My son, Sergei Bernstein, got accepted to MIT through early action. Because the financial costs of studying at MIT worried me, I insisted that Sergei also apply to Princeton and Harvard, as I had heard they give generous financial packages. In the end, Sergei was rejected by Princeton and wait-listed and finally rejected by Harvard. Though many people have been rejected by Princeton and Harvard, not too many of them have won places on US teams for two different international competitions — one in mathematics and the other in linguistics. To be fair, Sergei was accepted by these teams after Princeton had already rejected him. Nonetheless, Sergei has an impressive mathematical resume:
- In 2005 he was the National MathCounts Written Test Champion.
- In 2005 he was the National MathCounts Master’s Round Champion.
- In 2007 and 2009 he was a USAMO winner.
- In 2008 he passed Math 55a at Harvard taught by Dennis Gaitsgory, which is considered to be the hardest freshman math course in the country. More than 30 students started it and less than 10 finished. Sergei was one of the finishers, and he was only a high school junior.
- In 2007, 2008 and 2009 he competed at a 12th grade level at the Math Kangaroo, while he actually was in 10th, 11th and 12th grade. He placed first all three times.
- In 2009 he was on the US team at the Romanian Masters in Mathematics competition, which might be a harder competition than the International Mathematical Olympiad. He got a silver medal and was second on the US team.
- In 2009 he placed 5th in the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad, making it to the Alternate US Team for the International Linguistics Olympiad.
I am trying to analyze why he was rejected and here are my thoughts.
- His application forms to Harvard and Princeton were different from MIT. Yes, MIT was his first choice and he wrote a customized essay for MIT. For other places he had a common essay. But as he was supposed to be flagged as a top math student, his essay should have been irrelevant, in my opinion.
- Admissions offices made a mistake. I can imagine that admissions offices never heard of the Romanian Masters in Mathematics competition, because it is a relatively new competition and the USA only joined it in 2009 for the first time. On its own, though, it should have sounded impressive. Also, they might not have known about the Math 55 course at Harvard, as usually high-schoolers do not take it. But that still leaves many other achievements. Many people told me that admissions offices know what they are doing, so I assume that I can disregard this point.
- Princeton and Harvard knew that he wanted to go to MIT and didn’t want to spoil their admission rate. I do not know if colleges communicate with each other and whether Princeton and Harvard knew that he was admitted early to MIT. Because he had sent them a common application essay, they may have been suspicious that they weren’t his first choice.
- Harvard and Princeton didn’t want him. I always heard that Harvard and Princeton want to have well-rounded people, whereas MIT likes geeks. I consider Sergei quite well-rounded as he has many other interests and achievements beyond mathematics. Perhaps his other accomplishments aren’t sufficiently impressive, making him less round than I thought he was.
- Harvard and Princeton are not interested in mathematicians. Many people say that they want future world leaders. I think it is beneficial for a world leader to have a degree in math, but that’s just my personal opinion. And of course, to support their Putnam teams, it is enough to have one exceptional math student a year.
- Sergei couldn’t pay. Yes, we marked on the application that we need financial help. In the current financial crisis it could be that even though Harvard and Princeton do not have enough money to support students, they do not want to go back and denounce their highly publicized generosity.
Many people told me of surprising decisions by Ivy League schools this year. The surprises were in both directions: students admitted to Ivy League colleges who didn’t feel they had much of a chance and students not admitted that had every right to expect a positive outcome. I should mention that I personally know some very deserving kids who were admitted.
I wonder if there has been a change in the financial demographics of the students Harvard and Princeton have accepted this year. If so, this will be reflected in the data very soon. We will be able to see if the average SAT scores of students go down relative to the population and previous years.
I do not know why Sergei wasn’t accepted; perhaps I’m missing something significant. But if it was because of our finances, it would be ironic: Sergei wasn’t admitted to Princeton and Harvard for the same reason he applied there.Share: