What Does It Take to Get Accepted by Harvard or Princeton?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.



  1. Andrei Zelevinsky:


  2. Felipe Pait:

    I second the congratulations!

  3. Jonathan:

    A little bit 2, a little bit 4, but mostly this:

    The top schools in the US draw an incredibly talented pool of applicants. They narrow it by eliminating those clearly not up to snuff, and then from the rest, from this pool, they create a class. It’s not the same as taking the best 10%. In fact, since they only take about 10%, they can be extraordinarily arbitrary in their decisions. They may have already had too many kids from your son’s school… or even from your state. They may not like your son’s school. Perhaps this year they wanted their mathematicians to play a musical instrument. Who knows? Or should I say, no one knows. It is arbitrary. Being qualified does not (clearly in this case) necessarily lead to admission.

    I don’t know if this helps, but I speak with disappointed students each year, and this is what I say. And I do believe that it is correct.

  4. misha:

    A mathematician as a world leader? May be dangerous, since mathematicians have a tendency to confuse abstractions and other mental games with reality. MIT is expensive, but since you got into writing, maybe you can write a book or too that will help pay for it. I have a couple of ideas for the titles that may sell. One is “A course of dirty mathematics,” let Hardy roll in his grave. The other is “Advanced mathematics from an elementary viewpoint,” isn’t it time, 100 years after Felix Klein had published his treatise, to get the record straight? I have some material on calculus for the second title. I know you can do it, perhaps with a little help from your editor and other friends.

  5. misha:

    Another business idea: why not start Special Olympics in mathematics? I bet it will be an instant hit, especially in USA.

  6. Anonymous:

    Congratulations on MIT, and don’t worry about the rejections. There are dozens of possible reasons, most likely including some you might never think of, and you don’t have enough information to figure out the whole story. There may also just not be any good reason: top schools receive too many outstanding applications and have to reject some applicants they would love to accept.

    By the way, academic achievement is very helpful for admissions, but it isn’t necessarily definitive. Admissions officers often explain that decisions are based on many factors and that no level of achievement will by itself guarantee admission. They usually have in mind less impressive achievements (like being valedictorian or getting perfect SAT scores, rather than being a USAMO winner), but I guess this shows that they meant it.

    I bet they made the wrong decision, but fortunately MIT worked out.

  7. Tanya Khovanova:

    Thank you all for congratulations. I am sure there are many things I do not understand about my country – the admissions process is one of them.

    I used to tell Sergei that if he gets to a US team, he can choose any college he wants. How wrong I was!

  8. misha:

    It used to be true in the Soviet Union, but here the all-powerful politically correct bureaucrats of most top schools not only want all the individual students to be well-rounded, but the whole student population also to be well-rounded. But still, doesn’t it remind you of something very familiar and precious, doesn’t it bring some memories that you must be so fond of, that make you feel all warm and cozy?

  9. Anonymous:

    By the way, if you want to understand how the US ended up with such a strange college admissions system, you should read the book “The Chosen” by Karabel. Here’s the short version:

    Until the 30’s, the US university system looked very different from how it does now. There were a couple of strong research universities based on the German model (Chicago and Johns Hopkins) but other places were not nearly as academically demanding as today’s top schools. Around this time, more and more people started applying, and Harvard, Yale, and Princeton began to get scared. They were afraid that if they admitted people based solely on academics, all their places would be taken by Jews, nerds, and smart poor kids. From their perspective, this would have ruined everything, so they did their best to avoid it, for example by having quotas for Jews. However, that seemed unfair and they couldn’t continue it for long, so they moved to a different system. Instead of using just academics, they decided to take into account lots of other factors: leadership, athletics and special talents, extracurricular activities, moral character, well-roundedness, etc. This way they could do a much better job of picking out the sort of students they wanted. Plus they also started giving an advantage to children of former students. One axiom of the US academic system is that every university wants to imitate Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, so once they started doing these things, everybody did. Some went further than others, but everybody did it to some extent (even if they didn’t have the same motivation).

