Thinking About Thinking

Why Are 80% of Harvard Students First-Borns?

Posted in Books, Pop Culture by larrycheng on March 6, 2010

That’s my estimate anyways.  I remember it like it was yesterday.  It was my freshman year at Harvard, and I was going to the first lecture of “Justice” – one of the most popular classes on campus.  The lectures took place in Sanders Theater packed by over a thousand students since it’s only offered once every three years.  The first question the professor asked – please stand up if you’re the first born child in your family (inclusive of only children).  I literally felt like everyone in the entire theater stood up – except me since I’m a youngest child.  Why is it that such a high majority of Harvard students are first borns or only children?

Because birth order matters according to Dr. Kevin Leman, author of The Birth Order Book – Why You Are the Way You Are.  I’ve been reading it – here’s his framework on how the different orders generally are (noting that not every characteristic applies to every child):

First Child: perfectionist, reliable, conscientious, a list maker, well organized, hard driving, a natural leader, critical, serious, scholarly, logical, doesn’t like surprises, a techie.

Middle Child: mediator, compromising, diplomatic, avoids conflict, independent, loyal to peers, has many friends, a maverick, secretive, used to not having attention.

Youngest Child: manipulative, charming, blames others, attention seeker, tenacious, people person, natural salesperson, precocious, engaging, affectionate, loves surprises.

Only Child: little adult by age seven, very thorough, deliberate, high achiever, self-motivated, fearful, cautious, voracious reader, black-and-white thinker, talks in extremes, can’t bear to fail, has very high expectations for self, more comfortable with people who are older or younger.

[Related Post: The Letter Given to the Valedictorian of Harvard]

84 Responses

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  1. Harold said, on March 6, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    Good question. Something like this has also be true for MIT undergraduates since at least the ’80s.

  2. Joe Van Dyk said, on March 6, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    That’s probably because most people are first born children. (since you said “inclusive of only children”)

    • larrycheng said, on March 6, 2010 at 3:41 pm

      Yeah, that definitely skews the results to a degree. I did take a quick look and there are about 20 million single child families in the United States. Of course, not sure that means those will all stay single child families.

      • Xianhang Zhang said, on March 6, 2010 at 4:05 pm

        I crunched the numbers once from the GSSS. 42% of Americans are first born children.

  3. Alex said, on March 6, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    Is Justice a class about the difference between correlation and causation?

    Middle Child

    P.S. The middle child symptoms are spot on for me

  4. Rex said, on March 6, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    I think it’s more a matter of resources. Harvard’s expensive to go to, sure, but what people overlook is the fact that it’s expensive to get in, too.

    All the things that really increase admission chances cost money. Private school, extracurriculars and tutoring all cost big bucks for a family, especially when considering multiple kids. Even the stuff that seems free on the surface (holding an unpaid internship at a local non-profit) ends up having costs associated with it (i.e. giving up work time to drive and pick up the kid).

    The kids that brag about how they went to public school, didn’t have a lot of money and “did everything on their own” will still have ended up costing their parents big time, especially if they’re poor. (Occasionally there will be kids that actually do everything on their own despite an absolutely abysmal family environment, but we’re talking more about generalities here.)

    So no, I don’t think it’s about personality. I don’t think first children are a “list-maker” and therefore more likely to get in. Families just spend more money on the first kid.

    • larrycheng said, on March 6, 2010 at 3:45 pm

      That’s a thought provoking theory – I wonder if anyone’s actually studied the mix of spend between children. I could actually see the first child getting a greater share, though wonder if there’s any research around that.

      • Richard Howe said, on March 7, 2010 at 8:15 am

        The number of years between children is an important variable in this equation – Our family has 19 year old twins and one younger son aged 9 – With 10 years between the children, the family unit has more money now than it did 10 years ago – In our case, the youngest child benefits from this time effect.

