After weeks of negotiation, Harvard University recently agreed to provide the Department of Justice access to its admissions files. The department is reopening a complaint by 63 Asian-American groups that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants. The complaint was previously dismissed under the Obama administration. Many worry that government lawyers plan to use the case to argue that all race-conscious admissions – including affirmative action – are a violation of the Civil Rights Act.
Separately, Harvard undergraduates have recently begun to take advantage of their right to view their own admissions files, often only to become frustrated in their efforts to pinpoint exactly why they got admitted.
The inquiries of the Department of Justice and the curious Harvard students have something in common: Both are unlikely to turn up any evidence of why some applicants make the cut and others don’t. That’s because both inquiries rest on the faulty assumption that admissions decisions are driven by an objective, measurable process that will yield the same results over and over again. As a Harvard professor who has studied and written a book about college admissions and their impact on students, I can tell you that’s just not how it works. I am not speaking officially for Harvard and I am not involved in undergraduate admissions.
Elite private universities have made clear time and again that their admissions decisions are made through a holistic decision-making process that involves a series of discussions among the admissions team. This means, for example, Harvard rejects 1 in 4 students with perfect SAT scores. The University of Pennsylvania and Duke University reject three out of five high school valedictorians. Despite universities like Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Stanford having closely aligned admissions criteria and similar rates of admission, just because an applicant gets into one school does not mean the applicant will get into another. That’s why it makes headlines when a student is reported to have gained admission to all the Ivies. This is a rare, unexpected event.
What a holistic approach entails
So, how do universities make admissions decisions? William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard, writes of an “expansive view of excellence.” This includes “extracurricular distinction and personal qualities” in addition to test scores and grades. Evaluating applications is a long process. At Harvard, it involves at least two readers of each file. It also involves discussions among a subcommittee of at least four individuals that last up to an hour. The process is similar for other selective colleges. Admissions officers at the same university often differ about which students to admit. The process is more art than science.
Holistic evaluation allows admissions officers to take into account opportunities, hardships and other experiences that may have affected an applicant’s grades and SAT scores. They may also consider how those things affected their participation in activities outside of school. Nevertheless, the outcomes of admission to the most elite colleges are unequal. In fact, while 37 percent of young adults in the United States are black or Latino, just 19 percent of students at the top 100 colleges in the country are.
In addition, while only one-third of American adults have a bachelor’s degree, a review of Ivy League universities’ published data reveals that about 85 percent of students have a parent with a bachelor’s degree. So, even if holistic evaluation does a better job than looking at test scores and grades alone, the process still concludes by systematically undervaluing working class, poor, black and Latino young men and women. That is, if we assume that talent and “personal qualities” are equally distributed in our society, this disproportion should tell us something is amiss.
In addition to the holistic evaluation process, admissions teams need to consider the needs of specific groups on campus. These needs vary from campus to campus and from year to year. Coaches can recruit top athletes for positions on their teams played by graduating seniors, and those recruits enter the fast lane to admission. And, just as the baseball coach can recruit a shortstop, the orchestra director may request a top bassoon player to fill a missing part in the orchestra. Since needs of campus organizations and teams vary from year to year, you can’t glean much from admission files in isolation like the DOJ and curious students hope to do.
Merit is overrated
Are there any discernible patterns between who gets in and students who were seriously considered but rejected? Probably not. Harvard President Drew Faust has said that Harvard could fill its incoming class twice with high school valedictorians.
In fact, we should discard the notion that admissions is a meritocratic process that selects the “best” 18-year-olds who apply to a selective university. When we let go of our meritocracy ideals, we see more clearly that so many talented, accomplished young people who will be outstanding leaders in the future will not make it to the likes of Harvard, Stanford and Yale. There simply are not enough places for all of them at those universities. Further, many more disadvantaged young people have never had the opportunity to cultivate talents because their parents did not have the resources to pay for private music lessons or a pitching coach. In fact, the gap between what wealthy and poor parents spend on extracurricular activities has dramatically increased in recent years. So looking for explanations for why you did get in, or whether some groups are favored over others, misses the broader picture of the lack of clarity on what gets anyone into elite colleges. It also ignores the unequal opportunities young Americans have in the process.