    Today, the system is no longer intentionally biased against anyone, and as far as I can tell, admissions officers genuinely believe they are using the best approach. It’s not a crazy idea: there’s no logical reason why education at the most prestigious schools should be reserved for only the most academically talented students. Educating people who have other sorts of talents (future leaders in politics or business, say) might be even more important than educating future scholars.

    So, in summary, academic success plays a big role in admissions, but ultimately it’s neither necessary nor sufficient in the US.

    You might wonder whether the fact that MIT admitted Sergei means their admissions policies are more weighted towards academics. I’d like to think so (I was an MIT undergrad), but it’s hard to tell. One big factor is that MIT simply has a lot more places available for science and math students.

    In any case, congratulations again. I’m sure Sergei will have a great time and learn a lot at MIT.

  10. misha:

    To Anonimous: An idea doesn’t have to be crazy to be disgusting, not every logical reason is good or just. But I’m getting a bit emotional. It’s clearly a matter of the values, and you have spelled them out quite nicely; we live in a country where business and politics take precedence over scholarship.

  11. Felipe Pait:

    Ok, I’ll add another 2c. Most important, he’ll love MIT – one is happiest at the place which wants us. Rejections are irrelevant. So the question is, well, academic.

    Anyway, on the academic question of admissions. We can discount 6: Harvard says the admission process is blind to need, we can assume it is exactly as they say. About 1: it is possible that the essay for the other schools was not as convincing, and the admissions committee figured he would be better served where had had been admitted early (yes, they do talk). Numbers 2,3,4, and 5 all amount to variations of the same: Harvard is not interested enough in mathematicians to look carefully, and is satisfied with letting them go to the first choice, MIT.

    That is too bad for the country, that science is still not taken too seriously at top universities. However that needs not be Sergei’s concern. MIT will surely be a perfect fit for his talents and interests.

  12. Maria Roginskaya:

    I must say that if I were doing the admission being on a team (especially on two teams, which indicates he is more keen on competitions than on Mathematics) would be rather a deffect. In my experience students involved with Olympiads have a strong but difficult to address problem: From the competition they used to think themself being “the best”. But when it comes to the problems they are “sprinters”, who solve already formulated problems, while study and research require more of “long-distance” and being able to investigate the question (well, there are a few already formulated problems in “big” Mathematics, but you don’t take an undergraduate whos only chance to do something in Mathematics is to prove Riemann Hypothesis). Then comes the worst, because when a former Olympiad winner fails to be much ahead of his classmates (this more often happens with boys, so I use “his”) he try to regain his self-confidence by engaging in university level competitions and gets stuck with competitions until it is possible (missing a lot of training which is necessary to be a productive mathematician). When I’ve last checked what happened with members of USA team of the year when I was at IMO (I was in Russian team) only one of them had finished his PhD and it was 12 years after we all graduated.
    I know I’m not only one with this opinion, as after I mentioned it to a few others at some conference they all recalled some similar case at their Department. It is not strange than that people at those Departments a wary of Olympiad participants (even though there are some benefits to take them for Putnam, etc.).

  13. Tanya Khovanova:


    I would like to explain something about the USA team: most people on the team do not plan to be mathematicians; they plan to be lawyers or doctors. This is why you do not see PhDs. They go to competitions to get scholarships or boost their resumes. If I were in admissions, I would take all of them; the people on the teams are determined, hard working, bright, inventive, competitive. In this country competitive is good.

  14. Maria Roginskaya:

    Well, I think it is our usual point of disagreement: You think that competative and determined is good for Mathematics, and I think that mathematicial research is all about dreaming, and the passion to Mathematics (and, yes, hard working). Whenever I’ve talked with well-estimed mathematicians who were involved in the competitions they usually were talking as that as about something which gave them opportunity to do more advanced Mathematics at the time when they were yet not able to do the real one (and they happened be good at it), not something which satisfied their competitivness.
    I know that the conditions for mathematicians in USA are not the same as in Russia (nor as in the Northen Europe, which I know most of). But, as far as I can see, what I say is only more applicable to USA, as a determined and competetive person in USA would do much better as a doctor or a lawyer. So being on a team should give extra points to an applicant for Medical or Law study, but not for study of Mathematics.

