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Articles / Applying to College / The Big Reveal from Harvard’s Admissions Lawsuit: Essays Really, Really Matter

The Big Reveal from Harvard’s Admissions Lawsuit: Essays Really, Really Matter

Brad Schiller
Written by Brad Schiller | Dec. 16, 2020
The Big Reveal from Harvard’s Admissions Lawsuit: Essays Really, Really Matter


Good news for anyone deferred Early Decision/Early Action: It turns out that Harvard gets enough applicants with perfect GPAs to have enough for over four incoming classes.

How is that good news?

It means that Harvard — and in fact, every college — has to look outside of grades and test scores to make their decisions.

And where do they look?


This may not seem mind-blowing, but it's actually HUGE. It explains what we at Prompt have found, in our work as an admissions essay coaching and feedback company: That three out of four students with compelling essays get into one or more of their "reach" schools, meaning schools where they're academically below average.

(Recent litigation allowed unprecedented insight into Harvard's admission process. For admissions nerds like us, it's been a bonanza of valuable info. For example, the importance of essays is noted in an Expert Report, pg. 17, footnote 12. In case you were curious.)

Inside Harvard's Process 

Here's how Harvard's admissions process works: You get rated on a scale of 1 (insanely great) to 4 (not that great) in four categories. The bad news is that, at this point in your high school career, you no longer have much control over your score in three of these:

  • Academic
  • Extracurricular
  • Athletic

But the fourth category is not only incredibly powerful, but also within your power to improve right now: Personal, which evaluates traits such as leadership and character.

How powerful is "personal"? Let's answer in the form of a chart that we obsessively made from this article on the litigation:

The Big Reveal from Harvard’s Admissions Lawsuit: Essays Really, Really Matter - 2

True, this chart might make you regret your decision to give up on your "silly dream" of becoming a basketball star, and focus on academics. Athletic prowess is an admissions super-power. But that ship has sailed.

What's still in play is finding a way to show that your "personal" attributes are stellar.

The chart shows that, not only do top-rated personal attributes stand out as compared to academic ones (see blue row), but applicants with stellar personal ratings get in at the same-ish high rate as those with stellar academic ones, and in fact at a higher rate than those with stellar extracurriculars (orange row).

In other words, there's a lot to be gained by writing essays that prove beyond a doubt you've got great personal traits. Not just at Harvard. Anywhere. What the Harvard data reflects is a phenomenon that happens at all schools: Students mostly apply to places where they're academically in the ballpark. That means that, at any school, you're competing against applicants whose grades and test scores are pretty similar to yours. This opens up essays, in particular, as the place to distinguish yourself.

Here's yet another chart that we made to illustrate this glorious state of possibility:

The Big Reveal from Harvard’s Admissions Lawsuit: Essays Really, Really Matter - 3

At Prompt, we've found essays are the place that applicants tend to mess up. They overthink it. They fall for myths about writing elegantly, ornately or wittily. They don't spend the time to brainstorm what their very best experience is — the one that showcases the traits that will make them successful in college and beyond. And they don't write up those experiences straight-forwardly, so admissions officers see their full potential for success.

This is why making up ground in the "personal" category is the easiest thing an applicant can do, whatever the state of their academics. (Or their ability to hit a fastball.) (Or having a parent who went to Harvard, which helps a lot, but that's a story for another blog post.)

If you got deferred during the early round, it means essays are likely the place you need more work. Put your focus there as you apply to your other schools, and we bet it will pay off handsomely for you this spring.

Attribution: This article was provided by Prompt.com, the world leader in admissions essay coaching and feedback.

Written by

Brad Schiller

Brad Schiller

Essay Expert

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