Want to join the world of the elites? Historically, there’s no better ticket to this kind of life than an Ivy League education, particularly Harvard at the very top. Though, if you think about it, their incentives aren’t to enrich the country or to educate talented kids. No, they want to preserve their power, influence, and wealth. They’re a fantastically profitable business disguised as a nonprofit. The way they make money is not really through tuition, but rather the donations that are expected to come from alumni who make it big. This incentive does align somewhat with students’ needs. Harvard will generally try to give you a quality education from the best faculty money can buy, and they will tape their alumni network to get you a great job afterwards whether in terms of money or influence. Then they’ll hound and shame you into giving back.
You can see why they naturally would not want to build their class through meritocracy. Rather, they want legacy (rich kids), athletes, and socially suave (politicians) who have at least an above average mind. They’ve identified this demographic as striking the best balance between satisfying existing donors and slowly broadening the base of donors for the future. You can’t bring in too many “freshies” without family ties, because that will mean displacing a worthy legacy entrant.
This is where earnest middle class kids make a mistake. They grow up thinking that academic accomplishment is all they need. No, the reality is that you need to be well rounded. Just look at this comment dredged from WSJ’s comments section:
My wife used to interview applicants for her alma mater (a very prestigious school in northern CA). By the fourth applicant, she wanted to stab herself in the ears with her pencil. All the kids had the same story- they were indistinguishable from each other. All A’s and great test scores; played a sport; played an instrument; extracurriculars like model UN, robotics club, theater; fancy-sounding summer internship; volunteered for something; wanted to major in engineering, pre-med, pre-law, biosciences, etc. They were all passionate about being careerist, but nothing else. Every once and awhile, she’d come across a kid who was really passionate about something- the kid who made Bollywood musical movies, or the one who wanted to major in Classics, or the one who wanted to be an astrophysicist, or the one who organized flash volunteer mobs and pop-up stores. But, sadly, those were the rare exception.
There’s you have it. From the horse’s mouth, we have the secrets to getting into a prestigious university. If you’re competing in CS, economics, or physics, you had better be top notch. Like top soccer players around the world, you must have started at an early age and been basically groomed for that position your whole life. Basically, to be angular, you need to be so angular as to leap ahead of 99.99% of your peer competition from all over the world. This means International Olympiad level in the math/sciences.
Or you can do reasonably well enough in the academic and invest time in playing a weird sport really well (try rugby, lacrosse, water polo, curling, and field hockey). Then after high school, go live in a commune in Latin America teaching surfing, creating avant garde post-feminist art, and doing eco-sustainable architecture design with recycled garbage all at the same time. Use this opportunity to write a book on your experiences and discovering oneself through medication and purposeful living. Do something crazy and off the wall like that and you’ll stand out to the admission panel.
You can always switch to premed once you’re through the gates.