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What is the Harvard Z-List?

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A small number of applicants are accepted at Harvard every year via a little-known side door: the Harvard “Z-list.” A deferred admissions program, the Harvard Z-list promises a place at the renowned university, after a gap year, for just a select few applicants. 


Does the Harvard Z-List Exist?


The Harvard Z-list might be the stuff of legend, but it does, in fact, exist. According to William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid since 1986 and graduate himself (class of 1967), the Z-list has been in practice since the early 1970s, although it wouldn’t acquire its moniker until years later when computer technicians in the admissions office coined the term. The Z-list earned its name because it’s the last group of students to gain admissions—behind both regular and waitlisted candidates. 


Not only is the Harvard Z-list real, the practice of “Z-listing” candidates has become more common in recent years. Marlyn E. McGrath, Director of Admissions, told The Crimson (Harvard’s student newspaper) in 2002 there were 20 students admitted via the Z-list. In 2010, Fitzsimmons said the number of students admitted from the Z-list was between 30 and 50, and according to reporting from the New York Times, the number of Z-listed students has continued to climb—between 2014 and 2019, about 50 to 60 students were admitted through the Z-list annually. 


If you are unfamiliar with what the Harvard Z-list is, it’s simply an admission option given to a tiny number of applicants that offers them a place at the university the year following the year they applied. For example, an applicant who applied for a spot in Harvard’s 2021 incoming class would be given a spot in 2022’s class—after they’ve taken a gap year. According to Fitzsimmons, these are students whom the university wants to admit but doesn’t have room for. Unlike a waitlist, it’s unclear if there is anything a student can do to move off of the Z-list other than to agree to the terms or reject them. 


Who Gets Invited to Be On the Z-List?


The Z-list has been in the spotlight for the past few years—and not for flattering reasons—as it was part of a filing by Students For Fair Admissions (SFFA) in a lawsuit against Harvard, accusing the university of discrimination. According to the SFFA’s filings, white students make up approximately 70% of the students on the Z-list—a stark contrast when you consider that just 2% of students admitted through the Z-list are Black. 


Legacy students are also over-represented on the Harvard Z-list—from 2014 to 2019, about half of the students Z-listed were the children of Harvard alumni. At Harvard, legacy students have a 33% acceptance rate, compared with an overall acceptance rate of under 6%—many see their predominance on the Z-list as yet another advantage that children of alumni and donors have over average applicants. 


It’s also been hinted at that the Z-list favors the wealthy. For an article in The Crimson in 2010, the paper interviewed 28 Z-listed students and discovered only four of them were receiving financial aid from the university, an enormous difference when compared to the 70% of the overall student body that receives financial aid from the university. 

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Should You Take a Z-List Offer?


Whether or not to take the Z-list offer is a question every student must ask themselves. A Harvard degree is extremely prestigious and, in the end, no one will know that you got admitted from the Z-list—they’ll simply know you graduated from Harvard. 


It’s also worth considering just how bad your desire to attend Harvard is—if Harvard was on your list of colleges, it’s likely you applied and were accepted to other top institutions. Is Harvard worth waiting for, or would you be better served by attending a different school? The filings from the SFFA filings indicate that students on the Z-list have academic records more closely resembling those of rejected students than those of admitted students—they also claim that Z-listed students perform worse than other admitted students. 


Another factor to consider is how you will use your year off. Students from higher-income families can use the extra time for a variety of things, from exploring new interests to working with a charity they’re passionate about to traveling the world (the students interviewed in 2010 had visited 35 countries, spanning every continent but Antarctica).


A benefit that many Z-list admittees have appreciated is the chance to take a breath before college after a hectic and stress-filled high school schedule. This allows them to enter college refreshed and ready to meet the new challenges presented by it. 


There are some downsides to deferring for a year, however. For example, a year off can present financial challenges for some students from lower-income families—one student in the aforementioned 2010 Crimson article said: “it was difficult for her mother to have her living at home a year longer than expected.” If you work during your gap year, your income can also impact your financial aid package.


Another downside is that you can fall behind your peers, and that you delay your entry into the workforce by a year. This also leads to more “lost” income.


Do Other Schools Have Z-Lists?


Schools typically don’t promote programs like Harvard’s Z-list, but there are some other colleges with similar programs. In 2016, the Chicago Maroon (the University of Chicago’s student newspaper) reported that the university kept a Z-list option open for between 20 and 30 students. 


Other colleges like Middlebury and Colorado College have embraced gap semesters—allowing students to take a breath from high school and gain “real-world” experience before coming to campus. In these cases, however, students aren’t waitlisted or “z-listed” and take time off on their own volition, doing so through school-sanctioned programs. 


If you have more questions about the Harvard Z-list or other similar programs, check out our free Q&A forum. You can ask any college-related questions, and get answers from peers and verified experts. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account to get started!

Short Bio
A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English, Tim Peck currently lives in Concord, New Hampshire, where he balances a freelance writing career with the needs of his two Australian Shepherds to play outside.