Does Harvard discriminate against Asian Americans? This question was brought to trial in 2018, but it wasn’t just an attack on Harvard, it was a challenge to all top-tier institutions that practiced holistic admissions. So what is this vague, holistic admissions process that admission officers use? And how might you use it for your own Ivy League application?

This informational essay was written by Iris Fu, Stanford ‘24. If you want to get help writing your Stanford application essays from Iris or other Admissions Experts, register with today. You can also check out Iris’s College Admissions Youtube Channel.

Much of the answer was revealed in through one key court document: Harvard’s reading procedures. As an ambitious high schooler looking to get into top schools, I pounced on this document at first chance, because I knew I was presenting my essays, extracurriculars, and test scores to an audience of admissions officers. Knowing the decision making process became crucial to getting my application into the accepted pile.

In this article and corresponding video, I’ll break down Harvard’s 19-page reading procedure into an easy-to-digest glimpse into how admissions officers rate applicants. Keep in mind that while this reading procedure is specific to Harvard University, many selective and Ivy League undergraduate institutions, such as Stanford, Princeton, and Yale, have very similar processes.


At Harvard, a 1-6 rating system is used to evaluate applicants in 6 different “components,” or aspects: academics, extracurriculars, athletics, personal (what Stanford calls intellectual vitality), recommendation letters (what Stanford calls support), and alumni interview. For each component, 1 is the best score while 6 is the worst.

Not every component is weighted equally. For example, an applicant’s academic score is more important than an applicant’s alumni interview score, and the extracurricular component is more important than the recommendation letters. This is because Harvard specifically emphasizes that “when making prose comments, first readers should note on the important academic and extracurricular accomplishments that are particularly pertinent to the case.” This might seem obvious, but it’s important to remember that the core of your application is your academics and extracurriculars: they’ll face the highest scrutiny, and it’s unlikely you’ll be able to compensate for one of these components with a single, lower weighted one.

Here are the specifics of the 1-6 grading system Harvard uses, in their words:

1. Tops for admission: Exceptional — a clear admit with very strong objective and subjective support (90+% admission).

2. Strong credentials but not quite tops (50-90% admission).

3. Solid contender: An applicant with good credentials and support (20-40% admission).

4. Neutral: Respectable credentials.

5. Negative: Credentials are generally below those of other candidates.

6. Unread.

At the end of the day, all six components of your file are combined into one, holistic overall score. However, your overall score is not an average of the six individual components. It is more likely to skew toward your strengths. For example, if you scored a 6 in athletics, but a 1 in academics and extracurriculars, you will mostly likely have a 1 or 1- as your overall score.

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This section’s rating system is perhaps the most clear cut:

“1. Summa potential. Genuine scholar; near-perfect scores and grades (in most cases) combined with unusual creativity and possible evidence of original scholarship.

2. Magna potential: Excellent student with superb grades and mid-to high-700 scores (33+ ACT). 3. Cum laude potential: Very good student with excellent grades and mid-600 to low-700 scores (29 to 32 ACT).

4. Adequate preparation. Respectable grades and low-to mid-600 scores (26 to 29 ACT).

5. Marginal potential. Modest grades and 500 score

6. Achievement or motivation marginal or worse.”

As we can see, each rating tier has specific test scores correlated with it. Therefore, applicants should note that there is truly little difference between getting a 33 or a 36 on the ACT, as both results would yield a 2 in the academic rating.

For high achievers who wish to receive a 1 in the academic category, it’s crucial to note the phrase, “combined with unusual creativity and possible evidence of original scholarship,” attached to the end of the 1-rating description. This means that even if you have near-perfect scores and grades, you will not receive a 1 unless you’ve also proven unusual creativity in original scholarship. To earn a 1, you must achieve something along the lines of publishing original research in a well-known journal, winning an international prize at the ISEF science competition, or participating in the highly selective RSI program. Bear in mind that simply having a 36 and a 4.0 GPA without those distinguishing factors would still yield a 2 in the academic category.


For this category, emphasis is mostly focused on accomplishments in the scope of geographic regions:

“1. Unusual strength in one or more areas. Possible national-level achievement or professional experience. A potential major contributor at Harvard. Truly unusual achievement.

2. Strong secondary school contribution in one or more areas such as class president, newspaper editor, etc. Local or regional recognition; major accomplishment(s).

3. Solid participation but without special distinction. (Upgrade 3+ to 2- in some cases if the e/c is particularly extensive and substantive.)