  15. Anonymous:

    Just for a quick fact check, among members of the 1989 US IMO team (the same year as Maria Roginskaya), all of them received Ph.D.s in mathematics. Three left academia: one does classified research for the US government, one is a computer programmer, and one I’m not sure about. Of the three in academia, one discovered a love of teaching and now works at a liberal arts college, and two are faculty at research universities (Wisconsin and Zurich).

    It’s certainly true that winning contests is not the same as doing great research, and that it’s easy to become too focused on competition. However, being on an IMO team from a large country is an excellent indication of talent and future success, either as a mathematician or in another profession.

  16. Maria Roginskaya:

    I apologize for the wrong information. It just shows that Google still don’t know evrything about everyone 🙂 (or at least it didn’t for 8 years ago)

    And I don’t say that to win at a competition is a way to become a looser :-). What I say is that it is easier to become a winner in something else than Mathematics, and I also say that the problems in training of a former competitor (if accure) are of a different nature than for an “usual” student, and not every department is willing to handle them.

  17. Anonymous:

    Regarding competition vs. dreaming, I think it depends a lot on one’s real motivation. Specifically, I’d distinguish between being competitive (wanting to win and demonstrate superiority to other people) and being ambitious (wanting to accomplish great things). Being too competitive can be a problem for a mathematics student, but not being ambitious enough can also be a problem.

    Some kids want to win contests because they’re ambitious, and the contest is the most difficult and meaningful goal available to them at this time. Once they have progressed far enough in their studies, they move on to bigger goals, and this is a healthy attitude.

  18. Maria Roginskaya:

    I agree that motivation can be different, and so the admittance can depend from what motivation one conjecture behind the achievements. In this case I suspect they just failed to recognize an unusual for the western countries, but usual for USSR motivation – security (and thus treated it depending from what was their interpretation). I remember that my own involvment with Olympiads was heavily driven by the duty towards my family and teachers, who could have trouble for being lenient towards me unless I would prove exceptionally good. As a matter of fact, one of my math teachers was pressed to resign from her possition after a parent of a boy whom she ranked bellow me accused her in favouring Jews (it had happened before I started to win at the competitions).

    It is not something one think of in USA, though it is ingrained in people who grew in Soviet (as you see from Tanyas remark). As my father used to put it: in Stalin’s time those who did Physics were put to do research in the prison, those who did Art were send to die from cold and starvation in the working camps, and those who did Political Sciences were executed (as were his parents).

    I’m not sure how this motivation relates to further study of Mathematics, but I think I would be a better mathematician if I’d come to Mathematics in another way (it took me long to unlearn some ingrained attitudes). On the other hand, if things were differnt I were probably now attempting to change norms in the society insteed of Banach spaces 🙂 .

    Back to Sergei (and Tanya): If his motivation was this last mentioned, he may benifit from reevaluating it – I don’t say that it is totally wrong, but unlike mathematical ones, lifes axioms should be reevaluated on regular basis.

  19. David:

    College admission is really strange. About the time I finished, MIT lost an antitrust lawsuit. The Ivy League and MIT used to conspire to hand out financial aid more broadly. https://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/1992/history-0903.html . It was somewhat rare for a student to be accepted at more than one of these schools if he needed financial aid before then. I don’t think there’s much to analyze. It’s all just bias and luck.

    I got into Cornell mostly because the university had never accepted anyone from my county in North Carolina. I was on the bubble. My advisor told me that they “wanted to see what I could do,” so I was in. Someone else was out. Dumb bias + luck. I paid my way through, mostly, took out loans for the rest, finished with a degree in engineering physics and a solid job in a recession.

