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What Pinker Gets Wrong About Harvard (and Williams) Admissions

Steven Pinker’s essay in The New Republic (hat tip Razib Kahn) provides a false description of admissions at places like Harvard and Williams.

At the admissions end, it’s common knowledge that Harvard selects at most 10 percent (some say 5 percent) of its students on the basis of academic merit. … The rest are selected “holistically,” based also on participation in athletics, the arts, charity, activism, travel, and, we inferred (Not in front of the children!), race, donations, and legacy status (since anything can be hidden behind the holistic fig leaf).

This is not true. Summary: More than 80% of admissions at Harvard (and other elite schools like Williams) is determined by academic merit, measured by past success in high school (high grades in the most rigorous classes with the best teacher recommendations and top standardized test scores), all of which best predicts academic success in college.*

First, leave aside athletics for the moment; the preferences there are real and large.

Second, consider the raw data in terms of 25th and 75th percentile SAT scores. (I have taken the latest available data and simply added the Math and Critical Reading scores together.)

Harvard:  1390 -- 1590
Williams: 1330 -- 1540
Cornell:  1320 -- 1520 

A difference of 50 or 60 points may seem small, but this is (back-of-the-envelope) 1/4 to 1/3 a standard deviation.** If we were talking about height, it would be as if the average student at Harvard were an inch or so taller than the average student at Williams or Cornell. There is no way, in a large population, to get this sort of difference unless the selection procedure has a major focus on SAT scores (or their correlates). In particular, there is no way that the top 25% (!) of the Harvard class has almost perfect SAT scores if only 10% (much less 5%!) is selected on the “basis of academic merit.” It is mathematically impossible.

Third, there are no meaningful preferences given for “the arts, charity, activism, travel” and other non-academic, non-sport reasons. Why?

Now, every once in a while does something like music help? Sure! If the orchestra conductor calls up the admissions office and begs for some decent drummers, he may get helped out. But, overwhelming, even those drummers will have amazing academic credentials.

Fourth, even affirmative action does not change the basic story because black (and Hispanic) applicants are accepted under the same criteria as white/Asian students. The same process of looking at high school grades, course schedule, teacher comments and standardized test scores applies to everyone. Whatever it is that Harvard is looking for in white/Asian students, it is looking for the exact same thing in black/Hispanic students. Harvard just sets the bar lower for the latter. Being poor is probably an advantage. Being a non-US citizen is probably a disadvantage. But, whatever bucket you are competing in, the key criteria is academic success.

Fifth, legacy is a red herring. Do the math! There are 1,600 Harvard students in the class of 2018. There were around (I think) 1,600 Harvard students in each class in the 80’s. I can’t find good data on fecundity, but, judging from Williams, elite students from the 80’s go on to, at least, achieve replacement levels of fertility. So, there are 1,600 or so legacy students born in 1995/1996 who would love to come to Harvard (or at least be accepted by Harvard) for the class of 2018. But Harvard only enrolls about 200 of them!*** You think the other 1,400 go to Stanford? Ha! It is easy for Harvard, like Williams, to ensure that enrolled legacy students are academically equivalent to non-legacy students because the legacy pool is so strong. Turns out that Harvard parents tend to have academically talented children. Who knew?

Sixth, even in the case of athletics, academics matter because the admissions department insists. See here for some details. But, to the extent that Pinker has a point, he is correct that athletics plays an important part. And so does major wealth. But even if we combine the athletes and the donors, we are still talking about less than 20% of the class.

Big picture, Pinker’s description of Harvard admissions is fundamentally flawed because the vast majority of it (80%?) is, in fact, driven by “academic merit.” Unless you are a recruited varsity athlete or a billionaire’s child, you got in because your classes/grades/scores were better than the other applicants (at least within your race and/or socioeconomic class and/or nationality).

And this is easy to see if you follow the admissions process at your local high school, assuming it is the sort of school that sends lots of students to elite schools. On average, the high school students who get into Harvard have done better — higher grades in tougher classes with better teaching recommendations and standardized test scores — than the students who get into Williams, and then the same down the academic pecking order.

Steven Pinker is a voice of reason in many of the debates surrounding higher education. It is too bad that he is so misleading about Harvard admissions in this essay.

* Of course, it is not clear what scale Pinker is using for his 5% or what scale we should be using for our 80%. The main clarification that applies to the 80% is that, although the academic evaluation system is the same across categories of students, students are mostly competing against peers in their own racial, citizenship, and socio-economic bucket. If you are, say, rich and black, then Harvard admits use on the basis of academic merit in comparison with other rich/black applicants.

My preferred scale is to imagine that the Harvard admissions system is blinded to everything non-academic. All they see is your high school transcript and standardized test scores. Even in this scenario, more than 50% of the students in Harvard today would still have been accepted. Athletics and affirmative action do have a meaningful impact on admissions, but most of what is going on is still Pinker’s “academic merit.”

** Yes, I realize that this is a rough estimate. The standard deviation of individual SAT tests is around 100. I can’t find good estimates of the standard deviation of combined scores. If the scores from the two tests were uncorrelated, then the combined standard deviation would be around 141. But the positive correlation means that this is a lower bound. And, of course, we are talking about the far right tail of the distribution, where all sorts of weird stuff might happen. The larger point stands: it is impossible for Harvard’s combined SAT scores to be 50+ points higher than Williams/Cornell, year after year, without significant focus on SAT scores by the Admissions Department.

*** See our legacy admissions category for various calculations with regard to Williams. I doubt that things are much different at Harvard or any other elite school. Why would they be?

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#1 Comment By frank uible On September 9, 2014 @ 10:54 am

And this (or Pinker’s) exercise leads one to what useful conclusion?

