What Harvard’s Affirmative Action Trial Says About Elite MBA Admissions

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Business school admission officials and consultants are closely following a federal trial in Boston that accuses Harvard University of discriminating against Asian-American applicants to the school. Even though the trial concerns only undergraduate admissions at Harvard, observers believe that aspects of the secretive selection process are common in admission decisions in many elite, highly selective MBA programs, from the use of “Dean’s Lists” that favor connected candidates to the cultivation of big donors through favorable admission decisions for their children.

The trial—which began Oct. 15 and is expected to conclude on Friday to four weeks long—has already brought to light emails suggesting that Harvard favors applicants connected to families who either contribute to school fundraising or are likely to do so, the existence of a ”Dean’s Interest List,” a special and confidential list of applicants who benefit from a higher acceptance rate and are often related to or of interest to top donors.

In the earliest part of the trial, one of the most powerful and influential decision makers at Harvard, longtime Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons, testified over several days. During his testimony, lawyers introduced a 2013 email written by former Dean of the Harvard Kennedy School David T. Ellwood who thanked Fitzsimmons for helping admit a student whose relatives had apparently “already committed to a building.” In another, Associate Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development Roger P. Cheever ’67 noted that accepting an unnamed applicant could “conceivably” lead to the donation of “an art collection.”


The lawsuit, brought by anti-affirmative action advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions in 2014, charges that the college rejects deserving Asian-American applicants in favor of less qualified applicants of other races, a charge Harvard denies. Yet, an analysis by The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, of data released during the trial revealed that from 1995 to 2013, Asian-American applicants earned the highest average SAT score of any racial group that applied to the school, but had the lowest acceptance rate of any racial group. Their charges are not all that dissimilar to the fact that Indian and Chinese MBA candidates  face tougher odds of admission at elite U.S. business school than others because they are over-represented in applicant pools (see Indian & Chinese MBA Applicants Face Much Higher Rejection Rates).

Another analysis of Harvard’s admission decisions over six years by a Duke University economist and expert in admissions found a “systematic” pattern in which African American and Hispanic applicants have a higher probability of admission largely due to what Harvard calls “personal scores” that weigh non-academic measures of evaluation.

Those rather vague personal ratings, common in admission decisions of MBA applicants, range from highly subjective assessments of character traits and backgrounds that lead admission officials to score candidates on a scale of one to four, with one indicating an applicant has “truly outstanding qualities of character” to four, which reflects the judgment that a candidate has “questionable or worrisome qualities of character.” Court documents show that Harvard admission officiers have called some applicants “bland or somewhat negative and immature,” among other things.


Overall, the economist found that 86% of recruited athletes were admitted, 33.6% of legacy students were admitted, 42.2% of applicants on the Dean or Director’s List were admitted, and 46.7% of children of faculty or staff were admitted—even though the overall acceptance rate at Harvard this past year is just 4.7%, with only 2,024 of nearly 43,000 applicants gaining an admit.

“I remain torn between feeling like it is about time this stuff came to light and going, ‘look, how the sausage gets made is always grim, what do you expect?,’” says Adam Hoff, an MBA admissions consultant and principal with Amerasia Consulting Group. “It sucks that connected people get a leg up, but this is how the world works. We see laws passed because lobbyists buy elected officials, so why wouldn’t colleges admit students who are connected to the people who pay for the buildings?  It is grim and often gross, but it is naive to think it would be any different.  And to be perfectly honest, now that one of our two political parties is scaring away foreign students, many private colleges will have to rely on donors more than ever.”

David White of Menlo Coaching agrees that it is silly to think that business school admissions don’t take into account the potential of gifts from applicants who come from wealthy or connected families. “It is fascinating to see the discussion of things like the ‘Dean’s Interest List’ and the interaction between the development office and the admissions office. It won’t surprise you that there are similar processes at the MBA level.”


Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted.com, a leading admissions consulting firm, believes it’s difficult to interpret the implications of the trial on MBA admission decisions before an actual verdict. Still, she believes graduate admissions may be less affected. While again it is hard to talk about the implications of the trial without a verdict, I think MBA admissions may be less affected because of the influence of work experience and the importance of leadership and impact. “High school students simply can’t have the impact that college graduates with four or more years of work experience,” she says. “Those ‘soft,’ subjective criteria becomes a necessary, legitimate distinguishing factor for students applying to programs that intend to prepare them to be leaders. And as I heard (former Harvard Business School Managing Director of Admissions) Dee Leopold say many times, ‘Harvard wants to develop leaders, not create them.’ Most top MBA programs would agree.”

In any case, Abraham adds, ethnicity plays a role in admissions at Harvard University and by extension at most elite universities. It almost has to do so if the schools value ethnic diversity, among other forms of diversity that they seek. So while there may no longer be a ‘numerus clausus’ as existed for Jews in the U.S. into the 1950’s and in Canada until later, and elite universities don’t have the racial and gender segregation that existed 100 years ago, they can’t have diversity if they don’t have a way to measure it. They also can’t have ethnically diverse classes if they ignore ethnicity altogether as long as different groups perform differently on the classic measures of academic ability.”

Most admission consultants defend the use of a wide variety of measures by business schools decide who to admit and who to reject, rather than a more narrow look at undergraduate transcripts and a GMAT or GRE standarized test score. “MBA programs build a diverse class not only in terms of ethnic backgrounds, but also by industry, function, areas of expertise, and more,” argues White. “This directly improves the quality of the program, not least of all because MBA grads have to lead diverse workforces and market products to diverse customer groups.  Schools would fight hard to keep their ability to balance the class across these dimensions vs. having everything reduced to a formula to calculate merit.”

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