      • jean masterson said, on April 27, 2010 at 1:51 am

        I happen to be a Mom of 5 kids, 2 will be attending Harvard in September, 2010 and 2 will be in private high school. The last will be in public grade school. By my records, I have spent more on my second and third child than on my first. All of my kids know that whatever is paid for them in college is a loan. Their father and I already paid for college educations. It’s not official research, but something to think about.

        Also, to the previous poster who wondered aloud something like “didn’t your parents know what it would cost them to raise all those kids?” YES, those of us with large families know what the cost of raising them is, but noone can tell us what the cost of NOT having them is.

        Your view point changes with age.

  5. Q said, on March 6, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    I’m with Rex — it’s very simple:

    First child wants to go to Harvard, parents spend $$$, child gets in. Child doesn’t do anything special. Parents realize they wasted money. Second child doesn’t get to go to Harvard.

    • Transmo said, on November 4, 2011 at 7:03 am

      Great point I think.

      I have a cousin like that. The father is paying so much on his Tuition in one of the most expensive private schools in town but he’s not impressed by the boy’s performance.

      The next child in line now attends a much cheaper school, and the dad is considering moving the first guy to a school that won’t cost as high because he’s not getting anything impressive for the money he spends at the expensive school.

  6. shg said, on March 7, 2010 at 1:08 am

    Omega-3 fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins (A, E, K2, D3) are stripped out of the mother during pregnancy, and may not be replenished to pre-pregnancy levels. So really, it’s likely the that first born children are healthier, smarter or more able to use their intelligence, and more able to withstand or even enjoy the stress of high achievement. Does anyone have any IQ numbers that might support this?

    • larrycheng said, on March 8, 2010 at 9:40 pm

      SHG – this is a hypothesis I haven’t heard before.

    • jean masterson said, on April 27, 2010 at 2:00 am

      No, if fact, my second child routinely out-scored my first by 3% all during high school. I expect that this will continue during college.

      • no said, on May 3, 2010 at 6:45 pm

        whoa. 3 %.

        i…i can’t believe you calculated that. you are like the worst parent ever.

  7. Larry M said, on March 7, 2010 at 1:33 am

    I just picked up the same book since having our second.
    I wonder if gender plays a role in how the characteristics play out?

  8. Mary said, on March 7, 2010 at 2:55 am

    I think this only works in large families (except the only child characteristics, of course). Two-child (or even some three-child) families rarely turn out to fit these generalizations because the younger child is never babied and the older child never takes a caregiving role, particularly if the kids are close in age. In my experience, you can definitely tell with people from large families (four or more kids) who the baby is and who the eldest is, sometimes just by having one conversation with the person and almost always by watching the sibling group interact. But most people I know from two-child families (which is to say, most of the people I know) don’t fit the stereotype unless there is a significant age gap.

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  10. xtophr said, on March 8, 2010 at 12:04 am

    Wow. Whole lot of conjecture for a number that Mr. Cheng asserts without evidence.

    But as long as we’re at it, let’s assume that there is an inverse relationship between income/education and fertility. Let’s say that half of the children at Harvard are from one-child households, and the other half are from two-child households. Choosing students at random would yield 67% first-borns.

    So Harvard students come from affluent families and affluent families have low fertility rates.

    • larrycheng said, on March 8, 2010 at 9:42 pm

      xtophr – thanks for pointing out my lack of evidence – all I’ve got is an observation from one classroom. Hopefully I won’t be getting any angry calls from Harvard saying that they do in fact let in middle children.

    • Max said, on June 21, 2011 at 11:07 pm

      That would be 75% of all students.

  11. James said, on March 8, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    I don’t have the book handy, but Mauboussin touches on this briefly in Think Twice ( He says that at least one study about birth order like this (maybe the same one) iis a crock, and cites some argument against it. Check it out if you’re interested.

  12. JL said, on March 9, 2010 at 4:40 am

    There is a co-relation explored in the literature. Also, there is apparently a co-relation between first-born children of divorced parents and high performance.

