Last year, Stephanie Kan ’14 had to make the hardest decision that thousands of high schoolers would love to make: Harvard or Yale?
For some time, Kan, who hails from Philadelphia, said she was tempted by Harvard’s name and reputation as the most selective college in the nation. But eventually she decided that what mattered most to her was a sense of community and belonging. That’s why Kan chose Yale — unlike a majority of Harvard-Yale cross-admits, about 65 percent by some estimates.
“Sometimes I still wonder if I might be missing out on something in turning down Harvard,” Kan admitted. “They are both amazing schools.”
Interviews with 31 students accepted to both Yale and Harvard revealed that those who chose Yale mostly relied on a gut instinct or a sense that Yale paired strong academics with a more laid-back atmosphere. Those who opted for Cambridge said they were attracted to the college that they perceived had a more rigorous academic environment and greater professional opportunities. With both schools offering similar financial aid packages, money was not a tipping factor for those interviewed, and only three students mentioned location as a key consideration. (All three chose Harvard.)
Most cross-admitted students said the choice between Harvard and Yale was a difficult one. All said they consulted family, peers and their college guidance counselor before making their choice. Some said they crafted extensive spreadsheets ranking each college according to criteria that ranged from academic opportunities to dining hall menus. A few said they “freaked out” after the May 1 matriculation deadline sealed their fate for the next four years.
Admissions officers said they try to provide personalized attention to each of their admits but ultimately, the decision falls to the student — and many said that, particularly for schools that, by all accounts, are quite similar, the choice came down to a mere “gut feeling” about where they would feel more comfortable living for the next four years. And there’s very little an admissions office can do to change that.
THE HARD NUMBERS
In a 2004 paper titled “A Revealed Preference Ranking of U.S. Colleges and Rankings,” Harvard economists collected matriculation data from 3,240 high-achieving high school seniors across the country who entered college in 2000 and ranked colleges according to how they performed relative to other colleges which accepted the same students. The results of the study revealed that of those admitted to both Harvard and Yale, about 65 percent chose Harvard.
Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel declined to release Yale’s own cross-admit figures, but he said Yale’s data is fairly consistent with the data from the 2004 report.
Harvard does not keep track of where its cross-admitted students choose to matriculate, said Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of admissions at Harvard College, but anecdotal evidence suggests that Harvard’s greatest overlap in admits is with Yale.
“When it comes to which college these students choose, we tend to do well against Yale,” McGrath Lewis said, “But Yale also does well against us.”
While Brenzel confirmed that more cross-admits choose Harvard, he noted that of all the students who turn down Harvard, more choose Yale than any other rival school.
“I would conclude that Harvard does in fact have a very strong brand,” Brenzel said in an e-mail, “but that for those looking past the branding strength, Yale has enormous appeal.”
Brenzel added that he expects that appeal to grow.
Still, some college counselors said the preferences of cross-admitted students provide only a partial understanding of where high school seniors prefer to go to college. Some students are so sure of their preference, they do not even apply to the other school, said Chris Bleeker, chair of college counseling office at Hunter College High School in New York City.
The two students admitted to both Harvard and Yale this year from Hunter both chose Harvard, Bleeker said, although seven students also matriculated at Yale, and a majority of them did not apply to Harvard after getting in early to Yale.
THE COLLEGE ‘COURTSHIP’
McGrath Lewis described the months leading to the annual May 1 matriculation deadline as a “courtship” — a time when the university rallies its administrators, students, faculty and alumni together in a concerted effort to woo prospective students.
McGrath Lewis said that Harvard, Yale and other well-known colleges around the nation all employ very similar strategies when it comes to attracting prospective freshmen. Students at both schools receive the proverbial big envelopes urging them to attend visiting weekends in April. Both Harvard and Yale also make extensive use of interactive websites for admitted students to allow them to explore the schools’ opportunities before they even set foot on campus. Admits who are particularly desired may receive personal calls and notes from administrators and faculty while those with special interests and those who belong to particular minority groups may be contacted by relevant college departments and organizations. Cultural houses, for instance, might reach out to students from minority backgrounds.
The schools emphasize different means used to convey their message — with Yale depending heavily on its students to convey a first-hand account of the opportunities on campus, said Jeff Brenzel, dean of undergraduate admissions.
“The unabashed enthusiasm with which Yalies talk about their experiences and the accessibility of professors are two qualities that distinguish Yale among major research universities,” said Liz Kinsley, director of outreach and recruitment for Yale’s admissions office.
Harvard, McGrath Lewis said, does not try to showcase any specific strength. Rather, the goal of the admissions office is to demonstrate to students how their individual interests and goals can be explored at Harvard, she explained.
“We tell students to choose the school they want to go to,” McGrath Lewis said. “We try to be as helpful as possible without creating unrealistic expectations.”
Still, Yale’s emphasis on its “enviable sense of community” does not mean that Yale places any less emphasis on its other resources than Harvard.“It is just that we count on the students themselves to convey their actual, lived experience of those resources, whether on the admitted student website, in the Bulldog Days events, in their phone calls and e-mails,” Brenzel said.
Both Yale and Harvard also encourage prospective freshmen and their families to contact its financial aid office if they have concerns about their financial aid package. Both universities will even match each other’s financial aid package and pay for the cost of travel to respective visiting days, cross-admits said.
YALE: A GUT DECISION
In spite of the efforts of both admissions offices to impress her this spring, Kan said her impression of Harvard and her eventual decision to attend Yale developed much earlier.
During the summer before senior year, Kan took summer classes at Harvard through a scholarship funded by the QuestBridge Program, which assists low-income students in applying to college. While Kan would later apply, she said her experience there convinced that it was too stressful an environment.
