of AP and honors classes and the resume packed with leadership positions such as head of the debate team, the lacrosse team and the school newspaper. To top it off, there’s that classic crowning achievement…being named the class valedictorian.

That’s more-or-less what it takes, right? Well, not exactly.

As a college admissions counselor and the mother of a Harvard student, I am here to tell you that gaining admission to Harvard—or any number of other highly selective colleges—is at once easier and harder than you might think.

It’s easier because a 4.0 GPA and perfect SAT scores are not required. (Although, if you have them, it certainly doesn’t hurt.) Nor must you flaunt a five-page resume with an array of stunning achievements, covering the gambit from mental gymnastics to third world philanthropy to impressive sports. The truth is you really don’t have to be superhuman. You just have to be an excellent student and … interesting.

Advice from Harvard’s president

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust told parents and educators recently. “We could fill our class twice over with valedictorians,” Faust asserted in a June speech at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which was covered in The Atlantic.

In short, winning the highest academic recognition in high school isn’t enough to get you into Harvard. The same holds true for quite a number of other highly selective colleges, whose presidents have been quoted in recent years saying essentially the same thing. What then is required, you may well ask.

In the Aspen speech, Faust offered her most important piece of advice to parents who want to raise future Harvard students. It also applies to many of America’s other top schools. “Make your children interesting!” she said.

Faust’s simple advice strikes me as some of the best I’ve heard. It resonates with my own observations of the Harvard students I’ve known and worked with over the years.

Interesting?  What does that mean?

In fact, the first Harvard student I ever met—back in 1973—was a perfect example. Morris was lanky, 6’4” African-American kid who’d grown up in the mountains of Kentucky. No doubt he’d been a star pupil in his rural public high school, earning good grades and test scores. If he hadn’t, he never would have made it to Harvard. But Morris never talked about grades, test scores or whatever awards and honors he might have won. I’m sure he considered those topics boring. He was right.

Instead, Morris talked practically non-stop about the one thing he was most passionate about: music. He talked to anyone who would listen. And when he met somebody who nodded and said, “I know what you mean,” or shook their head in vigorous disagreement, his eyes lit up as if he’d found a long-lost brother or sister.

From Hendrix to Rossini on a barstool

Morris loved to talk about rock-n-roll and the blues and Jimi Hendrix. He also waxed eloquent about the finer points of progressive jazz and about the “true” bluegrass music that he’d grown up with Kentucky. Most of all, he loved to talk about opera, and the pleasures of Bel Canto and Rossini.

He celebrated all these forms of music on a radio show he did on the college station. But he also held court on a bar stool at a local café, where you could often find him in the evenings. If you expressed enough curiosity, he would sometimes invite you back to his dorm to sit raptly next to his stereo and listen to scratchy old recordings of Hendrix or the Italian master.

Morris was a truly interesting person. He was interesting in a quirky but very real way that made him different from everybody else in Cambridge, Massachusetts…or, for that matter, anywhere else in the world. It was a kind of “interesting” that poured from his brain, like water from a spring.

They don’t make “interesting” in test prep

There is no way that any school or test prep program could manufacture a person like Morris. But I have no doubt that sometime in his early life a parent, friend or relation nurtured his musical passions. And surely somebody along the path also told him, “Morris, if you stay true to your own vision, you’ll go far!” Although institutions cannot create people like Morris, neither do such personalities hatch in vacuums.

I don’t know whether Drew Gilpin Faust ever met Morris. Probably not, since she was at the University of Pennsylvania, getting a PhD in the mid-1970s. But I do know he was the sort of person she is talking about.

Is Harvard populated with thousands of students equally quirky and interesting? Certainly not—Morris was a rare bird. And Harvard, like any college, has its share of tedious teenagers who got admitted more because of their batting averages or their grandparents’ money than anything else. But I have met quite a few students there who do come close.

Students who inspire on campus and beyond

Harvard is just one of many colleges looking for smart, creative kids who don’t fit into any box. They understand the quality of their school ultimately depends on people like this—people who will make a difference on campus and beyond by challenging and inspiring others.

I think future applicants can learn a lot from Morris. Here are two lessons I gleaned from him—and from the many other interesting people I’ve met in this world. Because the truth is that it’s far more important to be interesting than it is to get into Harvard or any other school. Of course, if you can do both… so much the better.

I hope these precepts will help you students and parents out there think about the college application process in a different way. More importantly, I hope they will encourage you to think about who you really are and where you’re going.

Two lessons from Morris

– Don’t spend four years in high school jumping through every hoop you think you’re supposed to jump through. Be a good student, work hard and get good grades. But rise above it.

– Allow plenty of time for intellectual, cultural or artistic passions that aren’t part of the school curriculum. Follow these interests wherever they may lead. This is how you will get your deepest and most lasting education. This is what will make you a truly interesting person.

This article is dedicated to Morris, Harvard class of 1974, wherever he may be. Whether on earth on elsewhere, I know he’s still listening very intently to the music.

– The College Strategist

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