  13. anupendra said, on March 12, 2010 at 5:47 am


    Looks like less fertile rich people, single-child families and spending time and resources on the first born may be all reasons why Harvard ends up with 87% first-borns.

    Maybe that’s why Harvard isn’t strong at producing entrepreneurs…Since Kauffman found that Entrepreneurs are usually the 2nd child out of 3 (which fits your definition of middle child being the maverick…founder nd someone who is a diplomatic mediator with a large social network – possibly the characteristics of someone who would be a good CEO? ).

    However the next-gen of founders will be hard-working techies…does this mean we’ll see a rise in startups from Harvard undergrads ? I’d hasten a guess that startup-rich MIT may have a much lower number of first borns, contrary to the speculation someone else has made here.

    Other stats on the Kauffman study are compiled here.

  14. Harold said, on March 12, 2010 at 11:06 am

    It’s not speculation: one of my best friends is an administrator for a big department’s undergraduate program, and among other things we went through a large sample of one year’s admitted students and noted birth order. This administrator has seen this pattern for 3 decades now.

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  16. Shakes Mapapa said, on March 14, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    Dr Kevin Leman’s so-called characteristics are as accurate as a horoscope is predictive. Those ‘characteristics’ are not generalistic at all. What sample of people did he take, from which country, from what cultural background, from what financial background? This thing of bunching up up people in generalistic categories is psuedo-science and not even worth giving the time of day. It is the kind of thinking that leads to discriminatory practices in society and does not warrant being taken seriously for fear of the social repercussions of thinking of people in this way. The most likely reason why Harvard students may mostly be first borns or only children is, as quite a few peolpe in this comment thread have said, simply a result of Harvard students coming from affluent families who have lower fertility rates. Period.

  17. F1LT3R said, on March 30, 2010 at 5:54 pm

    An alternate hypothesis…

    “80% of Harvard students are first-born’s because: Harvard is so expensive a family can only afford it once.”

    It would be interesting to compare this 80% to colleges across the world.

  18. Ransomed by Fire said, on April 9, 2010 at 9:11 pm

    As quite a few commenters have already noted, it is difficult to determine the context and proper interpretation of the 80% statistic. One question that comes to my mind, which I believe might help sort out the issue of whether or not this trend is caused by the parents’ economic standing, is what is the birth order of all applicants? If 80% of applicants are first-borns anyway, does this really reflect accurately on issues of acceptance, or is it just about who had the money to even bother with applying?

  19. Arie said, on April 10, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    Well in my case I’m my mother’s third (my mother had 4 in all) child but my father’s first So will i have the qualites of both the first child and the middle one? Or it jut depends on how i was nurtured

  20. James B said, on April 11, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    I’m not an only child technically, but my siblings were all born over 15 years before me and had left home when I was but a toddler. As a result, I reckon the only child description is closer to my personality than the youngest born, but then those are somewhat general statements.

  21. Mud said, on April 18, 2010 at 8:29 am

    What about kids with complicated stepfamilies?

    • Harold said, on April 18, 2010 at 8:52 am

      “What about kids with complicated stepfamilies?”

      In many cases they won’t be attending an expensive school since one of the required parents won’t be making the required contribution (or even cooperating in the process). The emotional mess of this sort of thing also mitigates against being really successful.

      MIT at least is overwhelmingly populated by the children of intact families.

  22. Fred Destin said, on April 22, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    Given the depth and quality of responses, I would hazard that 87% of respondents are from the Boston area and have been to one of its prime institutions, and are possibly first borns too 🙂 Great post.

  23. anna said, on July 16, 2010 at 1:26 am

    Seriously, whether your information is correct or not, are we really supposed to believe you went to Harvard when your grammar is so bad that your OPENING SENTENCE ends with the word “anyways?” And, hey, a comma now and then is helpful, too. I doubt many Harvard professors are letting students graduate who can’t punctuate a sentence.

