In an interesting coincidence, the day after I published my previous post, which detailed the ways in the which the college essay can be gamed by wealthy applicants, Eric Hoover, who covers admissions for The Chronicle of Higher Education, published a story in The New York Times describing the minefield that it is the elite college admissions process in 2017.

I am aware that Mr. Hoover reads this blog sometimes, so I’ve attempted to be relatively judicious.

Let me start by saying that his depiction of the current state of college admissions is one of the most bluntly honest I’ve encountered:

Yes, rejection stings. But say these words aloud: The admissions process isn’t fair. Like it or not, colleges aren’t looking to reel in the greatest number of straight-A students who’ve taken seven or more Advanced Placement courses. A rejection isn’t really about you; it’s about a maddening mishmash of competing objectives.

Just as parents give teenagers a set of chores, colleges hand their admissions leaders a list of things to accomplish. When they fail, they often get fired…

On many campuses, financial concerns affect decisions about whom to admit. A recent report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that about half of institutions said an applicant’s “ability to pay” was of at least “some importance” in admissions decisions. Among other targets is geographic diversity, which is now seen as an indicator of institutional strength and popularity. (Some presidents have been known to gripe if the freshman class doesn’t represent all 50 states.) A campus might also need a particular number of engineering majors or goalies.

No doubt, this description effectively captures the maddening, arbitrary nature of the process, as well as the myriad and conflicting concerns that inform the selection of a freshman class at competitive colleges.

That said, the article still manages to promote the very worrisome idea that the optimal solution to the whole subjective, opaque process is to make it even more subjective and opaque.

For example, Hoover cites Jeremiah Quinlan, Dean of Admissions at Yale on the problem of personal essays:

Like many deans, [Yale’s] Mr. Quinlan has grown wary of polished personal essays in which applicants describe their achievements. “They feel like they have to show off, because we’re so selective,” he said, “and it’s completely understandable.” Technology, he believes, can help colleges get to know the student beneath the surface of a résumé, to gain a better sense of their passions, the kind of community member the applicant might be.

Of course, technology is the solution! Five-minute videos will really help admissions officers understand applicants’ deepest, most authentic selves. Because naturally, applicants would never try to present curated, polished versions of themselves if they knew a college as selective as Yale was looking (nor would wealthy parents hire video “helpers” to produce such things). It’s not as if social media encourages students to show off or anything. And of course students who aren’t particularly outgoing or tech-savvy (or don’t have tech savvy older brothers) won’t be at a disadvantage.


This is laughably naive, not to mention a little frightening coming from the Yale Dean of Admissions.

As NYT commenter Michael Blazin of Dallas put it:

In desperate desire to avoid wealth effect, schools create criteria that are worse than the ones that spawned to summer trips to poverty sites in Africa. Now we’ll have consultants on videos and practice runs with engineers for “creative exercises.” Kids will show up with four or five pat routines like actresses ready to show a different side depending on casting agents’ preferences. The process becomes one favoring both wealth and subjectivity.

It’s also not as if Yale’s applicant pool will suddenly drop by 50% simply because the university encourages technology-based supplements. If anything, that sort of shift will only cause numbers to swell further (which is perhaps the point), increasing the hysteria.

And then there’s this:

What most colleges ask for from applicants doesn’t reveal much about the many skills and talents a student might possess.

With all due respect to Mr. Hoover, this is a demonstrably false statement.

The Common App includes significant space for students to list their extracurricular activities; requires an essay in which students discuss their most meaningful one; asks for a personal essay in which students are free to discuss any significant experience, activity, etc. that an admissions committee might not learn about from the rest of their application; and permits students to submit an art or music supplement (slides, recording, composition).

One has to suspect that there is a segment of critics (a group I do not believe includes Mr. Hoover, by the way) for whom only the most glancing consideration of academic criteria in the college admissions process would be acceptable. The belief seems to be that since academic achievement correlates with income, then it isn’t an appropriate factor for universities to take into account.

While the American education system does of course place many poorer students at a disadvantage, it is interesting to note that this type of criticism is rarely leveled against other aspects of the admissions process. For example, there is simply no serious public conversation about whether sports that attract disproportionately wealthy participants (fencing, squash, crew), and which Ivy League schools recruit heavily for, should be downgraded from varsity to “club” status for the sake of equity. Actually, if you want to see affirmative action for the rich in action, I suggest you check out some Ivy League crew rosters: a remarkable number of team members across all eight schools are drawn from the same small group of elite high prep schools. Yet somehow these sports never come in for the same drubbing as the SAT.

And finally, there’s this:

A recent campaign called “Turning the Tide,” a project of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, is urging admissions deans to rethink the qualities they consider in applicants. In a report signed by representatives of about 200 campuses, colleges are asked to promote ethical character and service to others through the admissions process.

I weighed in on “Turning the Tide” a while back, but let me reiterate some points.

Here’s something I don’t quite understand: for years now, colleges have been criticized for giving a leg up to well-off students who participate in expensive “community service” trips (although in reality, they caught on to the game years ago). It’s already common knowledge that colleges value community service — that’s why so many high schools require it.

But if colleges, particularly ones that accept fewer than 10% of their applicants, go further out of their way to emphasize that they value “ethical character and service to others” above all else, how will they deal with an even larger glut of applicants trying desperately to convince them of their genuine desire to serve? On a purely practical level, how will they separate the genuine ones from the fakes?

