Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Enigma of Harvard Admissions

Upright Opinion
The Enigma of Harvard Admissions
By Saeed Qureshi
Editor Diplomatic Times

It is the lifetime wish of every high caliber, intellectually and academically outstanding student to be admitted in the universally celebrated learning institution known as the Harvard University. During the admissions season, there is always a beeline of the desirous applicants to enter this most illustrious educational center.
Even if one remains intellectually and academically on a low level afterwards, the very suffix of Harvard tagged with the name of a passed-out graduate carries an envy and esteem that is most gratifying for the bearer of this singular honor. The world Harvard carries an aura and prestige and a dignified feeling of magnificence for the graduates that is to be invaluable in terms of worldly honor and fame.
Yet admission into this unique and inimitable house of knowledge is simply asking or reaching for the moon. This metaphor was merely used to exemplify the tediousness and uphill undertaking of being accepted as a student in this outstanding institution. Harvard is like an ocean of knowledge and only a few hundred buckets are allowed to be taken out of this every year.
Frankly, the legacy and tradition of this glorious institution appears to be to dishearten countless and exhilarate a few. The profusion of despondency, frustration, and even rage that sprouts out of the refusals is more devastating than a bombshell. It turns to be a lingering paranoid and prolonged acute sense of deprivation that haunts and boggles the minds of the dropped applicants for quite some time, if not for ever.
I am not privy to or aware of the intricacies of the admissions system that is followed to pick a few candidates and reject the rest. Yet I have a meager knowledge of how some times the watertight straitjackets of admission procedures are set aside to accommodate those who can offer hefty donations for the institution.
I do not claim the veracity of such information, yet I have no mechanism at my disposal to debunk this loud thinking either. This, in no way, should be construed as an attempt to caste an aspersion on the fair and transparent system followed in finalizing the lists of the successful applicants. The task is certainly daunting, excessively arduous and even overly sensitive and delicate.
For instance, this year, in the faculty of Public Administration and International Development, around 700 applications were received and merely 70-80 applicants were chosen. I may plead that every student, in his own right, must be a brilliant scholar and must have fulfilled the pre-requisite qualifications for admissions. However, those 600 or so unsuccessful applicants must be quite impatient to find out what was wrong with their applications, which like others, must have been supported by all the necessary referrals and attachments. The job of the selectors must be extensively hard to skim the cream out of milk already brimming with abundant scholasticism, intellect, intelligence, and talent.
The perfunctory information that I was provided about the preliminary process is to divide applications to the faculty professors each with a set of 20 applications. Their preliminary selection, after thorough sifting and pre-screening, is forwarded to the Dean of Admissions. Thereafter, it is the Dean whose job is to compile the final lists and notify the results to both the successful and unsuccessful candidates.
A case in point is that of my daughter who applied three times and each time she had to cut a sorry figure for not being taken in. She seems to be perpetually undergoing the acute pangs of despondency, utter awe, and utmost feelings of loss and deprivation. Each year she improved her application in consultation with the Harvard’s Director in the admission office, solicit her valuable advice how to apply, what to attach and what inputs to furnish. In order to fill in the gap of undertaking a humanitarian work in the field, she travelled all the way to Philippines to work with an NGO in the remote slum areas of that country.
With a humanitarian outlook, during her college education and afterwards, she had been robustly instrumental, in working towards uplifting the environment and improving the pitiable lives of the slum dwellers in Pakistan. Although, such an experience or background was optional, yet she did not want to leave any loopholes with a view to avoiding the remotest chance of rejection. I would not figure out as to why she remained unqualified for the successive third year.
Now human beings are prone to making mistakes and suffer from faulty judgments. A benign examiner or professor may take a lenient view of the application even if; it would be lacking some essential ingredients. A harsh one may reject all or take only those that correspond to his peculiar mindset. Otherwise, all applications are flawlessly prepared by the candidates. My point is that the selection of the candidates with absolute accuracy and objectivity is always relative.
I must deeply admire and sincerely eulogize the worthy President of the Harvard University, Madam Drew Gilpin Faust for her very touching, gracious and kind response to our letter. She shared our pain, frustration and trauma with very consoling words. I had made a plea in my letter to consider my daughter to fill in the seat of a candidate who may not show up to join the institution.
Also very affectionately, she forwarded my letter to the Dean of Admissions of that particular faculty. I also wrote a separate letter to the Dean making the same request. I kept calling the worthy Dean for days together to know about the fate of our request in either affirmative or otherwise that we would have commendably and thankfully accepted any way.
Every time a subordinate told us, Dean is not in the office. Well if someone like a highly placed official as Dean is, may not like to talk to someone over the phone, one could still have the option to respond to our letter either verbally or in writing as was done by the esteemed President.
That non-response remains like a slab on our chest. It makes me wonder if Deans of such distinguished institutions could be too fastidious or bureaucratic as to remain non-responsive even if the request may look frivolous. A return call would constitute a customary courtesy that is expected of the exalted persons in pinnacle positions.
As mentioned above, the admissions in institutions of academic excellence such as Oxford, Cambridge, Berkeley, and Harvard have always been the most sought after goals of both talented and mediocre among the students. However, what criterions are adopted to sift the best from the others is not divulged to the unsuccessful candidates. In a glaring example where ancestral or social background supersedes and overtakes the talent and merit is reflective in the direct selection of the young son of one of the former prime ministers of Pakistan, in Oxford. Good connections make lot of difference.
His mother, the illustrious prime minister when she was a student, was also admitted in Oxford because her father was the prime minister also. A prestigious position, effective links, and hefty donations do make one qualify to realize the most coveted dream of a student. As such, the privileged classes stand to benefit on the strength of their wealth and status. This practice might be undercutting the efforts to choose the most deserving by virtue of their brilliant standing in academics and necessary fieldwork.
I would dare suggest that the system of admissions in such high profile and most competitive educational universities and colleges be made more transparent and open. Besides, the number of admissions should be progressively increased with the march of time. Finally, returning applicants should be accorded preference over the first- time applicants.
(The writer is a Dallas-based freelance journalist and a former diplomat writing mostly on International Affairs with specific focus on Pakistan and the United States)

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