Harvard Spike


Since this is the parents forum I will address my question(s) to you. My daughter loves the Boston area (strange since we live in Los Angeles) and will be applying to Harvard in a couple months. From everything I read about (I know how competitive it is) kids that eventually get accepted have a giant spike, ONE thing that is the centerpiece of their application. One thing that really stands out. I guess my question is… can it be something a little different ? My daughter taught herself Sign Language because there was a possibility her older sister was going deaf. She fell in love with every facet of it. She started clubs at both her middle school and high school, did a documentary which screened at several competitions, and gained a large social media following because she was teaching kids around the world Sign Language through popular songs. The strange part is that this isn’t what she wants to major in. She has some other interests. So is this what they call a spike ? Is it enough to make the admissions people take notice given the fact that almost every student who applies to Harvard is amazing in their own right. Thanks in advance for your words of wisdom.

I do not think that anyone really knows what gets one student accepted to Harvard and what does not get a different student accepted.

I have consistently heard that your extracurricular activities do not need to have anything to do with your major or potential majors. The point is to excel at whatever ECs you have.

Certainly my ECs had nothing at all to go with my major, and were sufficient to get me accepted to other universities which were comparable to Harvard in both ranking and selectivity. I never thought for one moment what might or might get me accepted to a top ranked school. I did what I wanted to do, did it well, and that seemed to work.

This blog (about MIT rather than Harvard) was pretty much the approach that I took, which has apparently worked for some other students also:


To me all of this implies that “something a little different” is good.

The blog says “study hard, be nice, and pursue your passion”. It sounds like this is what your daughter did. Good for her!

But Harvard is still a high reach for almost everyone.

I think passion is what all the ivys are looking for-- and if that passion is about something unique then all the better. Definitely need not be major related. So yes, I think that’s exactly the kind of spike that would be attractive to a school like Harvard. However, as you and the previous poster note the vast majority of Harvard applicants have some sort of spike like that. They don’t volunteer they need volunteers to run the non-profit they founded. A high reach for everyone but your daughter sounds like she will be able to demonstrate a unique passion.

Not spike. Not passion. Absolutely not “ONE thing.” Nor does it need to be unique. (Odd isn’t what gets one an admit.)

It’s more about awareness, the challenges you take on, depth and breadth, and more. Some purpose and evidence beyond hs activities.

Try getting a better impression of what sort of applicants they like from what the target colleges say and show, not random folks or consultants who want you to pay them for some supposed mystery knowledge.

The competition will be doing more than ASL.

Agree with the comments above.

Also if it is Boston your D loves then expand your horizons…there are many fantastic colleges in/near Boston…Tufts, BC, BU, Brandeis, Northeastern to name but a few.

We’ve toured a couple you mentioned. Aware of all of them. Great schools.

My D wrote her Common App essay on learning ASL. She used that topic as a way to highlight particular aspects of her personality (curiosity, enthusiasm, initiative, resilience, organization, artistry, outreach, etc.). In your case your daughter would also be able to illustrate her connection to her sister, which is clearly important to her. My D was accepted early to Princeton. We’ll never know, of course, how much that essay factored into it (she had a strong resume otherwise), but we thought it was notable that the classmate who co-founded an ASL club with her was also accepted. (It’s rare for Princeton to accept more than one kid from my D’s small high school each year.)

Harvard has a Deaf Awareness Club that’s very active. My guess is they’d value your D’s passion and commitment. https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2017/11/2/deaf-culture-asl-awareness/

That’s great information and very encouraging. Thank you for sharing.

I think the activities you describe will be very helpful in admissions.

If she writes her essay about something else, she can use the supplementary essay to write about her ASL work.

I would find out if she can submit a supplement with a sample video or cued section of the documentary, resume and letters of recommendation related to her work with ASL Ask admissions.

Remember that admissions is about assembling an interesting class, and how an applicant can contribute to that mix.

I am pretty sure that Tufts accepts videos from applicants.


You have received good advice from others…but I’ll add my 2 cents worth.

  1. We don’t know the strength of the rest of your daughter’s application. Her interest in sign language will not make any weaker spots on her application go away. So...did I miss her GPA? Strength of HS courses, etc.
  2. As you noted, the acceptance rate at Harvard is very low. The very vast majority of applicants do not get accepted.
  3. I’ve read your other threads, and the schools you have listed are all highly competitive schools for admissions. And you are from CA. Does she also have some sure things for acceptance on her application list?
  4. What exactly does she “love about Boston”. She needs to love the colleges. They have very different personalities. Harvard and BU, for example, are IN the urban area. Tufts is more suburban. NEU has a more enclosed campus while BU’s “campus” is urban Boston.

You are from LA area. Will she also love the winters in Boston?

  1. Are these colleges affordable for your family for four years? An acceptance that is not affordable might just as well be a rejection.