“During my seven weeks there, I rarely got the chance to go into Boston,” Kan said.
She added that when she spoke to students who visited Harvard during its admitted students days this year (Kan did not attend Harvard’s visiting weekend), she found that many students spent their free time studying and some had taken time off to get away from the academic stress. The source of pressure on students at Harvard, Kan reasoned, could not be simply academic.
“Harvard and Yale have very similar academic programs so there must be some discrepancy in the social environment and the level of undergraduate focus,” she said.
Before her college visits, Kan said her guidance counselor advised her to look out for two things: the number of students wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with their college name and how long it would take for someone to approach her if she seemed lost.
“Yale was the only school where someone approached me — and I wasn’t even lost,” she said.
Likewise, Christopher Logan ’14, of San Bernardino, Calif., said his decision came down to a question of opportunity and college environment. While he said Harvard and Yale were comparable in the opportunities each offered, their environments could not be more different. At Harvard, he said, students seemed more concerned with potential future rewards of the Harvard name rather than their immediate happiness. Yale, on the other hand, seemed to Logan as a place where “everyone was happy to be.” Yale, he reasoned, offered a similar reputation to Harvard without the tension and constant status anxiety.
Raquel Zepeda ’14, said she was unnerved by Harvard’s atmosphere.
“Harvard was welcoming, but there definitely was a ‘vibe’ in the air that made me nervous,” said the Piedmont Cali. native, “At Yale, everyone I encountered took time to introduce themselves, offered to carry my luggage, gave me support, and showed me around campus.”
Meanwhile, Liliana Varman ’14 of Houston, who was also accepted to Harvard and is hoping to study neurobiology, said she found Yale to be “a happy medium” between science and humanities and added that she liked that the University’s growing strength in the sciences is complemented by a strong English program.
HARVARD: BETTER KNOWN, BETTER LOCATION
Ben Marek of Houston, too, had a gut feeling after visiting schools last spring, but his told him to choose Harvard.
“I simply felt more comfortable here,” Marek said, writing from Cambridge. “From the moment I stepped on campus, I felt at home, and I knew that I could live here happily.”
Marek also disagreed with Yale students’ characterization that Cantabs have less fun. Just a few weeks into his freshman year, he said his social calendar is already full, and that parties “abound.”
Harvard’s location and academics also helped win over Marek. The Texan said that while New Haven was much nicer than he had expected, it simply could not compare to Boston’s activities and culture, as well as its trove of other colleges.
For Talhah Zubair of Atlantic City, N.J., admitted to both schools, the Harvard name proved too difficult to resist. As the only student accepted to Harvard from his high school, he said he felt a strong push from both his friends and parents alike to attend.
“My parents and friends were all leaning toward Harvard, convinced by its reputation,” Zubair explained, “If you say the Harvard name, it will open doors for you, not just in the U.S. but internationally as well.”
Zubair added that many other students he met who were deciding between Yale and Harvard saw reputation as major tipping factor.
Dany Jradi, who was also admitted to Yale this year, said he also chose Harvard based on its international reputation and the future opportunities and connections the Harvard name would bring. Originally from Lebanon, Jradi said that most people in his home country have only heard of either Harvard or Oxford.
“Considering the fact that I would like to go back to the Middle East for work in the future, what the community’s opinion of where I graduated was important for me,” Jradi said.
The question of future opportunities was also a top priority for Irene Chen, who said she did not develop a “gut feeling” for either Harvard or Yale after visiting both colleges from Atlanta and ultimately resorted to pinning down the pros and cons of each college on an extensive spreadsheet. Chen looked especially at the academic strengths and opportunities offered at both schools. Together with her parents, Chen, a prospective science and humanities double major, said she thoroughly analyzed the strengths of relevant departments at Harvard and Yale, looking at the research and teaching experience of departments’ professors.
Unlike Varman, Chen said she concluded that Harvard had a much stronger science program, and the opportunity to take classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology proved too irresistible.
Chen said she decided not to place as much emphasis on quality of life at college simply because it seemed too difficult to make predictions about how things would turn out over four years after having spent barely three days on campus.
For others, such as Chris Stock and Alyssa Reimer, both Harvard freshmen who were admitted to Yale, the decision to choose Harvard was more straightforward: Stock said he was recruited for Nordic skiing and could not pass on the opportunity, while Reimer, from Plainview, New York, said she simply preferred the convenience of living close to Boston.
While all the students interviewed said they are very happy with their choice two weeks into the freshmen semester, most said the decision was not easy and some said they had last-minute doubts about their decision.
Kan said it took some time to convince her mother that Yale would offer the same opportunities and connections as Harvard. Even today, when family friends at her local church ask where Kan is headed to college, her mother will mention that she was accepted to Harvard but chose to attend Yale instead to which there would be gasps of “why Yale and not Harvard?” Kan said.
While Chen said she is now thrilled to be at Harvard, she experienced doubts about her choice almost immediately after committing.
“I submitted my decision on April 28 but afterwards, I freaked out when part of me began to question whether I made the right decision,” Chen said.
Others said they realized that regardless of which college they chose, no decision could be perfect.
For Stock, choosing Harvard meant passing on his preference for Yale’s intellectual environment while Zepeda said choosing Yale prompted her to give up a dream she has held since childhood.
“I dreamed of being a Harvard student ever since I was six years old,” she said. “But Yale seemed like it belonged to me.”
Correction: Sept. 21, 2010
The article “Making the Choice” contained several errors. First, Stephanie Kan ’14 studied at Harvard during the summer before her junior year, not her senior year. Kan did, in fact, travel to Boston during that summer. Finally, Kan’s impression of the academic stress at Harvard was based on anecdotes from students who attended Harvard’s Visitas program, not her own experiences.