#2 Comment By Simon in London On September 10, 2014 @ 4:01 am

Pinker should have written “purely on the basis of academic merit”; my understanding is that 5-10% are selected PURELY on academics without consideration of other factors. Obviously ALL the admissions are ‘merit driven’ – they all take the applicant’s academic ability into account.

#3 Comment By Eric Rasmusen On September 10, 2014 @ 11:03 am

Thank you for the good response post. It shows that we need to be clearer about what we mean when we talk about “10% of admits being chosen because of X”. Maybe it’s this: “10% of admits would not have been chosen but for their strong showing in dimension X”.

All of the admits have to have above-average SAT scores, even the athletes. I bet an athlete can be admitted with zero other extracurriculars, though. Same for certain racial minorities. Probably the same for alumni— though they probably need to be at least average academically if they’re weak on extracurriculars. How many, though, are selected for academic ability despite not having any extracurriculars to speak of? How many are selected if their only extracurriculars are things like chess club, computer club, working at a laboratory? If you’re top student of your year at the Bronx High School of Science, can you get into Harvard or Yale even if you do nothing outside of class except read books and play with your chemistry set?

One of Pinker’s big points is that all this *does* have practical conclusions. If academic ability is not enough, then the future Nobel laureate had better spend less time studying physics in high school and more time doing bad acting and set building in the drama club. The future Faulkner had better spend less time reading novels and more time running for president of the student council.

#4 Comment By Rich Seiter On September 17, 2014 @ 4:21 pm

You are probably mostly right about legacies, but two thoughts.

1. What about Harvard’s professional/grad schools? Do they count towards legacy status? That might add to the pool of legacies.

2. Regarding the tendency of Harvard grads to have smart kids. That is true, but don’t forget about regression to the mean. For IQ the estimate for children of an average of half of parental midpoint above 100 is common. That implies a pair of 130 IQ parents has average 115 IQ children which is getting a little low to succeed at Harvard IMHO (it’s about average for college grads). That’s the issue with legacies, especially considering 115 is only an average.

#5 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On September 17, 2014 @ 9:49 pm

> What about Harvard’s professional/grad schools?

I am no expert on Harvard admissions. I think that going to graduate school at Harvard plays no meaningful role, just as Harvard College graduation (almost) doesn’t matter.

Of course, each class has dozens of graduates of HBS/HLS (just as each class at Princeton and Yale does) because lots of HBS/HLS graduates have academically talent kids, as you would expect.

> That implies a pair of 130 IQ parents has average 115 IQ children which is getting a little low to succeed at Harvard

Regression to the mean is another way to get at my (possibly false) claim that legacy doesn’t matter. The average IQ of Harvard children regresses, of course. But, for legacy admissions, we don’t care what happens to the average. We care about the percentage that are at or above where there are parents are. So, what is the variance associated with IQ transmission? (I don’t know.)

To use your example, the 1,600 children of the 1,600 Harvard graduates of 1985 have a mean IQ of 115, while their parents had a mean IQ of 130. But, how many of the 1,600 children have an IQ of 130 or above? I realize that it is much less than 50%, but is it 10%? 1%?

#6 Comment By ac On September 21, 2014 @ 7:27 pm

I had two friends with 1600 SATs (max at the time) and were valedictorians. Neither got into Princeton or Harvard. If it’s 80% on merit, how did the – what, 50%? – of students with 1490 SATs and, presumably, no better GPAs beat them in the admission game? That doesn’t add up.

#7 Comment By Sam On October 14, 2014 @ 7:20 pm

The main problem is the SAT’s not being hard enough. This means that they don’t differentiate at all among the applicant pool at a place like Harvard – they get enough applicants with 60 of a perfect score (60 points is the margin of error) to fill their freshman class many times over.

This ensures that a perfect SAT score will not guarantee an acceptance at Harvard, leading to the anxious cargo-cult approach to admissions that dominates the American middle class.

#8 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On October 14, 2014 @ 9:19 pm

> I had two friends with 1600 SATs (max at the time) and were valedictorians. Neither got into Princeton or Harvard.

Were they Asian American? There is a lot of evidence that Harvard et al discriminate against Asian Americans.

How good was your high school? Being valedictorian at an average public high school does not count for a lot. (Of course, it is better than not being valedictorian.)

And also keep in mind that “valedictorian” does not mean the same thing everywhere. There are many schools which name multiple students as “valedictorian” each year.

And how much did the teachers like them? Test scores and grades and teacher recommendations all matter.

#9 Comment By hc On October 14, 2014 @ 9:32 pm

Why the distinction of “American” dave? If Williams were to admit on aptitude and academics alone, would there be many more foreign students?

Perhaps a student body that was 50-75% foreign nationals? Any data or ideas on that?

#10 Comment By Raymondcmr On March 31, 2015 @ 2:31 pm

Only 20% of Vals and Sals get into the 8 Ivy schools. It is not their fault that most of the “little people” applicants go to regular public schools. That is a reflection of parental income not I.Q. The other 80% go to go to state schools, “little Ivries etc. and go on to medical school, law school etc. They become our everyday doctors and professionals.

However, the Ivies keep impacting your life even if you never go there. Every government commision, fact finding group, health care advisory seeks ou the ivies for input . So basically the 20% plus legacy students rule the lives of the aformentioned 80% plus everybody else in society. You can see this everyday with the members of the U.S. Supreme Court impacting us.

This is the American class system in view for all to see. We don’t have hereditary lords like the English but the Ivies to rule us. Ivies’ endowments frequently use hedge fund tactics speculating in oil futures which impact everybody when they fill up at the pump and investing in companies that hurt the public good. They keep the old guard in power.