March 29, 2007 -- Nearly 23,000 of the most talented high school seniors in the United States -- and around the world -- will rush home from school Thursday to find out whether they are Harvard material.
Just 2,058 will open their mail with a smile.
Harvard this year broke its own admissions record by accepting the smallest percentage of applicants, selecting about 9 percent of a supercharged applicant pool.
By contrast, the average selectivity rate in 2006 among the 2,530 U.S. four-year colleges was 70 percent.
It's not just Harvard that's sending out the news, good and bad. Colleges and universities across the country have begun notifying students, keeping 1.8 million college-bound teenagers on edge.
"This is a particularly stressful time," said Joyce Smith, chief executive of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "Good kids are going to get rejected."
In Harvard's case, that's 20,897 good kids, to be exact.
"Parents will be outraged when their kid gets a rejection," Smith said. "But the idea that you failed because you didn't get into Harvard when you have six other totally viable options? We feel like parents should use it as a teaching moment."
The Harvard admissions department also set new records for the number of minority students accepted -- with never-before-reached levels of black, Asian-American, Latino and American Indian students getting the nod.
The prestigious university is also touting increased economic diversity in this year's acceptance pool: An estimated 26 percent of those accepted will qualify for Harvard's financial aid initiative, a program begun three years ago that requires no tuition payments for families whose annual incomes are less than $60,000, and substantial breaks for families whose incomes are between $60,000 and $80,000.
That's a considerable boon, considering tuition at Harvard is $43,655, including room and board.
Harvard is just one of a growing number of private colleges using monster endowments -- for Harvard, almost $30 billion -- that lets schools offer middle- and low-income families a tuition break.
On top of that, Harvard's acceptance letters went out to 79 countries this year, another statistic the school is eager to trumpet.
"More than ever, students from all economic backgrounds recognize the critical importance of living with and learning from talented classmates whose life experiences differ from their own, classmates who come from the widest array of economic, ethnic, cultural and geographic origins," said William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid, in a statement.
One thing that didn't change at Harvard College this year was the credentials of the competition.
Of the 22,955 high schoolers to apply, nearly 2,500 scored perfect on the verbal SAT test; 3,200 on the math SAT; and more than 3,000 are ranked first in their respective high school classes.
For students applying for admission next year, Harvard has decided to scrap its "early action" policy, which until now has allowed students to apply early without binding them to matriculation.
"Early admission programs tend to advantage the advantaged," interim president Derek Bok said in September when the decision was announced, adding that early action applicants tend to come from more sophisticated backgrounds, from families who have a better idea of how to play the college admissions game.
For those newly accepted at Harvard, decision time follows quickly. Like most American colleges, the admissions department recognizes May 1 as a mandatory reply date.
Harvard's select group will choose from among the world's most competitive colleges and the colleges, in turn, will try to lure their accepted applicants to campus.
"What's interesting is that some of those students who got in will choose not to go," Smith said. "So Harvard still has some work to do."