    Before that, I got wait-listed #7 for North Carolina’s science and math high school. The interview was rough, in part due to a chemical burn in my right eye — not pretty. My sister had gone and they were openly biased against alumni’s siblings. Thousands of other uncontrolled variables. They took #5. I packed, then unpacked a bag. I was out, someone else was in. Dumb bias + luck. Of the ~200 students who went, ~25 dropped out before fall break.

    Jonathan’s right. Admissions works with teams of people reading frantically. They pass around applications, weeding them out, stacking them against each other. Pick the best of three based on one person’s biases, discard, restack. They decide Sergei’s going to MIT or Cal Tech. Someone else is in. He’s on the bubble and they up the ante — give up MIT to play. When you get to selection processes that get thousands of qualified applications for each slot it comes down to dumb biases, luck and quantum mechanics in the admissions process. I’ll argue that noise dominates all six terms put together. There’s nothing to find but static.

    (An exception — and this was 20 years ago — was Ga Tech. The application was one page, front and back, half instructions. If you weren’t from Georgia, you only had to fill out half the front. Name. Address. SAT score. High school GPA. Use #2 pencil. Stay inside the circles. Sign in ink. Include transcript and $35 check. I mailed it on a Wednesday and opened an acceptance letter the next Tuesday. Mail took three days to get from Brevard to Atlanta.)

    MIT will be awesome.

  20. Walter:

    These schools are crowded with top applicants nowadays. They may have an idea of the maximum number of people they’d accept based on mathematics (amongst the overall qualified applicant pool.) Even something like the fact his parents are both mathematicians might make his credentials look less impressive, if they can glean that fact from his application. They might take the kid who ranked 52nd on the USAMO if his parents worked in normal jobs. Also, there are things like the application essay and recommendation letters where even a small thing can derail one’s chances. There are too many variables to speculate in my opinion. Just be happy he’s going to MIT, that’s really an excellent school.

  21. John:

    Wow. Math55. I am sure all universities know of the legend that is Math55.
    Also, lol at essays are “irrelevant”.

  22. Arelcao Akleos:

    Congratulations on your son’s attending MIT. Note that, in practical terms, if you believe there is anything academic at Harvard which Sergei should have–but does not get- at MIT; then all he has to do is cross-register at Harvard, or attend that seminar, or go to the office of that individual. After all, it is not as if MIT and Harvard are distant universities. That said, I can understand your disappointment at your obviously gifted son being rejected when just as obviously not so gifted applicants are embraced. From long experience with the American scrabble for “prestige” joints of the ostensibly higher learning, the reasons are likely a mixture of the first four you mention [The last two? Nah. Harvard and Princeton do like to collect mathematics students, undergraduate or graduate. They are also, even after their burning endowment like mad money, fully capable of meeting their promise of need blind admissions]. On a cynical note, which comes more naturally as time unfolds, I’d point out that if Sergei had been a gameplayer, and made an issue of being interested in some more “accessible” field yet one less common for a top mathematics student, say Sociology of Science or Philosophy, he probably would have been admitted, and admitted with glorious bags of financial aid. Once in, of course, he could have done whatever the hell he wanted. Too much of Honesty is not helpful in this Progressive America.
    For whatever it is worth, Sergei loses nothing at all by not going to Princeton or Harvard. He was wise in his first choice.

  23. p-daddy:


    Obviously this is just my $0.02. Obviously, your son is more than qualified to attend Harvard, Princeton or any other University. Moreover, he would likely excel at those institutions as an undergraduate (and likely as a graduate student). I think the issue is that the sheer # of applicants received by Harvard, Princeton etc. necessitates their rejection of applicants who are obviously qualified. I’ve seen a bit of the admissions process and I would liken it to “making a stew”. If Princeton feels they have admitted enough superstar mathematicians, but they are a little light on highly-accomplished musicians, they will try and acquire more musicians. They are aiming for some “ideal” diversity of talented individuals. The rejections may sting, but I think in the case of your son, they are essentially meaningless and simply the result of the fact that these universities were trying to bulk up in other areas of talent.

    MIT is not so bad, though, eh?

