Meet Ellie Hylton: The Young, Black Woman Who Graduated With the Highest GPA at Harvard

I dreamed of attending Harvard since I was 12 years-old. Back then I knew fairly little about the university beyond its most discussed attributes: old, storied, and prestigious. That was enough for me. In middle school, I devised a plan to get there by any means necessary. It wasn't until I arrived on campus, that I realized what a true privilege it is to spend each day sitting beside and learning from some of the most brilliant minds in the world.

Ask a Harvard grad, and they'll likely tell you the best part about Harvard is the people. They'll amaze and inspire you everyday. Ellie Hylton is one of those phenomenal people. A member of the Harvard College Class of 2013. She was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Society in the fall, and she graduated summa cum laude with a degree in sociology and the highest GPA in her class. For that distinction, Harvard awarded her the Sophia Freund Prize.

On a personal note, Ellie possesses a kind, humble spirit that makes her joy to engage with her. She'd never mention it, but she comes from a family full of Harvard alums including her aunt Soledad O'Brien.

I asked Ellie a few questions about her time at Harvard.
-Kimberly Foster

KF: Both of your parents are Harvard College alums. When did you decide you wanted to attend? 
EH: My parents never pushed Harvard. I did visits at several schools during my senior year of high school, and I eventually did an overnight visit with the track team at Harvard. I really liked the people that I met during that overnight trip (I met one of my current best friends on that trip!). Overall, I felt that the campus was alive with friendly and interesting people, so I went with my gut and chose Harvard.

KF: Did you feel pressure to graduate with honors because of the precedent set by your parents?  
EH: I never felt pressured to achieve anything because of what my parents have done. In fact, my parents almost never talked about Harvard while I was growing up. Throughout my four years of college, my mom and dad were pretty relaxed about all things academic. They encouraged me to do my best, but they never set specific expectations for me.

KF: How did you juggle academics and athletics? 
EH: I actually left the track team at the end of my sophomore year due to injuries, but before that, I relied on my experience from balancing a busy schedule in high school. I took my classes earlier in the morning, in order to free up my schedule for homework before practice. I learned to use my free time efficiently; I made a lot of very detailed “to-do” lists. I also took many classes that I enjoyed, so studying wasn’t always a miserable task.

KF: What would you say was the key to your success inside and outside of the classroom?
EH: It sounds cliché, but I tried to follow the things that I was passionate about. When I started as a freshman in college, I thought that I would be pre-med. After taking a science course, I realized that I didn’t really love spending hours in the lab. When I took a course on social inequality, I was immediately hooked; I found that sociologists asked all the questions about the world that I was interested in. So, I decided to study sociology—a decision which opened up some great research opportunities for me. I think it’s important to follow the issues that excite you. Pursue the questions that keep you up at night (for a good reason), rather than the ones that feel like a burden to answer.

KF: What was your hardest moment at Harvard?
EH: My hardest moment at Harvard was when I decided to leave the track team. I had spent the previous two years being injured, and I felt like a bit of a failure. I also love being in team settings (probably because I grew up with six siblings), so I was afraid to lose my teammates. But I immediately got involved in a research program and I volunteered as a tutor to high school students. I met a bunch of new friends through these activities, and I built a new team of sorts. I look back on that time (end of sophomore to early junior year) as a difficult one, but I’m grateful for all of the experiences I’ve had at Harvard.

KF: If you could do your college experience again, what would you do differently?
EH: Well, I’ve often said that if I could redo college as a man, I would perform with Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Theatricals. (I am a huge fan of the HPT shows!) But, realistically speaking… if I could do college again, I would do a few small things differently, but I wouldn’t change very much. I would try to spend less money at the convenience store that stays open until 2 AM in Harvard Square. I would also minor in philosophy, because I realized (much too late) that I enjoy reading and writing for philosophy classes.

KF: Who is your biggest role model or figure of inspiration? Why?
EH: My parents are definitely my biggest role models. I admire how they’ve raised seven kids while both working. I can only hope to someday be as organized and selfless as they are; I’m still not sure how they do it!

KF: With your future plans tied to public policy, what is a contemporary social issue that is close to your heart? 
EH: The racial and socioeconomic achievement gap in the U.S. is an issue that’s very close to my heart. Beyond working as a tutor to high school students in Boston, I also wrote my senior thesis on the academic and social experiences of minority students in a school desegregation program. I would like to continue researching the achievement gap issue, and I hope to someday help implement policies to close the many different gaps we have in this country.

KF: Finally, what were your thoughts when you found out you won the Sophia Freund Prize?
EH: I was surprised and very grateful. I didn’t even know that the prize existed until a friend of mine mentioned it to me right before graduation. I was even more surprised and grateful when I saw all of the love that I was getting on the internet for winning! When I first found out that I had won (last week), I told my little siblings, and they didn’t seem to care – haha. I really appreciate everyone’s kind words and support!

Congratulations again, Ellie! We're proud of you!


Ellie Hylton Graduates With Highest GPA at Harvard College

Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor of For Harriet. Email or  

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