    • WILL said, on July 4, 2011 at 11:58 pm

      They let Obama graduate, and he can’t do basic math.

  24. Amanda said, on July 26, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    I would say generalizing in this way is opening a can of worms.

    My family is the EXACT opposite. The older brother is an unorganized slob who sits and does nothing all day and expects to be rewarded for it, while the youngest makes lists, goes to college and strives to be as logical and as analytical as possible. I know several other families who have the exact same situation.

    I would say that if one were to do an ACTUAL study, and not just with Harvard, they would find that there are just as many of the youngest kids in high-ranking colleges as there are oldest kids.

  25. Chase said, on August 30, 2010 at 1:22 pm

    What does it mean if you’re oldest sibling is your half-sibling because if there is some genetic trend that creates this behavior, wouldn’t it be skewed by having separate parents?

  26. dagaz11 said, on September 12, 2010 at 8:53 am

    Freaky how the only child description fits me to a tee.

  27. Chris said, on November 19, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    I agree with that. I’m an only child, and all the criteria match with no exception. I also know many other cases in which the rest of the categories are accurate.

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  29. SooSang said, on January 12, 2011 at 1:35 am

    Of all the responses, i find the one about most ambitious families having only 1 or 2 children as a good point. However, i have 3 children, and i must say that the generalizations of the oldest, middle, youngest fit my kids. Btw, when i was an undergrad at Stanford, a large psych class showed this same effect.

  30. Jure said, on February 16, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    I guess this might be because the siblings don’t want to be like their older brother or sister. It’s like the thing with the generations: They always reply with the contrary (example: after the disciplined generations the hippie geneartion started and after them the techno generation got up)

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  32. Completly off. said, on February 27, 2011 at 12:56 am

    My half brother micheal is the oldest, he lives at his friends house and is like 22. He used to live with us in a trailer because he was unemployed. He punched a 1ftx1ft hole in a wall for no reason, let all his dishes and food rot in the sink, never took out his trash so it was filled with bags of trash, and when he did take it out he emptied it on our property. And he hasnt even tried to get a job in like ever. Hes a total asshole, doesnt talk to the family and steals food from our fridge because hes out of money, and has stollen several things from my dad including duct tape, and 10 of his tools.

  33. doodoobrowne said, on March 1, 2011 at 5:10 am

    Michael sounds like a righteous dude.

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  35. izzayyyy said, on July 2, 2011 at 4:57 am

    I’m the youngest in my family but I am completly the oppostie to what it says, and my older brother is rebellious, grumpy, laid back… maybe we’re just a disfunctional family(:

    • larrycheng said, on July 24, 2011 at 9:32 am

      Isabella, I think the book would say that families with different gender kids might not fit the prototype quite as well. For example, if the oldest and youngest are boys, and the middle is a girl – it’s not uncommon to see the girl act like a “first child” since she’s the oldest girl in the family. Anyway, all of these analogies are never perfect. Thanks for checking out the blog.

  36. Cam said, on July 4, 2011 at 10:58 pm

    Q: Why Are 80% of Harvard Students First-Borns?
    A: Because their parents still have money.

  37. manxz said, on July 23, 2011 at 11:22 pm

    That’s why higher education should be primarily free (state-funded), just as in Poland .

    • manxz said, on July 23, 2011 at 11:23 pm

      (proud grin here)

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  39. Sonya said, on August 9, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    what about twins?

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  43. Lucika said, on December 10, 2011 at 10:28 pm

    .. I find it funny how I’m the oldest child, yet I meet the expectations of the only child. Odd.

  44. Pepo said, on July 25, 2013 at 1:54 am

    I kind of resent the comments made about the youngest. (I’m second and youngest and although I have some of those traits, I’m not so sure about others like manipulative and blames others …really? Dang, how come the others’ descriptions weren’t as pejorative.

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