  24. Pasha:

    When I was applying I was 3-time IMO medalist, one of them gold. My outcome was being admitted by MIT but not by anybody else. I think Princeton and Harvard just have different preferences, no idea why.

    MIT is amazing though, congratulations!

  25. Jeremy:

    I was able to do graduate level mathematics courses at Harvard when I was 12. (I graduated early from high school.) But I was still rejected.

  26. Alex:

    hi, your son has super impressive record of achievements and more then qualified for ANY of IVY league schools. Things in the world are just non-linear and illogical — admission offices make illogical decision and mistakes. There are plenty of historical examples when future Nobel laureates and scientific luminaries get rejected at the beginning of their carriers. Congrates on MIT!

  27. wayne:

    The admission officer might have been really tired when they reach your son’s application. Or maybe his/her reading got interruped by a call that had a bad news, when he/she came back, he simply put that folder away at the wrong pile.

  28. Ted:

    Does it mean that it is a bad idea to tell the other school that you were admitted early to an ivy school

  29. aDad:

    It is such a shame for Harvard and Princeton not to admit such a brilliant young mathematician like Sergie. Just a shame, period.

    Having said that, MIT is the top choice for many young students and congratulations to Sergie and MIT! I am sure Sergie will be successful no matter he is at.

  30. Pedro:

    I studied Industrial and Operations Engineering at University of Michigan, and they laugh at Harvard and Princeton, not MIT.
    Most of my professors that teach Operations Research and math at University of Michigan are from MIT, none from Harvard or Princeton.
    I took courses at the business school at UM, and half of the professors where from MIT, the rest Harvard and Princeton.
    My conclusion? MIT professors where the genius cool type of person, Princeton and Harvard professors where the business arrogant type of a-holes you won´t speak twice in your life…

  31. Sheldon:

    cf. with, former classmate in my Differential Topology class at Berkeley, Gabriel Carroll

    • https://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2005/06.09/34-carroll.html

    and Evan O’Dorney

    • https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2012/1/27/Freshman-Math-Profile/?page=single

  32. Curious:

    Could you explain the differences between MIT’s financial package compared to what Harvard and Princeton would have offered?

    Did MIT fail to meet “full financial need” without loans?

    How much did you have to pay or borrow over and above the EFC (Expected Family Contribution)?

  33. Tanya Khovanova:


    MIT wanted us to pay $4,000 more a year than I expected from Harvard based on the formula that I heard. Also, for some rare fantastic kids Harvard offers $25,000 a year less than MIT. My son had a chance to be in that category.

  34. Curious:

    Okay, the $4,000 more is consistent with what I’ve read.
    These places expect you to pay a few thousand dollars per year more than EFC through work, loans, and external scholarship.

    But I’m very surpised at the $25,000 a year you mention. I thought these places had no merit-based aid (apart from getting in in the first place).
    MIT says “We award undergraduate aid on the basis of financial need only. This means that we don’t offer any merit or athletic scholarships.”
    Harvard says “All of our financial aid is awarded on the basis of demonstrated financial need – there are no academic, athletic or merit-based awards, and we meet the demonstrated need of every student, including international students, for all four years.”

    Is there a name for these $25,000 a year awards?

  35. truthgiver:

    He would’ve gotten in if he was black.

  36. Prince Blake:

    You obviously have an amazing son and as his parent you have earned bragging rights! My interest in math blossomed only recently after many years of teaching English abroad. But after a brief period working on vehicle navigation systems, I now found myself hooked! Thank you for your math blog and again, congrats on your son’s acceptance to MIT!

  37. olympiadsuccess:

    Very much surprised to see this happen in a developed nation, It seems to very regretful for the institutions with big names, exceptions can’t be ruled out, money should not be a matter or concern in lieu of knowledge. Thanks for sharing your experience in the post. Hope this scenario changes in future and financial condition does not become a hurdle in getting a better education for the best minds. Keep on sharing your insights.

  38. hm:

    almost 15 years later…

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