06 April 2016

Why making holistic admissions even more holistic is a very bad idea

If there’s one thing that everyone can agree on, it’s that college admissions is out of control. With schools posting new record-low acceptance rates each year, it’s hard not to wonder where things will end. Will Princeton soon have a 3% acceptance rate? Will Harvard dip below 2% Or, as Frank Bruni recently suggested in a satirical New York Times piece, will Stanford eventually boast that it did not accept a single student into its freshman class?

As long as students can apply to as many schools as they want with the click of a button, there’s nothing to suggest that the stampede for spots at a handful of elite schools will become any less intense; the fact that the vast majority of colleges in the United States accept over half of their applicants is no consolation to those seeking a spot at the top. With 40,000+ students clamoring for only a couple of thousands slots at places like Harvard and Stanford, and virtually no baseline criteria to deter weaker applicants, there’s no way for the process not to be stressful.

Now onto this landscape has been dropped a report produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and endorsed by admissions officials and administrators at a plethora of top colleges.

The report essentially makes the argument that to reduce the stress on applicants and de-escalate the college arms race, colleges should focus less on academic achievement and more on “soft” factors such as empathy and community service.

I’d heard a fair amount of buzz about this, but I only just got around to reading the report myself. I’d already more or less drawn my conclusions from hearsay, and unfortunately there was nothing to contradict those impressions. Nevertheless a few things stuck out for me.

First, the reports starts from a premise that is true (too many applicants, too much stress, too much competition) and uses it to form a conclusion that does not entirely follow logically (reduced academic expectations.)  Although it suggests deemphasizing the importance of brand names, it does nothing to suggest that colleges should take responsibility for feeding the application frenzy or for encouraging students to apply to schools at which they have no real chance of admission.

As things stand right now, elite colleges are looking for students who, in addition to being good at everything, are either spectacular at something and/or belong to a demographic that makes them particularly desirable. If the students applying were primarily the ones who actually fit into that category, the number of applications would drop dramatically, and a large part of the problem would be solved.

That, however, would lead to higher admissions rates and potentially lower USNWR rankings — two things that would make schools appear less desirable and thus less able to compete with their peers. So although colleges claim to want what is best for students, they also have a stake in ensuring that their applicant pools not only remain as large as possible but continually increase in order to keep pace with peer institutions. (I can’t seem to find it now, but I recently came across an article that quoted a consultant who was brought in to advise admissions committees at elite colleges but whose suggestions were never implemented. He said something to the effect that admissions officers would bemoan how out of control the process had become and then, without the slightest hint of irony, immediately turn around and discuss how to recruit more international students.)

Furthermore, if colleges were to deemphasize academic factors, as the report recommends, elite colleges would most likely receive even greater numbers of applications. Name-brand appeal is not about to disappear (after all, the report generated so much attention in large part because it came out of Harvard), and exclusivity breeds exclusivity: the fewer applicants a college accepts, the greater its value. By placing the burden on applicants to become more empathetic, or at least to present themselves as such, colleges conveniently sidestep their own role in driving the process.

The report is also, in many ways, proposing the system that already exists. Despite the fact that students can list numerous extra-curricular activities on their applications, colleges are pretty clear — and have been for a while — that quality counts more than quantity. “Serial joiners” have absolutely no advantage in the admissions process, nor do students who participate in expensive community service projects abroad. Colleges learned to see through those ploys a very long time ago.

If students are not getting the message, it’s more likely because their (overworked, overwhelmed) guidance counselors haven’t managed to impress it upon them than because colleges have failed to make that message sufficiently clear.

And if students are participating in extracurricular activities simply to impress colleges and to the detriment of their schoolwork, why not then suggest that the emphasis on extracurriculars is misplaced and insist that applying to college should be a primarily academic endeavor? Why is it taken for granted that schoolwork should take a hit?

Furthermore, while the report posits that students should seek “authentic” experiences before enrolling college, it then turns around and suggests just the opposite:

Rather than students “doing for” students from different backgrounds, for example, we encourage students to “do with”—to work in diverse groups for sustained periods of time on school and community challenges, groups in which students learn from one another. Importantly, these experiences of diversity should be carefully constructed and facilitated.

The real goal, it would seem, is not to let students experience the bumps and knocks of independence, but rather to bring them into line with a particular line of social orthodoxy. Experiences that are “carefully constructed and facilitated” are unlikely to prepare already-sheltered students for the transition to adult life, where interpersonal relations can be messy, unpredictable, and unfair.

What I find most troubling about the report, however, is that seems girded by the belief that admissions committees are actually capable of gauging qualities such as authenticity and sincerity — that they can somehow peek into applicants’ souls and suss out the purity of their intentions.

The only thing admissions committees can truly judge is how well an application indicates that a given individual will fulfill a college’s need for a student with a particular profile. As Wesleyan University president Michael Roth pointed out in Alia Wong’s recent Atlantic article “What Values Really Matter in the College Application Process,” as soon as students figure out what elite colleges are looking for in their applicants, they will go to extraordinary lengths to conform to that profile — regardless of their actual interests.  

Besides, is it really appropriate for colleges to be so invested in managing applicants’ emotional lives? There’s something more than a little off-putting about that prospect. Not every kid is a passionate extrovert, and those who aren’t should have the right to be considered on their own merits.

Given the inherently limited picture of a student that an application can present, the entire idea of “authenticity” is highly suspect. What students are really being asked to produce is not really “authenticity” but rather a carefully cultivated version of what colleges believe authenticity looks like.

Although admissions officers may insist otherwise, they actually have no way of telling when an applicant has received too much help with an application; they can only tell when an application has been polished too obviously, when an adult’s fingerprints jump too clearly off the page.

The reality is that a coach who does understand how the game works can create a veneer of authenticity, or at least the particular brand of authenticity that colleges are looking for. They can leave just enough warts in just the right places — or, more calculatedly, encourage a few warts in just the right places. They can capture a student’s voice in a way that seems entirely natural but that thoroughly obscures the fact that the student could never have produced such cogent, grammatically correct, and stylistically engaging writing on their own. As problematic as standardized-test essays are — and right now, they are hideously problematic — they do at least offer admissions committees the chance to see whether applicants can cobble together minimally acceptable prose in the absence of direct adult intervention. Unfortunately, that’s not always something that can be taken for granted.

The existing system, in short, is set up to be gamed; and the “fixes” proposed by the report do nothing to mitigate the problem (there is no indication that colleges would also deemphasize admissions essays). Indeed, they would likely make it worse.

In terms of solving the numbers issue, I don’t think there are any easy solutions. Elite colleges are global brands, with global demand. As long as colleges make it easy for students to apply in droves, they will continue to do so.

The only ways I can think of to reduce the madness would involve either imposing a cap on the number of elite schools students can apply to, as is the case in England (one app, one college, Oxford or Cambridge, not both); and/or setting a minimum academic bar for regular applicants, accompanied by a special preparatory/transitional program for underprivileged ones (as is the case at France’s Institute of Political Studies, aka Sciences Po). That would still leave room for consideration of nonacademic factors while taking some of guesswork out of the process. 

Sane, reasonable steps such as those would go a long way toward curbing some of the excesses of the current system. But if the Harvard report is any indicator, colleges are more likely to head in exactly the opposite direction. 

2 Responses

    1. admin

      Back soon. I’ve been in revision-land, making updates to the ACT Reading book. Only took me two years to get to them…

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