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View Full Version : Just how hard is it to get into Harvard/MIT?



econphilomath
01-31-2008, 03:39 PM
Sure we all know its pretty hard to get in right. More than one of us applicants sent that application knowing the probability -> 0.

Looking at last years profiles, heres one that might give a sense of what we're up against:



macrodude84 (http://www.urch.com/forums/members/macrodude84.html)

Type of Undergrad: Graduated top 5% of top 10 university
Undergrad GPA: 3.90 overall and major (double major math and economics)
GRE: 800Q, 800V, 6.0 W
Math Courses:
Undergrad Math: Linear Algebra (A+), Differential Equations (A), Differential Geometry (A), Grad level Abstract Algebra (A-), Topology (A-), Grad level Real Analysis I/II (A-/A-), Statistics (A), Partial Differential Equations (A-)
Econ Courses:
Undergrad Econ: Intro Econ (A+), Intro Micro (A), Intermediate Macro (A), Intermediate Micro (A+), Intro Econometrics (A+), International Trade (A), Monetary Economics (A+), Health Economics (A-), Financial Economics (A), Industrial Organization (A), Game Theory (A+), International Macro (A)
Grad Econ: PhD-level micro (A), PhD-level macro (A-), PhD-level econometrics (B+), Mathematical Economics (A+)
Letters of Recommendation: All economics professors, including the chair of the department.
Research Experience: Two years research with public policy professor, plus summer internship with think tank in DC.
Teaching Experience: TA master's-level micro and macro
Research Interests: Macroeconomic theory, search theory, labor economics (theory), some interest in behavioral econ

RESULTS:
Acceptances:
UPenn (funding)

Rejections:
Princeton
Harvard
MIT


Not that UPenn is all bad at all. But this guy had all As, graduate level courses, research experience, from a top research university, TA experience at grad level... and check out the GRE on this guy! Makes you wonder...

Nebuchadrezzar
01-31-2008, 03:58 PM
this profile is definitely very good, but we don't have much information about the letters of recommendation, so they might had an effect.

asianecon
01-31-2008, 04:03 PM
Probably perfect GREs don't count that much. Maybe it's just that there are 40 people better than this guy/gal, e.g. someone with well-known LOR writers, more enthusiastic letters, top 1% of cohort, serious independent research, etc. People say it's random, I'd rather say it's similar to chaos: Admission to these schools is a deterministic but highly nonlinear system and that it's very sensitive to initial conditions (e.g. applicant pool for the year, who's in the ad comm and what research area they find exciting, etc etc etc)

Mr.Keen
01-31-2008, 05:34 PM
LORs: All economics professors. This guy must have annoyed the heck out of the adcoms. Lol.

Cassin
01-31-2008, 05:59 PM
Don't forget the very important aspect of two-sided matching of research interests. If many applicants have equivalently-strong profiles, then it's a good idea to choose by (relative) fit.


Research Interests: Macroeconomic theory, search theory, labor economics (theory), some interest in behavioral econIn my mind, when I think of search theory(+macro theory), I think of Penn. They kept talking about search during their flyout presentations. MIT/Harvard feel more applied theory to me (surely some pure theorists get in, but either relatively fewer or they are the ones who are named W.L. Putnam Fellows four times out of four:).

And it's not useful to strategy pick your field choices for each school. It's not just what you write in your SOP but what kind of research you have done that LOR's will talk about. Besides, doing what you really like at Penn would be better than doing what you are not really interested in at MIT.

econphilomath
01-31-2008, 06:31 PM
Besides, doing what you really like at Penn would be better than doing what you are not really interested in at MIT.

Sure but the point is he didn't get to choose. Ex-post, it was probably a good fit for him, but placements are hard facts, difficult to ignore, and they haven't been all that good at UPenn. (I would love going BTW)

NOTE: I would have posted Cassins profile because he also didn't get in at Boston with an excellent profile, but since he made it at Princeton and everywhere else it wasn't a very good example!

I like asianecon's way of describing the process. The thing is, given the information us applicants have now at applications time, it seems random, expecially at the top of the distribution where its hard to identify past the point of GRE,grades etc. We don't see LORs, we don't know whos on the adcom nor what they find exciting. We don't know the rest of the applicant pool nor their strengths and weaknesses!

All we know is that we have to wait...and visit TM:)

Equilibrium
02-01-2008, 12:19 AM
I like asianecon's post here, and had a similar, although less technical discussion with a friend of mine just the other day. The "randomness", in my opinion, exists much a little less generally across the entire process, as it is does across factors faced by specific schools you're applying to and the specific set of applications a given admissions committee receives in a given year.

