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As trial loomed, Harvard changed guidance for admissions officers

A gate at Harvard University in Cambridge. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Harvard University quietly changed significant portions of its training manual for admissions officers this year, addressing some of the key issues at the heart of an ongoing federal trial over whether the school discriminates against Asian-American applicants.

Harvard’s updated guidelines for seemingly the first time explicitly tell admissions officials evaluating the crop of students for the class of 2023 in what instances they should consider an applicant’s race. And they provide far more detailed information on how to measure personal qualities such as courage, leadership, and resiliency. Harvard’s use of these attributes in the admissions process is at the center of the complaint by the Students for Fair Admissions.


Harvard issued the new manuals about a week and half before the trial began in mid-October as it prepared its staff for the upcoming admissions cycle.

Harvard declined to comment on whether the revisions to the guidelines, which were filed with the court, were in response to the Students for Fair Admissions lawsuit and federal trial.

But university officials said the policies themselves haven’t changed, just their instructions to staff who read applications. They said these instructions are constantly updated.

“Harvard College’s admissions policies remain the same; the reading procedures are reissued annually and [the] 2023 procedures are this year’s version,” said Anna Cowenhoven, a spokeswoman for Harvard in a statement.

Students for Fair Admissions, the group representing Asian-American students, which sued Harvard for discrimination, declined to comment.

Harvard officials have said at the trial that they consider far more than grades and test scores when evaluating applicants — more than 200 separate factors, by the university’s count. Among the most controversial have been the personal characteristics, which are gleaned from the student’s essays, teacher recommendations, and alumni and staff interviews, and are often subjective.

Harvard’s new manual now includes a lengthy section describing which personal characteristics warrant top scores. It also specifically reminds the university’s gatekeepers that the best candidates aren’t just the outgoing ones, “characteristics not always synonymous with extroversion are similarly valued,” the new procedures advise.


Harvard tells its application readers that students “who seem to be particularly reflective, insightful, and/or dedicated should receive higher personal ratings as well.”

Students who receive high marks for personal qualities are those who “display enormous courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles in life . . . a singular ability to lead or inspire those around them . . . extraordinary concern or compassion for others . . . unqualified and unwavering support from their recommenders,” the guidelines read.

Students for Fair Admissions, which sued Harvard in a case that could eventually reach the Supreme Court and upend decades of affirmative action in higher education, has alleged that Harvard’s personal ratings disadvantage Asian-American applicants. The organization argues that Asian-Americans receive lower scores on their personal traits and are often denied admission because of it.

According to an analysis by Students for Fair Admissions, only 22 percent of Asian-American applicants in the top one-tenth of the academic ladder received high personal ratings, compared to about 30 percent of white applicants.

An even greater share of Hispanic and African-American applicants were likely to get the top personal scores, according to Students for Fair Admissions.

Harvard has denied that it discriminates against Asian-American students and has argued that the analysis done for Students for Fair Admissions is flawed and cherry-picks data.


The guidelines used by Harvard as recently as 2015 to instruct readers on personal characteristics contained 16 words. The new personal rating section contains nearly 400 words.

Students for Fair Admissions has also repeatedly questioned Harvard administrators about how the university can guard against bias when it doesn’t provide much written guidance about how officials are to consider race in admissions.

“You could not remember anybody teaching you how to use race in admissions, is that correct?” Adam Mortara, an attorney for Students for Fair Admissions, asked a Harvard admissions official last week about his pretrial deposition.

The admissions officer agreed.

The updated manual offers more direction.

“An applicant’s race or ethnicity should not be considered in assigning the personal rating,” reads this year’s version of the manual submitted into evidence in US District Court in Boston. It goes on to advise admissions officials to consider race only when assessing a student’s overall rating.

“The consideration of race or ethnicity may be considered only as one factor among many,” the guidelines read.

Harvard’s limited training and instructions to its admissions application readers on the use of race has surprised some admissions experts.

“Harvard has to know it’s going to be sued at some point,” said Jon Boeckenstedt, the associate vice president of enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University. “To say their admissions staff aren’t given explicit instructions . . . it’s interesting.”

Harvard may have purposefully kept its instructions vague to avoid potential problems encountered by some universities that assigned specific points to applicants based on their race, Boeckenstedt said.


Still, even in the latest version of its instructions, Harvard only mentions the word “race” five times in a 20-page document.

The 2015 version of reading procedures makes no mention of race and refers to ethnicity four times, primarily in connection to the codes Harvard uses to identify different races. Harvard’s historical ethnic codes, for example include, “P” for Puerto Ricans and “A” for Asian-American.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.