Harvard/Yale cross-admits explain their decisions

Photo by Carmen Lu.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


  • aluminterviewer

    So the 65-35 split reported in the NY Times in 2004 is “fairly consistent” with current numbers according to Brenzel? So it could be a little bit closer … or a little bit less close? I guess that’s the best we’re going to hope for. The small sample of anecdotal evidence – leaning primarily on stereotypes – is less helpful. It would have been nice if you could have weaseled an estimated SIZE of the overlap pool, but apparently Brenzel was unwilling to disclose that number.

    Carmen: do you suppose you could press for another piece of (apparently) closely-held information? How many people were admitted to the Class of 2014, including from the waitlist, how many admits deferred a year, and how many actually matriculated?

  • Anonymous Bosh

    Interesting, timely article. Funny how some measures never change (local logos–Yalies are, indeed, more likely to sport their alma mater’s than another; helpfulness–although Cantabs become inured due to much higher rates of tourism). The article seems spot on w/regard to “feel.” The most troubling sentence (for me)? “[Kan] found that many [Harvard] students spent their free time studying.” Yikes! Heaven forfend! Also: The recent shootings sure ain’t doin’ Yale any favors… New Haven’s stigma (generally unfounded, but painful in its particulars) remains quite the albatross [see comments below re: New Haven before jumping on my back on this topic].

    Another, subtler note: while both H & Y offer fabulous New York alumni clubhouses, Yale ignores Boston (whereas Harvard maintains TWO facilities in Beantown!). Yes, Yale wins on undergrad focus–and is improving alumni relations–but Harvard maintains the edge in alumni networking.

    I look forward to Yale’s future as a research juggernaut in the sciences (Go West Campus!)–and all the patent royalties that should follow–and I also look forward to Swenson’s closing of the endowment gap. Lastly, I applaud Yale’s work in New Haven–truly amazing stuff. New Haven has always had the potential to be a great city (well, actually, it *was* a great city until ~1955 or so). While I do not always agree with Levin, I cannot deny that his work to preserve the Yale campus, to bolster Yale/NH ties, and to gentrify (in a good way) the surrounding areas will help Yale fare well far into the future.

    Lastly: I agree with the gist of the article, that both H & Y are amazing schools and that students, regardless of school (H, Y, or any other), generally make a good and beneficial choice.

  • weee

    haha cue the onslaught of collegeconfidential posts

  • Yale12

    I don’t mind that 65% of students are choosing Harvard over Yale. Most of them seem to be doing it because they perceive Harvard as being slightly more prestigious than Yale, and honestly, if that’s what’s important to them, I don’t think we want them here.

    I picked Yale over Harvard three years ago and haven’t regretted it for a second. I don’t doubt that Harvard is a better university; but for an undergraduate, I think Yale is the place to be, especially if you’re looking at the quality of the atmosphere as well as the quality of your education.

  • aluminterviewer

    From what I understand, the cross-admit pool may approach or exceed 400 currently, even with Yale’s reliance on the Single Choice Early Action program to fill a large fraction of the class.

  • FailBoat

    > Most of them seem to be doing it because they perceive Harvard as being slightly more prestigious than Yale, and honestly, if that’s what’s important to them, I don’t think we want them here.

    Ah, the old “if you don’t choose us, then we don’t want you” thought pattern. It is comforting.

  • yalieforever1

    That “Talhah” kid sounds like such a smart guy.

    he basically said ‘I have no brain, I just want people to pat me on the back, not because of the name I make for myself, but because of the school I’m gonna go to for a few years.’
    Seems like a real thinker.

  • FailBoat

    Or else Talhah Zubair simply felt that the advantage of going to Harvard was that, ceteris paribus (and it mostly is – let’s be honest), the Harvard name is worth more than the Yale name.

    What is the old motto of many a Yalie? The only A that matters is the one between the Y and L? It seems like some of my classmates cling to prestige when it’s comforting and deride it when it’s not.

  • yalieforever1

    I guess Talhah Zubair is just one of those kids that cling to prestige.
    I know a lot of people are like that here too, but it’s not like he was choosing between community college and Harvard, he was choosing between YALE and HARVARD. To me the prestige is exactly the same, so if he chose to pick a school because it was slightly more well known (amongst who exactly, I don’t know) than Yale, it just shows how skewed his priorities in life are.
    Maybe to him the Harvard name is worth more than the Yale name, but to me a thoughtful person with a real reason for why he wants to go to a university, other than to show off to his peers, is more worthwhile than a Talhah Zubair, and will always have more prestige in my book.
    That kid is just a show off. He already is now, just imagine in the future where all he will care to boast about is his UNDERGRADUATE diploma.

  • aluminterviewer

    From an USA Today article:

    As Harvard prepares to confer degrees on yet another batch of graduates Thursday, academic experts scratch their heads at how this institution maintains its reputational dominance in an era of academic parity. But a marketer would understand the Harvard aura in a nanosecond: It’s the ultimate brand, at least in the academic world.

    “There isn’t any doubt that brand matters and that Harvard is the prestige brand,” says Stanley Katz, director of Princeton University’s Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies. “It’s the Gucci of higher education, the most selective place.”

    Never mind the price tag or the fact that guides such as the U.S. News & World Report ranking of colleges and universities say the differences between Harvard and other top-ranked schools are microscopically small. The gulf that separates Harvard from the rest in terms of reputation remains enormous.

    “It used to be the case that of students who were admitted to Harvard and Princeton or Harvard and Yale, seven of 10 would choose to go to Harvard,” Katz says. “It may be more now. There is a tendency for the academically best to skew even more to Harvard. We just get our socks beat off in those cases.”

    Why does Harvard continue to dominate its rivals, at least in terms of reputation?

    George Bradt, a 1980 Harvard graduate who runs a consulting firm in Stamford, Conn., says his degree matters. “It’s always been that little edge,” he says. “Say you have two candidates for a position, and it’s really close. One guy is from Harvard, and the other is from Podunk University. The Harvard guy is going to get the nod.”

  • FailBoat

    To *you*, the prestige is the same. That makes sense. You’re a Yalie who believes that Yale is the greatest school on earth.

    To Tallah Zubair, apparently, the prestige of Harvard is much greater.

  • 109Guide

    As an alum, I find this article depressing. Comparisons to Harvard seem to be required of all Daily News writers. Would a similar story appear in the pages of the Crimson? Unlikely.

    As a journalist, Carmen, you also haven’t done your homework here. I work in the field of higher education and am aware of Hoxby’s study. The authors of that study would probably have spoken with you had you taken the time to interview them. If you had, you could have provided some useful insights and you would not have presented their work as any kind of proof of how well Yale competes against Harvard. The 65 to 35 split was a theortical ratio based on many assumptions and does not represent the actual decisions of students admitted to both schools. In fact, we don’t know what the real numbers are but we do know that Yale regularly loses to Harvard the majority of students admitted to both. Let’s also not be so arrogant as to assume that Yale is Harvard’s primary rival for students. Stanford and Princeton do about as well against Harvard as Yale does and today, Stanford may actually have more overlap with Harvard than either Princeton or Yale does.

    I am blue to my bones but the apparent need our community feels to insist that Yale is Harvard’s rival in everything is a sad commentary on how we apparently view our real achievements. Write about those achievements! We’ve heard enough of the desperate comparisons.

  • co2464

    **this is the lamest article i have ever read. why did YDN run this?**

  • aluminterviewer

    A 2004 YDN column dispensed sage advice to Yalies obsessed with the Yale-Harvard “rivalry” to an extent that Harvard apparently isn’t:

    “In a tale of two schools, second-best is far better

    By Zachary Zwillinger
    Wednesday, October 27, 2004
    The Yale Daily News is forever bleeding; it is covered in the crimson blood of another school. Over six issues of the News (from Oct. 15-22) there were seven front-page articles concerning Harvard University, a somewhat well-known institution of higher education in the city of Cambridge, Mass. These articles range from the relevant (Harvard’s alcohol policy for The Game) to the slightly irrelevant (the salary of Harvard’s financial advisers) to the completely irrelevant (a Harvard grad student’s manslaughter conviction), and yet all have found a way onto these same pages. Why is this the case? Because it’s Harvard.

    Last Friday’s article about a new college ranking demonstrated empirically what most of the world believes: Yale is perceived as one of the top two universities in the United States, but Harvard is first. The study examined the preferences of high-school students who were accepted into the top colleges in the nation (that is, it studied high-school students like we were). As The New York Times said of the same ranking, “The degree of Harvard’s dominance [is] staggering.” …

    No matter how wonderful we know Yale is, the world still considers Harvard to be better.

    Accepting this fact, what is a poor Yalie to do? … I see but one option: acceptance.

    What I ask you to consider is what we as human beings can learn from Yale’s situation. We have matriculated at the mathematical limit of perceived institutional greatness; we are forever approaching perfection but never arriving at it. As the eternal runner-up, it is Yale that represents what my 11th-grade English teacher would call The Human Condition.

    In the “Iliad,” the battles between humans are always more fascinating than the battles between the gods. Why? Because the gods are perfect in their immortality and as such cannot be figures of empathy. But even Achilles, the closest thing to a god as possible, is nothing more than a sad creature who eventually must accept his mortal fate along with the rest of us wretched humans. What is Yale if not Achilles, a tragic hero of incredible greatness, a being so close and yet so far?

    Thus Yale affords us an optimal understanding of the two extremes of humanity: We perceive our awesome dominance over (almost) all else, but humbly recognize the existence of One above us. Thus is life; how good things get is never how good we would wish them to be. This is what gives us our humanity, what makes moderately sized blobs of flesh and blood such as ourselves so fascinating. It’s the tragedy of human existence, and the sooner we can appreciate it, in Yale and in ourselves, the better off we will be. And if not, we can always look down on Princeton.

  • Anonymous Bosh

    Regarding the above: in my own experience (and, hence, this observation is purely anecdotal), I have found Harvard undergrads to have a noticeably higher rate of personal issues/idiosyncrasies/neuroses than the Yale crowd. That said, I have found that Princetonians *really* have their heads on straight. Yes, obsessing over Harvard is one form of insecurity, but assuaging one’s ill-founded inferiority complex that with the view that “we can always look down on Princeton” is just more of the same. (Looking down on *Brown*, on the other hand, is empirically justifiable…).

    For some REAL inferiority complexities, check out your typical GRD (humanities) vis-a-vis the undergraduate school: WHOA NELLY!

  • aluminterviewer

    **There seem to be a few screws loose at Princeton, lately, according to the DP**:

    1. A thread obsessing that three new rankings place Princeton only 4th, 5th and (horrors!) 33rd:

    2. Numerous threads whining about Princeton’s anti-grade inflation policy and about the declining yield rate vis a vis Harvard and Yale – which they ascribe primarily to that odious policy and to the absence of an early admissions program

  • Goldie08

    That girl Irene Chen sounds like a nut job who lets her parents run her life. Immediately started to question her decision as soon as it was made? Grow up, make a decision and move on. I hope she doesn’t go into politics.

    I find it funny – some people say the academics are basically the same so they turned to social aspects to make the decision. Some say the social scenes are nearly identical and used academic differences to discern between the two schools. 2 groups – each looking for something different from the college experience.

  • yalieforever1

    Well they all sound like nut jobs…

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