I gained some valuable insight from one of the professors who has been instrumental in me deciding to apply for PhD programs. He has some experience either directly on the adcom, or at least a very influential second opinion on the hard decisions because he is the job placement officer at my school(large public research university, top 25-30 PhD program). He describes the situation with admission profiles with respect to GRE scores as basically being an issue of not hurting yourself with the GRE scores.

For example, while 800 Q is preferable, as an applicant, even to a top 10 school, 780 is sufficient. This is in a sense that basically the idea is to get past the auto-rejection pile. After this stage the only use even for the Quant score, and quite simply the only point of the writing and verbal score, is for scores to serve as a slightly downward bias on your standing for the next stage in selections. Said professor is pretty much of the same opinion of GPA. An A-(3.67) or better gets you past the reject pile(this number is quite possibly as low as 3.5/4.0 except for at the most selective top programs), once again, a little lower or higher does a little to bump your status but is not nearly as crucial as you might think so long as you avoid auto-rejection. Obviously grades from specific courses are more important than other, and graduate GPA becomes a whole different story. Assuming away these complications(not so hard to do, ie: if you have a perfect GPA in an M.A., stop caring about admissions so much, you'll probably have options and you should have a good idea that you can hack it in the grad school arena)

At this point, there is probably not as large a dispersion of relative rankings of applicants for any adcom to credibly commit to saying that there is justification to admit anyone based on numbers alone. This is probably true regardless of whether they even went so far as to rank people this early in the game. While they do understand that scores are highly correlated with success in graduate school, they also know that they have been taking great care over the years to match the interests and ambitions of students to the kind of program they have built.(yes i know i'm not saying anything new) In this case, of course test scores are good determinants for success, but conditional upon(or I guess a proxy for) the fact that adcoms also take into account things that can't be made into a variable (ie people also do well by being in a program that their suited for).

A perfect GRE, with great(or perfect) GPA probably gives you leeway to have average LORs, and maybe even damage yourself a little bit on Statement of Purpose since let's face it, even if you're completely honest, you are always just selling yourself as a good fit. So adcoms are probably paying attention, but if you try too hard to be spectacular in this portion of application, you're probably full of it and have gone past the point of keeping it to a formality where everyone can basically appreciate that everyone else is, in most cases, essentially just going through the motions.

Great LORs are an important factor. End of statement on that.

The Randomness occurs because some people do get basically auto admitted because of stellar statistics alone, and after that there ends up being in a particular year at any school a given number of hard decisions about the last several admits. If a school admits say 20 people a year, and their strategy is to always aggressively go after 10 applicants with the perfect scores and appropriately average or better LORs, then in any given year, they fill those easily and offer tons of money. If you had perfect scores but got unknowingly damaged by a LOR or pissed someone off with your SOP, then they may just decide that if some other big time program wants you, they can have you. In this case you're probably lumped with less than perfect scores with great LORs, and at this point, the particular year and circumstance at that school dictates that your chances in this proverbial craps shoot for the last 10 admits, is determined by the number of the leftover applications. At this point it is things like someone really sticking their neck out for you on a LOR that increase your chances. But all other things considered, this is why it seems to be Random, but isn't so random.

Think in this way, that schools get probably a very similar pool of high test scoring applicants, but highly variable set of remaining applicants across schools and years. That some got in at very good schools and not others probably reflects the fact that each school does have some information on who will be perceived to "fit in" better at one top 10 or another, and may simply just not auto admit them, meaning most of their admits are not random at all, maybe just the bottom few with huge emphasis on getting some sweet LORs.

My opinion,
The process, AS A WHOLE, is not so random. Don't worry so darn much so long as you're solid on the GRE. If you have like a 780 but with a 300 verbal(for native speaker) and a 3 on your writing, yeah, you'd better have out of this world everything else, but if you had 800s and didn't get into MIT, they probably thought, and are probably well equipped to know based on LORs from someone they may have actually even heard of, that you don't actually fit into their program as well as you might hope to.

econphilomath
02-01-2008, 01:57 AM
Well welcome to TM. Nice first post!

macroeconomicus
02-01-2008, 02:24 AM
The profile that you posted is consistent with my theory that if you're applying to Harvard/MIT/etc coming straight from undergraduate institution, you will have a fair shot if you're indeed among the top 10 students in a graduating class of >200 people (assuming its a well known research university). I know that from my year's class, the only student who got into Harvard was also THE top student in our class of +200 students. He was the only one to go to Harvard that year (why would they want to admit anyone other than the very top students anyways?). I am not surprised with the outcome above. Penn is probably the "easier" one to get into among the top 10 programs. I have heard of applicant with LoR from "well connected" people getting in there with not so great GPA before.

