how Harvard makes admissions decisions

On last week’s episode of Getting In: A College Coach Conversation, host Sally Ganga covered topics that many of you will find interesting. Her conversations included the inner workings of the undergraduate Admission Office at our country’s oldest institution of higher education, Harvard University, a dive into the ApplyTexas essay topics, and a discussion of financing a graduate/professional health professions degree. Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA, was the college spotlight of the week.

How Harvard Makes Admissions Decisions

Sally’s first guest was Rebecca Besthoff, a college admission expert who spent time working in the Admission Office at Harvard. They began at the point of a complete application, and from there talked about how the application is read, including the order in which it is reviewed, what an admission officer is looking for, and how the process plays out from the first read to committee. Suffice to say that no one person makes a decision about whether or not a student is admitted, and given the sheer volume of applications (from students who are all capable of doing the work), it’s all about making sure you stand out in some way. This may be through your essay and activities and recommendations, and/or because of a “distinguishing excellence” that you possess. You’ll have to tune in to learn more—both Rebecca and Sally shared great examples of standing out and how they have seen candidates succeed.

Acing the ApplyTexas Essays

Sally’s next guest college admission expert Kyra Tyler, who shared valuable insights and advice about how to write about essay topics A, B, and C on the ApplyTexas application. This entire segment was a brainstorming session on approaching various topics, and will be helpful for any of you who are struggling to come up with an essay topic, regardless of whether or not you are using the ApplyTexas application platform. Here are some specifics:

Topic A: What was the environment in which you were raised? Describe your family, home, neighborhood, or community, and how it has shaped you as a person.

Kyra and Sally say: Be as specific as possible and creative about how you define community—it can be a town, a neighborhood, a sports team, your church, or your marching band.  Don’t get defeatist about how nothing “interesting” has ever happened to you (what a blessing!), and don’t write just about your community, but about how it has shaped who you are and who you want to be.

Topic B: Some students have an identity, an interest, or a talent that defines them. If you are one of these students, then tell us about yourself.

Kyra and Sally say: Again, be creative (and know that this prompt might also work for a Common Application essay). Don’t be afraid to be mundane and don’t be afraid to let your nerd flag fly!

Topic C: You’ve got a ticket in your hand. Where will you go? What will you do? What will happen when you get there?

Kyra and Sally say: Don’t write about your annual family vacation or sitting on the beach reading lots of books. Dream big, or choose a small, personal, special place. Think about what interests you and use this topic to highlight your passions.

How to Pay for a Degree in the Health Professions

Finally, Sally’s last guest was Shannon Vasconcelos, a college finance expert with experience at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. Shannon began her discussion of how to finance a health professions degree with examples of the very high costs at medical and dental schools. She went on to talk about how to apply for aid, including the important detail that even though graduate and professional students are considered independent for federal financial aid purposes, many health professions programs require parental financial information to award their institutional dollars, even if you are in no way dependent on them. Shannon also acknowledged that compared to the cost of attendance, there is very little grant and scholarship money available at these kinds of schools, and most students use loans (which are essentially unlimited, as long as you don’t have an adverse credit history) to finance their degrees. Along those lines, Shannon suggested that students who have a medical, dental, veterinary, or other health professions goal in mind to choose an inexpensive undergraduate institution (whether by sticker price or scholarship awarded) to preserve savings and minimize borrowing. She and Sally wrapped up their conversation by talking about the average debt for graduating vets, doctors, and dentists, and then running through some loan forgiveness and scholarship programs that are available. To learn more, tune into this week’s podcast.

You also won’t want to miss our next episode, when Beth Heaton will return to talk with her guests about the Princeton University supplemental essay topics, bad essay ideas, and college finance questions posed by our listeners.


Written by College Coach
College Coach® is the nation’s leading provider of educational advising, offering expert guidance from the best college admissions consultants on the college admissions and finance process. Our goal is to help each student maximize his or her chances of success through services focused on their personal desires, goals, individual strengths, and accomplishments.