4. Little or no participation.

5. Substantial activity outside of conventional EC participation such as family commitments or term-time work (could be included with other e/c to boost the rating or left as a “5” if it is more representative of the student’s commitment).

6. Special circumstances limit or prevent participation (e.g. a physical condition).”

Keep in mind that family commitments and community employment is taken into consideration here. This means that if your family depends on you for an extra source of income, you will not be penalized for spending your time at a job rather than preparing to win your next international competition. Remember, admissions offices evaluate applicants on the basis of their context, and this is one category where context trumps all else.

Most importantly, notice how a 1 category can be earned with unusual accomplishment in “one or more categories.” This means that being a world-class pianist vs. being a world-class pianist, tennis player, and chess player will yield no difference in this rating category. Simply having big accomplishments in one deeply developed area is enough! Less is more.

And a final note on geographic regions: it doesn’t seem to be the case that winning a competition in a highly competitive state (like California) vs. winning a competition in a less populated state (like Idaho) will be weighted differently in the admissions officer’s eyes. Your rating depends on your accomplishments within a geographic scope. So if you think you’re tops for California–a highly competitive state that holds top performers on an international scale–then it is much more worthwhile for you to compete in international competitions and try to win those than it is for you to win 1st at California state level competitions. Go big or go home.


Again, keep in mind that the admissions office will not weigh your overall score down just because you have a low score in one area. The athletic category can only be a boost for those who are recruited athletes or performing at a similar level. If you receive a 4 or lower, this category will not drag down the rest of your application:

“1. Unusually strong prospect for varsity sports at Harvard, desired by Harvard coaches.

2. Strong secondary school contribution in one or more areas; possible leadership role(s).

3. Active participation.

4. Little or no interest.

5. Substantial activity outside of conventional EC participation such as family commitments or term-time work (could be included with other e/c to boost the rating or left as a “5” if it is more representative of the student’s commitment).

6. Physical condition prevents significant activity.”


By far the most subjective area, this is what the lawsuit boiled down to. Take a look:

“1. Outstanding.

2. Very strong.

3. Generally positive.

4. Bland or somewhat negative or immature.

5. Questionable personal qualities.

6. Worrisome personal qualities.”

The insight gained from this is that there’s really little an applicant can do to ensure that they have “outstanding” personality over a “generally positive” personal score. It’s all so wishy-washy. However, I recommend all of my clients pursue a “passion project” extracurricular. This would be an activity that the applicant leads, that makes a strong community impact, and that shows the unique values of the applicant.

By pursuing a passion project, applicants can boost their extracurricular score by having a unique extracurricular that is “world-class” by virtue of how rare it is. They also show their strong character and personal values to admissions officers because they are taking action on traits such as concern for community, equity, and public-mindedness. In essence, a passion project is proof of your personal character and values.

Teacher Recommendations

“1. Strikingly unusual support. “The best ever,” “one of the best in x years,” truly over the top.

2. Very strong support. “One of the best” or “the best this year.”

3. Above average positive support.

4. Somewhat neutral or slightly negative.

5. Negative or worrisome report.

6. Neither the transcript nor prose is in the folder

In this section, how you compare to the rest of your class or school is crucial. Develop good relationships with teachers, and demonstrate your skill as well as your commitment and initiative.


Last but not least, there’s the alumni interview. Every alumni interviewer rates their interviewees individually, and because they come from such diverse backgrounds, it’s impossible to standardize these ratings. The interviewer also writes a brief paragraph evaluation of how the interview went.

Because it’s so difficult to standardize this section, the interview is more for context than it is for anything else. Admissions officers would like to see if the rest of the applicant’s file is consistent with what the alumni interviewer has to say. In other words, the interview is more like a validation for the rest of the application than a fully separate component.

Your Ivy League Application

The Harvard Asian Admissions Lawsuit only started to reveal the process behind a “holistic” application review, and you can be sure that the lessons here apply to more elite schools besides Harvard. With a better understanding of how your file is approached, you can better cater your Ivy League application to admissions officers, and ultimately, succeed in the process.

Due to the fallout from COVID-19, a growing number of colleges are introducing test-optional applications or changing their weighting process for test scores. Remember that the college admissions process is constantly changing. Staying updated and accessing all the information you can will always benefit your application process. And, as always, and our large network of mentors are here to help you.

Source (Harvard’s full reading procedure):

This informational essay was written by Iris Fu, Stanford ‘24. If you want to get help writing your Stanford application essays from Iris or other Admissions Experts, register with today. You can also check out Iris’s College Admissions Youtube Channel.