If the ubiquitous community service essay (already the most overdone genre) is not longer sufficient, how do college expect applicants to demonstrate the authenticity of their good works? Will they be expected to shoot documentaries? Or will a mention in a recommendation suffice? Or will different expectations apply to different sets of applicants?

It’s very easy to spout airy rhetoric about service and empathy, but how on earth is this supposed to work in practice? That’s part of the problem with these types of fuzzy, feel-good solutions: they end up exacerbating the very problems they’re intended to solve. But because the creativity = good, tests = bad mentality is so strongly ingrained, they don’t get subjected to the kind of scrutiny they deserve. And the mess just keeps getting bigger.

Another NYT commenter, Fran from CA, put it poignantly:

I am in the midst of this broken process with my exhausted teen. Everyone seems to forget these young people are current students who take multiple ACT/SAT tests, fill out Common apps, Coalition apps, write scores of essays, scholarship apps, prep for interviews, travel to visit colleges and now need to consider documenting their extra projects for portfolios or make time to attend two day maker fests or whatever nonsensical hurdle their chosen college erects next year! They are CURRENT students with AP classes and sports and clubs and families and jobs, etc. . The application process is wringing them out, making families crazy, it’s truly a sickness. Stop! We don’t need more. We need L E S S !

The other problem is that applicants will eagerly mold themselves into whatever form hyper-selective colleges want them to take. Given that fact, it is largely impossible for colleges to know who many applicants truly are — or rather, who they would be if the admissions process were more straightforward and rational.

How many “good” kids do their community service diligently — even enthusiastically — week in and week out in high school, only to spend their free time in college getting smashed, utterly relieved that their lives no longer revolve around playing the college admission game?

Even now, nearly 15 years after graduating from college, I have friends who insist they’re still recovering from high school.

Perhaps, though, the most telling statement in Hoover’s article is this:

“We don’t live in a cloud — the reality is, there’s a bottom line,” said Angel B. Pérez, vice president for enrollment and student success at Trinity College, in Hartford. “We’re an institution, but we’re also a business.”

And therein lies the rub.

Universities are often criticized for treating students like customers, but in reality students are also universities’ products. When graduates go out into the wide, wide world, their achievements reflect back on their alma maters, ideally boosting their prestige. From that perspective, what admissions officers are really attempting to do is identify the 17 and 18 year olds who are most likely, in the long run, to increase the university’s value.

In this regard, universities — as businesses — are only acting rationally by seeking to identify the applicants who offer the best potential ROI. And given that American society does not exactly hold intellectual pursuits in high regard, it would indeed be absurd of them to focus exclusively on rewarding intellectual prowess. It is also in their interest to cast their nets as widely as possible, including to groups of students who have traditionally been overlooked. So when admissions officials lament the presence of students who will “only” succeed in the classroom (despite a complete lack of evidence that this applies to Yale students in the least), that is what they really mean.

That is also why Ivy League schools will never automatically admit the kids with the highest test scores or most APs, regardless of how many times they get sued. Grade inflation ensures that virtually every kid who gets in will graduate, so why not pick the ones who look like the best long term investments?

And it is why colleges are no longer requiring SAT IIs (which still test subject knowledge the same way they did 20 or 30 years ago and are largely immune to being gamed) and why they are largely uninterested in implementing a straightforward solution to the essay coaching problem, such as using the SAT or ACT Essay as the primary writing sample. As problematic as those assignments are, they would at least serve to level the playing field somewhat and ensure that colleges got a look at applicants’ actual analytical writing skills — the type of writing they’ll be doing in college. (In my own four years of higher education, the number of personal essays I wrote was, um, let’s see… exactly zero.)

But aside from the fact that reading all of those horrible analyses would bore admissions officers to tears (even more so than all the horrible personal essays they currently have to contend with), not to mention the predictable howls of outrage from students who suffer from test anxiety, this type of requirement would also provide concrete evidence of the gap between applicants’ accomplishments on paper and their actual skill levels — which, in my experience, can sometimes be quite substantial.

Admissions officers do not, I suspect, particularly want to know that that great (full-pay) kid with the 102 average in English and so much to contribute to the campus community can in reality compose only marginally acceptable prose. First, he’ll be the problem of the adjunct teaching Freshman Comp who wouldn’t dare put her contract at risk by giving him less than an A-, and when he graduates, he’ll probably go to work for a hedge fund.

The gap is rhetoric between administrators and professors is quite striking to behold. As Harvard’s Steven Pinker put it:

The anti-intellectualism of Ivy League undergraduate education is by no means indigenous to the student culture. It’s reinforced by the administration, which treats academics as just one option in the college activity list. Though students are flooded with hortatory messages from deans and counselors, “Don’t cut class” is not among them, and professors are commonly discouraged from getting in the way of the students’ fun. Deans have asked me not to schedule a midterm on a big party day, and to make it easy for students to sell their textbooks before the ink is dry on their final exams. A failing grade is like a death sentence: just the first step in a mandatory appeal process.

And as Fran from CA stated succinctly:

You are universities. You are smart people, figure this out. It’s just college.

But unfortunately, it’s in colleges best interest not to figure this out. Even if everyone else ends up paying the price.