By William Symonds In the U.S., few competitions are more cutthroat than the college admissions game. And every year it grows more intense as an ever-larger pool of high school seniors apply for one of the coveted spots at the nation's top colleges, thus ensuring that even more will have their hopes dashed. Meanwhile, the elite colleges have been stepping up their efforts to woo the best and brightest students—the prized pupils who will help increase the prestige of their campuses.
You might assume that Harvard College—blessed with higher ed's greatest brand name, and an endowment second to none—could afford to remain relatively aloof from this battle. But in reality, "There is no place that works harder than we do," says William R. "Bill" Fitzsimmons, Harvard's veteran dean of admissions.
THREE-PART PLAN. Certainly Harvard's results are the envy of higher education. For the class of 2010, which will start in September, Harvard received a near-record 23,000 applications. Of these, it accepted a mere 2,100—or just 9%—ranking it as the nation's most selective college. Even more impressive, some 80% of the chosen ultimately decided to attend Harvard—a yield rate that is easily the highest among colleges and universities. By contrast, a handful of other elites—including Yale and Stanford—have yield rates around 70%. But even such well-known schools as Williams, Duke, and Dartmouth have yields of 50% or less.
The real surprise, however, is how hard Harvard works behind the scenes to achieve these stellar results. From his corner office in Byerly Hall, which is lined with Oriental carpets and thick binders containing the admissions folders for the class of 2010, Fitzsimmons oversees a carefully honed, three-part battle plan.
The first phase begins in the spring, when Harvard mails letters to a staggering 70,000-or-so high school juniors—all with stellar test scores—suggesting they consider applying to America's best-known college. Harvard buys their names from the College Board (which administers the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT) and ACT Inc. (which administers the college-admission test that's more popular in the Midwest). This "search list" is obviously a very rough cut. Yet Fitzsimmons is confident he will find many diamonds here since every year some 70% of the students who ultimately attend Harvard are on this list.
SCOUTING FOR TALENT. Each year, Harvard's admissions team tours 140 cities along with four other elite colleges—Stanford, Duke, Georgetown, and the University of Pennsylvania. But Harvard also visits hundreds of other places on its own. In the past year, for instance, members of the admissions team have gone to cities in Latin America, Europe, Africa, and the Far East. This year, 10% of the admitted students came from abroad.
In addition to his staff of 35, Fitzsimmons enlists Harvard's coaches and professors to look for talent. The math department, for instance, starts to identify budding math geniuses by keeping a close eye on kids doing well in math contests. That vigilance is a key reason why last December, Harvard won the prestigious Putnam Math Competition—beating out over 300 other colleges—for the 25th time. Harvard's closest rival, Cal Tech, has only won nine times.
Harvard students also get into the act. Since 2003, Harvard has hired 15 to 20 low-income students to call and e-mail promising low-income high school students. Their job: to counter the "impression that Harvard is only for the rich and elite," says Fitzsimmons. In fact, under Harvard's relatively new financial aid policies, parents who make less than $60,000 a year aren't expected to pay anything toward the annual $43,700 tab for tuition, room, and board.
Fitzsimmons dispatches an army of some 8,000 alumni volunteers into the field. Their job is to identify and recruit promising high school students where they live. Later, they also interview nearly all applicants.
CHECKS AND BALANCES. By then, Fitzsimmons will be deep into the second phase of his battle plan: sifting through the thousands of applicants. Every application is rated on a scale of one (the best ever) to six (the worst ever) by members of his staff. In addition, Fitzsimmons often asks Harvard professors to assess students interested in their respective fields.
Then, in February, the applications are divided up geographically among 20 subcommittees. Thus, all applicants from Illinois and Indiana would be considered by the same subcommittee. Then, "we present the case for each applicant like a lawyer would," says Fitzsimmons. Following debate, the subcommittee votes, with a majority needed to move along to the full committee of 35. There, the process is repeated in a grueling, two-week series of meetings. The debates and votes continue until the class has been whittled to the target number.
"This is the polar opposite of a computer process, and because we have so many people involved, there are lots of checks and balances," says Fitzsimmons.
Once the final decisions have been made, Fitzsimmons and his team move to phase three: an all-out push to convince the chosen few to attend Harvard. Professors, alumni, and students are all recruited to start calling the admitted. And in mid to late April over half of those who were accepted typically show up at Harvard for an elaborate weekend. "We have something remarkable going on every minute," brags Fitzsimmons. Still, he's adamant about one thing: "Don't put pressure on them. That simply doesn't work."
"NO PRISONERS." Even so, the Harvard pitch is clearly effective. Harvard achieves its impressive 80% yield even though it is one of the few elite schools that doesn't have binding early-admissions. What that means is that the some-800 high school seniors who are accepted at Harvard each December are still free to opt for another college. "These people really have a chance to see the marketplace, and there are no prisoners," says Fitzsimmons. In contrast, at most Ivy League schools, students who are admitted early must attend that school.
History is full of formerly great institutions that went to seed once they started taking their success for granted. But that hasn't happened at Harvard. Indeed, for all the years he has devoted to admissions, Fitzsimmons is still remarkably idealistic. "What we aim to do is to get the very best faculty together with the very best students," he says. "Our hope is that these synergies will develop the talents of these students to a much greater degree and that they will then give back a lot more to America and the world." That belief may sound corny, but it's clearly helped drive Harvard to go to enormous lengths to find the best and brightest. Symonds is BusinessWeek's Boston bureau chief