My daughter went sight unseen to a program at Yale for two straight summers. It was part summer school and part summer camp. She took classes but also traveled up and down the east coast as the program had weekend activities. She really fell in love with the people and culture of the east coast (not so much Yale and New Haven). She’s getting encouragement from her school counselor to give Harvard a shot but also has some other places she likes. Mostly in the urban environments. We visited the area a couple years ago, and even though we have not been there in the winter, she grew up in Portland, Oregon so she knows about dark skies and cold and dreary days. Her schedule is challenging at school with both AP and Honors courses and in addition to the Sign Language aspect she’s currently organizing a TedX Talk and has some other things she’s done that might open up the admissions people’s eyes.

The winter climate in Boston is very different from Oregon. It gets very cold and snowy. Not dreary…plenty of bitter cold but sunny days. Too bad she didn’t visit Boston in February or late January.

If she thinks she will love winter, fine. But it’s not like Oregon it really isn’t!

My two cents – I’m just a parent with no special knowledge – is that her interest in ASL is a stellar EC. I believe any, and every, admissions office will pay attention to it assuming her grades etc put her in the running. It sounds to me that wherever she ends up, she will do well. How the sign language will do vis a vis Harvard, absolutely no one here can tell you. Does it double her admissions chances, so they are 16% instead of 8%? No one can say. But even if they do, those are still long odds, which is why people are cautioning you. Apply, absolutely, but plan on her getting rejected. If she doesn’t – fantastic! – and if she does, you’ll have a Plan B firmly in place. Best of luck to her and to you.

I appreciate everyone’s comments. She’s definitely not someone who’s pinning their hopes on Harvard. Not like that at all. And as parents we haven’t pressured her one bit. I know kids who craft their entire high school career (along with their parents) to get into Harvard. It’s not the case for us. She loves Northeastern, the urban setting, and I think Harvard is the only school she might (she might) choose over Northeastern.

Ok, you’re trying to be a realistic parent. Good. But lots of kids get involved with ASL, even in lower school. For her academic interests, vital is to show how she id’d outside opportunities and pursued them. These don’t need to be flashy internship sorts of things, but ways to go beyond hs clubs or usual small sorts of common volunteering. Spark, spunk, vision, willingness.

We’d need to know her other activities. Adcoms will look for more than some one dedicated thing.

And it’s a ridiculously fierce competition. You have to imagine thousands of applicants with top rigor and performance, out there stretching their limits in a variety of ways (and thriving on that.) Very different than just looking at our kids in their home hs context.

Plus, thumper’s right. For tippy tops, especially, you have to know why you love the college, not the location. They’ll look for that understanding of fit and thrive.

It’s work, to raise the level of your application.

What’s interesting is that I saw a video of a kid who got into all these top notch schools and he said they’re not looking for “well rounded” kids, they’re actually looking for kids who excel in one particular thing. And when I men excel, I mean really, really stand out. I know 95% of the kids who apply to Ivy League schools and other top notch schools win major awards (national and local) but I was wondering in my initial post if these schools look at, and are looking for kids who really stand out in something as different as ASL. My daughter has played Varsity tennis for 3, coming up on 4 years, belongs to a slew of clubs, etc and has excellent grades. So Sign Language isn’t her entire life. Maybe I’m just asking an unanswerable question and she will soon find out the answer.

Find out soon? Please don’t tell me she is applying early to Harvard. I thought in another thread, you said she loved NEU and planned to apply early there.

Well, I worked in this environment enough years to state this kid is wrong. Is he now a “pro” letting you think he’s got the recipe for the secret sauce? Just trust him and write your check? Did he ever work in admissions?

Of course they want well rounded. The competitive colleges are building communities. Being unilateral or only going for what interests you is a risk. You do not need Intl awards.

Each college has a self image. From what they write and show, you can piece together a view of what they like and seek. Imo.

It’s very different than what makes a great kid in one hs. I sometimes liken this to applying for a google job. No matter how much you want it, you have to be the right candidate, have to start with an understanding of what that IS, and rationally assess your own resume and assets.

I’m sorry if it sounds harsh. But it’s ferocious.

While I’m sure that the kid is great, they have their own single application, and perhaps a handful of others. They are not the admissions people in any of these colleges, and really have no idea what admissions people want.

About 30,000 students matriculate each year to these schools, so about 40,000 are accepted. Even if we say that 50% of these have hooks, that’s still 12,500-15,000 students. Of course those numbers are not including places like Berkeley, UCLA, or U Michigan. Those three alone have another 20,000 students matriculating each year.There are over 8,000 students matriculating each year to the notorious HYPSM alone.

Of course there are also award winning students who do not apply to any of these colleges. So we’re talking about far more students being accepted than there are Major Awards.

Then there is the fact that the majority of these awards are in STEM fields, while humanities and social sciences have barely a handful of major awards.

So if receiving a major award was a requirement for admissions, perhaps two or three of all of these colleges would be able to fill an incoming class.

To clarify, I think the kid said schools aren’t looking necessarily for well rounded students they’re looking for a well rounded class. BTW thumper1, ED2 @ NEU