Olm
02-01-2008, 08:57 AM
I like asianecon's post here, and had a similar, although less technical discussion with a friend of mine just the other day. The "randomness", in my opinion, exists much a little less generally across the entire process, as it is does across factors faced by specific schools you're applying to and the specific set of applications a given admissions committee receives in a given year.

I gained some valuable insight from one of the professors who has been instrumental in me deciding to apply for PhD programs. He has some experience either directly on the adcom, or at least a very influential second opinion on the hard decisions because he is the job placement officer at my school(large public research university, top 25-30 PhD program). He describes the situation with admission profiles with respect to GRE scores as basically being an issue of not hurting yourself with the GRE scores.

For example, while 800 Q is preferable, as an applicant, even to a top 10 school, 780 is sufficient. This is in a sense that basically the idea is to get past the auto-rejection pile. After this stage the only use even for the Quant score, and quite simply the only point of the writing and verbal score, is for scores to serve as a slightly downward bias on your standing for the next stage in selections. Said professor is pretty much of the same opinion of GPA. An A-(3.67) or better gets you past the reject pile(this number is quite possibly as low as 3.5/4.0 except for at the most selective top programs), once again, a little lower or higher does a little to bump your status but is not nearly as crucial as you might think so long as you avoid auto-rejection. Obviously grades from specific courses are more important than other, and graduate GPA becomes a whole different story. Assuming away these complications(not so hard to do, ie: if you have a perfect GPA in an M.A., stop caring about admissions so much, you'll probably have options and you should have a good idea that you can hack it in the grad school arena)

At this point, there is probably not as large a dispersion of relative rankings of applicants for any adcom to credibly commit to saying that there is justification to admit anyone based on numbers alone. This is probably true regardless of whether they even went so far as to rank people this early in the game. While they do understand that scores are highly correlated with success in graduate school, they also know that they have been taking great care over the years to match the interests and ambitions of students to the kind of program they have built.(yes i know i'm not saying anything new) In this case, of course test scores are good determinants for success, but conditional upon(or I guess a proxy for) the fact that adcoms also take into account things that can't be made into a variable (ie people also do well by being in a program that their suited for).

A perfect GRE, with great(or perfect) GPA probably gives you leeway to have average LORs, and maybe even damage yourself a little bit on Statement of Purpose since let's face it, even if you're completely honest, you are always just selling yourself as a good fit. So adcoms are probably paying attention, but if you try too hard to be spectacular in this portion of application, you're probably full of it and have gone past the point of keeping it to a formality where everyone can basically appreciate that everyone else is, in most cases, essentially just going through the motions.

Great LORs are an important factor. End of statement on that.

The Randomness occurs because some people do get basically auto admitted because of stellar statistics alone, and after that there ends up being in a particular year at any school a given number of hard decisions about the last several admits. If a school admits say 20 people a year, and their strategy is to always aggressively go after 10 applicants with the perfect scores and appropriately average or better LORs, then in any given year, they fill those easily and offer tons of money. If you had perfect scores but got unknowingly damaged by a LOR or pissed someone off with your SOP, then they may just decide that if some other big time program wants you, they can have you. In this case you're probably lumped with less than perfect scores with great LORs, and at this point, the particular year and circumstance at that school dictates that your chances in this proverbial craps shoot for the last 10 admits, is determined by the number of the leftover applications. At this point it is things like someone really sticking their neck out for you on a LOR that increase your chances. But all other things considered, this is why it seems to be Random, but isn't so random.

Think in this way, that schools get probably a very similar pool of high test scoring applicants, but highly variable set of remaining applicants across schools and years. That some got in at very good schools and not others probably reflects the fact that each school does have some information on who will be perceived to "fit in" better at one top 10 or another, and may simply just not auto admit them, meaning most of their admits are not random at all, maybe just the bottom few with huge emphasis on getting some sweet LORs.

My opinion,
The process, AS A WHOLE, is not so random. Don't worry so darn much so long as you're solid on the GRE. If you have like a 780 but with a 300 verbal(for native speaker) and a 3 on your writing, yeah, you'd better have out of this world everything else, but if you had 800s and didn't get into MIT, they probably thought, and are probably well equipped to know based on LORs from someone they may have actually even heard of, that you don't actually fit into their program as well as you might hope to.

Brilliant post. :tup:

andyecon
02-02-2008, 07:39 AM
way off topic