So, how do you get into Harvard? Well, it’s actually quite easy. Let’s break it down.
To simplify things, I’ll assume that Harvard looks for three main criteria: smarts (How do the score on education?), drive (How much quality stuff do they do?), and background (How did they get to where they are today?).
Let’s start off with our first example. Let’s assume that a person has essentially infinite resources. Then, by the function of opportunity, it’s pretty easy to hit all three of these criteria. You’ll have access to the best schools from a starting point, thus easing the pathway to get into the best schools in the future — at these schools, you’ll have a competitive motivating factor and an eye on the best opportunities available. These two together get the checkmarks on smarts and drive.
Let me elaborate. The best schools themselves have the most resources. They have the best teachers, who teach material in such a way that makes it easier to score on “national” tests, such as subject tests, since they are competing against other “average” teachers.
In addition, the best schools are highly competitive. Humans tend to be highly competitive by nature (I’ll contend that point in a little bit), and so on average this allows them to score higher.
Finally, the best schools scout opportunities for their students. They might encourage them to apply for a startup accelerator, or conduct some research in high school. And, because the student has “essentially infinite resources”, paying for these opportunities isn’t an issue.
Really the only checkmark here that is in jeopardy is background. This depends largely on a person’s mindset; for example, if they are not highly competitive, they may suffer in school and therefore have a lower GPA in comparison to colleagues. Or they might not be motivated to partake in any opportunities. Or they become ill, mentally or physically, and they falter because of this.
But, one might say, even this isn’t an issue. Because the best schools also have the best tutors, and the best counselors, who can then assist these students with their problems or otherwise help them craft a personal statement that ignores these issues entirely. So we’ve come to one conclusion in our first example, which is that it is pretty easy for someone with a lot of resources to get into Harvard.
Now, let’s do another example. Say we have a person with a lot of drive but limited resources. These resources aren’t too limited; right now we might be referring to someone in the US middle class hierarchy. In this case, it’s a lot harder to get into contact with the best schools right out of the gate, and therefore some momentum needs to be built. But as I mentioned, this is a person who scores highly in drive; they scour the internet for opportunities, and although they’re putting in a lot more work than the people with a lot of resources they’re still finding the same help and are able to capitalize on these opportunities. Some of these opportunities may be too expensive — for example, a middle class family would likely not be able to afford for their child to study abroad at a high class English institution for a summer — but in this modern age there’s enough that is freely available either through scholarship or through the internet that it’s still reasonable to say they can access the information needed.
A unique characteristic of this example is that the “background” section is actually even easier! An institution like Harvard is more willing to forgive foibles in a person’s academic or experiential career if they’re more limited in resources, provided that they’re able to back that up. And while the drive individual isn’t getting a personal statement review for free, they likely have enough motivation to ask the right people anyway. And, since we’re assuming they’re already in a competitive and determined mindset, that won’t be an issue either. We can assume out of this that they’ll score good in “smarts” as well. So, for these people, a big fat scholarship and access to Harvard — delivered!
…of course, you’re likely already starting to catch the issues at play here. There is a massive amount of hard work required here, and a stern mindset to boot. While this is possible, it may only be possible for 5% of the middle class students; the other 95% get left in the dust.
But this is alright, right? After all, Harvard’s reputation is surrounded by hard work and mindset. All the private institutions are going after this 5% demographic; it’s their main source of capital!
Well, let me bring you to the last example. Let’s keep the “drive” factor constant, but let’s reduce the resources significantly. So, now we’re dealing with someone who might be from the US poor class. Let’s run the simulation again.
So, our student is a scout. But can we guarantee that they will be able to achieve the same opportunities as our previous examples? Now, things are not quite clear. In fact, we can’t even be certain this person has an internet connection.
But, there are always some free opportunities around, and there are always some that are local. So let’s say that our poor student is a real eagle, and they’re able to know about all these things. Well now, time becomes an issue.
Poorer students have to take the bus. Poorer students have to take care of their families. How can a poor student take on all the burdens of poverty, while still finding time to reach our three criteria?
Well, it’s possible. And it’s been done before. In fact, it is often the case that the ones who come out of poverty to reach these points are the greatest of them all. But this is rare; in fact, it is a once in a lifetime event.
Alright, now let’s peel back and see things as a whole. I’ll make up some statistics: let’s say that 40% of the “rich” make it into Harvard (they’re still competing against themselves, after all!), 5% of the “middle” make it into Harvard, and 1% of the “poor” make it into Harvard. This seems pretty off; after all, we already established that all of these students had the same underlying traits! Well, perhaps this is something to think about, further down the road.