One way forward for college admissions, which I have suggested as a thought experiment in my book, “The Diversity Bargain,” is to take all qualified students for a selective college and enter them into an admissions lottery. The lottery could have weights for desired characteristics the college deems important, such as social class, geographic diversity, race and intended major. This method would make clear the arbitrariness in the admissions process. It would also help students admitted — and those not admitted - understand that admission — and rejection — should not hold the strong social meaning in American society that it does today. In “The Diversity Bargain,” I show the downsides of maintaining students’ beliefs that college admissions is a meritocracy. Most students expressed strong faith in a process that ultimately underselects black, Latino and working class applicants, among others. They will take these understandings with them as they ascend to positions of power and make hiring decisions, design tax policies and shape media discourses.
Until the Department of Justice and admitted students understand the arbitrary nature of how admissions decisions at elite colleges are made, they will be perplexed by the complex art that is elite college admissions.
About The Author
Natasha Warikoo, Associate Professor of Education, Harvard University
- Pub Date: August 16, 2011
- 405 pages
Brand: Robin Mamlet
Studio: Three Rivers Press
Label: Three Rivers Press
Publisher: Three Rivers Press
Manufacturer: Three Rivers Press
Featuring the wise counsel of more than 50 deans of admission, no other guide has such thorough, expert, compassionate, and professional advice.
Let’s be honest: applying to college can be stressful for students and parents. But here’s the good news: you can get in. Robin Mamlet has been dean of admission at three of America's most selective colleges, and journalist and parent Christine VanDeVelde has been through the process first hand. With this book, you will feel like you have both a dean of admission and a parent who has been there at your side.
Inside this book, you'll find clear, comprehensive, and expert answers to all your questions along the way to an acceptance letter:
• The role of extracurricular activities
• What it means to find a college that's the "right fit"
• What's more important: high grades or tough courses
• What role does testing play
• The best candidates for early admission
• When help from parents is too much help
• Advice for athletes, artists, international students, and those with learning differences
• How wait lists work
• Applying for financial aid
This will be your definitive resource during the sophomore, junior, and senior years of high school.
Studio: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Label: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Manufacturer: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
There is a crisis that millions of families face each fall: how to get their child into highly selective colleges. In 2015, the Ivy League received almost 250,000 applications for 14,000 spots, while one of the top public universities, UCLA, received over 92,000 applications for 5,800 spots in its freshman class. This crisis spirals out of control as the number of applicants from the U.S. and abroad skyrockets.
Whether your child dreams of attending Harvard or Berkeley, Earning Admission is the blueprint that empowers your child to use strategic planning and marketing to stand out amongst a sea of applicants and earn admission.
This step-by-step guide to earning admission teaches:
• How your child can select and take classes in high school to stand out from other straight ‘A’ students.
• How your child can dramatically increase her odds of admission by strategically choosing a major.
• How your child can write a personal statement that sets her apart from other applicants by demonstrating perspective, passion, and maturity.
• How your child can build a slate of extracurricular activities that admissions officers value.
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"Earning Admission taught us everything we needed to know about making our daughter a unique and competitive applicant It helped us get our daughter get into Yale." -Jay C., parent of a Yale undergrad.
- College Essay Essentials A Step By Step Guide to Writing a Successful College Admissions Essay
Brand: Ethan Sawyer
Writing an amazing college admission essay is easier than you think!
So you're a high school senior given the task of writing a 650-word personal statement for your college application. Do you tell the story of your life, or a story from your life? Do you choose a single moment? If so, which one? The options seem endless.
Lucky for you, they're not. College counselor Ethan Sawyer (aka The College Essay Guy) will show you that there are only four (really, four!) types of college admission essays. And all you have to do to figure out which type is best for you is answer two simple questions:
- Have you experienced significant challenges in your life?
- Do you know what you want to be or do in the future?
With these questions providing the building blocks for your essay, Sawyer guides you through the rest of the process, from choosing a structure to revising your essay, and answers the big questions that have probably been keeping you up at night: How do I brag in a way that doesn't sound like bragging? and How do I make my essay, like, deep?
Packed with tips, tricks, exercises, and sample essays from real students who got into their dream schools, College Essay Essentials is the only college essay guide to make this complicated process logical, simple, and (dare we say it?) a little bit fun.