Bill Fitzsimmons is the long-time Dean of Admissions at Harvard, and truly an important“dean” among university admissions officers.   I spent a few hours with him last week, listening to him present on a panel at NPEA, the National Partnership for Educational Access,  and then discussing admissions with him during a small group Think Tank conversation about the issues entailed in admissions assessment.

(Not e that quotes are roughly paraphrased from my notes on our conversation, and are not verbatim).

Fitzsimmons clearly loves his work.   He told us he is himself a first-generation college-goer, and reflects on that regularly in his work.    On April 10, a date you’d think would be a bit hectic for an Ivy league admissions dean, he spent two hours with our Think Tank, from 830pm to nearly 1030pm!

In the opening NPEA panel, to which he contributed greatly, much of his message was the importance he placed, and the progress Harvard (and other Ivies) are making, on widening access to under-represented populations, particularly now the lowest family income groups.

He told us of taking the Harvard undergrad population in the past six years or so from 11% to 17% Pell Grant eligible.  We’ve come a long way from asking ourselves whether “we were truly going to be  players in the educating of future leaders or boutiques for the wealthy and advantages.” “Private higher ed is back in the game.”   For 90% of Americans now, in contrast to ten years ago, it will cost less per year to send kids to Harvard (and other elite privates) than to their in-state flagship public institution.”

Still on the panel, he emphasized: “We need to look at all the human qualities of all our applicants, in all their complexity.”

In our smaller Think Tank conversation, he reminded us issues around expanding admissions criteria are neither new nor narrowly restricted: in the seventies Dean Willingham (?) of Williams College argued for the importance of selecting applicants for “persistent followthrough” which presages today’s focus on “grit,” and even today in China, land of the GaoKao, they are creating ways to accommodate rural applicants with lower test scores but greater perceived character traits than their urban peers.

Fitzsimmons told us that in round numbers at Harvard, which is as most know extraordinarily selective (2200 admitted out of 35,000—note that these 35,000 are those high school seniors self-selecting themselves to apply to Harvard), roughly 75% are admitted exclusively or especially for cognitive qualities, and 25% are admitted for the “bump” their applications get by demonstrated compelling non-cog attributes.    To compare these two groups finds no difference, he told us , in their success rate as undergrads: both have extremely high graduation rates, both at about 98%.

He said that among the things most important for their process is the teacher and counselor recommendations—particular when a student is rated as “one of the best in the past ten years.”

He also was emphatic about the importance of welcoming any and all student work which applicants wish to share: “we’ve been big on the portfolio piece for a long time.”

 Admissions decisions at Harvard are not easy to make, but the long-time Dean told us they try to stay focused on two or three key questions for every applicant:

What kind of difference will this student make at Harvard, and how will he/she contribute to the learning of his/her peers in the College?

What will this student do as a graduate of Harvard; what kind of impact will she or he potentially have in the world over the next 75 [!] years?  

“You try to get kids who will create new knowledge and be at the frontiers of their field.”

Speaking of the importance of grit, which Paul Tough and Angela Duckworth have elevated to prominence in the last year, Fitzsimmons said that of course it is important and of course they try to evaluate it in applicants.    But, he said, remember where it can often be most easily and valuably observed: in whether applicants have put in their “10,000” hours, (not literally, but Gladwell/Outliers figuratively) in some particular pursuit—in music, in athletics, in art or other activity.  (For me as a high school student, it was in political activism and internships).

“We want people with Energy, Drive, and Commitment: we use these three words a lot in our discussions.”

Essential though to understand when evaluating applicants’ energy, drive, commitments is that not all kids have the same playing field.  He was passionate with us about the importance of recognizing, remembering, and honoring that some kids have to work, work hard, work 20-40 hours weekly to support their family (“especially children of undocumented parents” he reminded us) and others have to do the same hard work, but inside their homes, supporting and even effectively parenting younger siblings.  This has to be part of the analytical equation for disadvantaged/under-represented applicants he emphasized with passion.

Fitzsimmons tacked over to a discussion of the new College Board President David Coleman, who came from his previous work as chief “architect” of the Common Core standards, and applauded his direction, encouraging the idea that the SAT will become more about measuring academic achievement in disciplines, not as much about aptitude.     He told us he views the ACT and SAT as just about the same, with very little significant difference, and that they have found, over the 20+ years he has managed admissions at Harvard, that subject specific tests– SAT II, AP, IB tests— are much more predictive of academic success than the SAT.   “It is a no-brainer: make these tests more about academic subjects students study, and it becomes revealing of meaningful hard work, not smarts, and motivates kids to do the right kind of learning, subject material, not test prep.”

“You don’t want to take not-nice people: we almost never take a ‘nasty’ kid.”

Personal qualities and character traits, he told us, are “BIG” in their process.

Learning for its own sake, intrinsic motivation, is a key to what they look for in applicants.  Among the things they rate on their 1-6 scale, reviewing essays, applications, recommendations, and interview reports,  are

  • love of learning,
  • intellectual curiosity,
  • open-ness to new ideas and people,
  • and intellectual originality.

Our think tank was struck by this last especially, and we discussed how those kids who are overly coached, or overly test-prepped, or overly pushed onto the notorious “road to nowhere” are perhaps especially unable to demonstrate “intellectual originality.”

Our conversation turned to one of the central topics of our Think Tank—if you were to choose just one non-cog attribute, what would you choose?

Fitzsimmons didn’t want to choose one—and pointed out the central problem of isolating and focusing on a particular trait as particularly important.  The problem?  “All good things are related (inter-twined, connected) to all good things.”   You can’t isolate them, and they overlap so much of the time.

“It would be great though to identify clearly key traits, traits you really think are great for kids to develop,  and the observable correlated actions, and then declare how important they will be to the admissions process.   By deciding what’s most important in addition to the cognitive (IQ/intelligence, standardized testing), and promulgating that we are selecting for them in assessment, we will have a really positive impact on these traits becoming widely taught, reinforced and learned, even if, as we do, we find a diminishing of our ability to discriminate among applicants with these traits.   That will be a tradeoff worth having.”