School Founder’s View: Why Harvard Should Lead the Way in Scrapping the College Admissions Essay

Commentary: Matthew Levey reflects on the “spawning of a racist tool” at the university in 1926.

In the months since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, Harvard has become the poster child for elite colleges confronting charges of rampant antisemitism. University President Claudine Gay stepped down after weeks of punishing headlines. A committee was created to recommend changes. But its members keep quitting, frustrated with delays and inaction. 

So it’s perhaps piling on at this point to note that, a century ago, the profoundly antisemitic beliefs of Harvard’s leaders built the cradle that nurtured the much-reviled college admissions essay. Eliminating it now in 2024 would be a concrete and dramatic repudiation of Harvard’s troubled past — and makes even more sense in the wake of last summer’s Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action. Which Harvard also lost.

But first, some history. In the summer of 1922, President Lawrence Lowell told Langdon Marvin, a Harvard Overseer, that “apart from the Jews.” the university’s admissions method was working well. As Jerome Karabel explained in The Chosen, the problem wasn’t the process but the outcome: Too many of the wrong type of men were getting in. By 1925, when 28% of the class was Jewish, Harvard’s leaders feared the environment was so poisoned that Anglo-Saxon Protestants would no longer enroll their sons.

Marvin suggested adopting a “character standard,” like the Rhodes scholarship used, to halt “a Jewish inundation.”  So in 1926, Harvard added a personal essay that could be scrutinized to assess the applicant’s fit. 

Given Harvard’s prominence and influence, the essay soon became a fixed feature of the application at other Ivies, and eventually, universally. The Jewish population quickly fell to a more manageable 15% where it stayed until the 1950s.

Around 1975 Harvard decided that Asian kids with great grades and elite test scores were the new problem. Thankfully, application readers — like at many other elite universities — could scrutinize prospective students’ essays for additional evidence. When the plaintiffs in the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard case reviewed 160,000 student files they discovered — who’d have guessed it? — that on traits like “positive personality,” likability, courage, kindness and being “widely respected,” the University’s application readers gave Asian student the lowest scores of any ethnic group.

In last summer’s affirmative action decision, the court ruled unconstitutional the use of racial preferences in college admissions, putting the personal statement back in the news. In its decision, the court pointed admissions officers to a narrow path they could walk in finding evidence of an applicants’ merit from her essay. But the court’s discussion only served to underline, a century later, the essay’s subjective and fundamentally discriminatory purpose.

As any parent of a high school senior can tell you, the admissions essay is a nightmare. With the rare exception of the University of Chicago, which puts its prompts to a student vote, the topics are solipsistic and encourage applicants to stretch their experiences to the limits of credibility. Since everyone knows they’re being scrutinized unfairly, writing the personal statement becomes a metacognitive exercise in guessing what College X wants, while being told to “be yourself.” Brilliant advice for stressed out 17-year-olds emerging from puberty and trying to define themselves, by acting just like their peers.

For some the process involves hiring “counselors” who “advise” the student on how best to tell their story. High schools devote class time to helping students prepare their essays. Time that might be spent discussing actual literature, which test scores suggest just six percent of high school graduates can do really well.

Less advantaged children tell of the pressure to elevate their traumas or oppression to catch the eye of the application reader. Perceval Everett’s 2001 dark satire Erasure — which just netted screenwriter Cord Jefferson an Oscar for best adaptation — cleverly captures the zeitgeist.

Evidence shows that the three data points most predictive of a student’s success in college are their high school GPA, the challenge of their course load, and their standardized test scores. In a misguided effort to increase diversity, many colleges stopped requiring test scores, but seeing the results, are now reversing course.

To the extent that colleges believe a student’s grades in English or history do not confirm his or her writing ability, they could require a graded essay from one of their junior year classes. It would be far more insightful – and less subjective than the recommendations that are the bane of many teachers’ existence. (And yes, Harvard also invented the recommendation letter as another way to ensure their students were “the right sort.”)

As we approach the 100th anniversary of Harvard’s spawning of a racist tool to discriminate, while not appearing to do so, it would be a real sign of contrition were the leadership in Cambridge to announce they are jettisoning this shameful legacy. Apart from atoning for their own original sin, this would make it safe for other schools to follow Harvard’s example. As Harvard Law grad Joseph Welch once said, “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Matthew Levey founded the International Charter School in Brooklyn and writes frequently on education.

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