Should Harvard offer a “good enough, but no room” certificate?

There are people who think that the information conveyed by a Harvard diploma is almost entirely made up of the fact of admission to Harvard; that is, that Harvard graduates on average have no more skills than students who got into Harvard but chose to go somewhere else.

I’m not one of those people.  But it got me thinking — the fact of admission certainly conveys some information.  And there are unquestionably lots of students who the admission office feels are academically strong enough to attend Harvard, but who don’t make it into the entering class.

What would happen if the admissions office offered exactly this certification?  A signed piece of paper saying, “At age 17, student X had credentials which would have made academic success at Harvard very likely, had there been room.”  Would that be a valuable piece of paper for a 22-year-old to have?  Would it be in Harvard’s interest to offer a certain number of certificates of that kind?

Related question:  can a student who gets into Harvard, but goes to a lower-ranked school (say, for financial or family reasons) put on their CV that they were admitted to Harvard, but declined?  Something about that strikes me as strange.  But why?  Isn’t it useful information for a potential employer?

(Note:  obviously the above applies with any elite university in place of “Harvard.”)

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6 thoughts on “Should Harvard offer a “good enough, but no room” certificate?

  1. Richard Séguin says:

    Yes, that could be useful information to an employer, but I wonder what the effect is on the student. Having almost gotten there but not quite, will they be plagued with thoughts of what if and if only I …? I applied to Harvard in the late 1960s and was not admitted. I was interviewed, but I doubt that has any meaning in and of itself. The interview itself was a disaster beyond my control:

    They probably could have issued me a certificate for the most unusual interview of the year. I don’t know if I was anywhere near close to the final cut, but the unfortunate circumstances did plague me for years afterwards. That, and the financial disappointment in regard to Berkeley, was probably a lasting and significant undertow.

    Now I caution people my age to ignore regrets of the past so they can move on, but young people are more susceptible to that sort of thing.

  2. Andy Putman says:

    If a student is genuinely good enough to go to Harvard and applies to a sufficient number of elite universities, then they will probably get into at least one of them. I suppose that the “Harvard-Yale-Princeton” trio has a special cachet with the general public, but I don’t think the job prospects of someone with a degree from, eg, Duke or Northwestern or Cornell are all that different from someone with a degree from Harvard. And an actual diploma from one of those places is surely worth a heck of a lot more than some certificate saying that someone was “good enough” for Harvard.

  3. Marli Wang says:

    I can’t imagine this would be useful to any but a summer internship employer. A “Harvard Admissions Certificate” signals only a student’s level of academic or personal achievement at age 17 — it is largely irrelevant by the time the student graduates from college.

    The more compelling reason for why Harvard eshould not issue such certificates is that Harvard will be inundated with applications from people who have no interest in attending Harvard and only want the certificate to pad their resumes and/or egos. Harvard would end up devoting ever more resources to the task of screening for applicants who are actually a good match for Harvard, and while the admit rate would probably shoot down for no other reason than their offering the “good enough for Harvard certificate,” Harvard would have to reveal their actual number of certificates awarded, and the public would perceive Harvard admissions to be even more of a random event, and this would probably devalue a Harvard name on alumni resumes. All in all, not in Harvard’s interest.

  4. Sam says:

    We could do the same thing with journal publications. “Accepted by the Annals of Mathematics (but not printed, due to large page count)”

  5. David Dynerman says:

    I think a related question comes up from the Ed X initiative. Right now the plan seems to be to pay an optional fee to have your online coursework graded and, if satisfactory, receive an Ed-X certificate of completion that does not mention the words ‘Harvard’ or ‘MIT’.

    I imagine that eventually you’ll be able to take a full BA’s worth of courses online. Suppose you didn’t get into Harvard at 17 but you completed such a program with good grades. Should you get a “Could have graduated from Harvard, but didn’t get in” certificate?

  6. KCd says:

    This reminds me that back when I was applying to college, Harvard included with an offer of admission a certificate suitable for framing saying that so-and-so was admitted. Jordan, do you remember getting something like that?

    I remember visiting the house of a (not Harvard) college classmate’s parents a few years later in which the parents actually had that certificate framed on the wall! No school I was admitted to for college included such an obnoxious certificate with an admission offer.

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