Bizarro College Admissions

One of the more irrational exercises high school seniors undergo this time of year is trying to figure out why they and some of their peers did or did not get into the colleges to which they applied. Of course, college admissions may well be among the world’s most subjective processes. There are no hard and fast rules and each college uses a different set of criteria and has ever-changing needs from year to year. However, over the past several (or more) years, certain patterns have begun to evolve that could be viewed as disturbing, if not bizarre, or technically illegal.

The epicenter of the bizarro college admissions world is the Ivy League. With all but two of the Ivies now sporting single-digit acceptance rates, the competition is ferocious. Again, the hot issue is why some applicants are admitted while others, with seemingly superior qualifications, are denied. First of all, it’s clear that these top schools simply don’t have enough room to accommodate everyone who is “qualified.” Those quotation marks mean that what qualifies an applicant for admission varies from school to school. And then, of course, there’s always the ever-popular “institutional priorities” at work, which no one ever really understands. Those are the various key needs from year to year that excite admissions committees: tuba players one year, basketball centers another year, and so on.

Every year, my counseling clients ask me unanswerable questions. The standard one is: “Why did so-and-so get in and I didn’t?”  I can only offer tea and sympathy because the true answer will never be known.

This conundrum is getting more and more media attention. While researching the Web for insights into this bizarro world, I came across an interesting column by Washington Post education writer, Jay Matthews. It sheds some unusual light on this situation and I’d like to highlight key parts of it here, for our mutual edification. Read and learn.

Why getting into Harvard is no longer an honor

You may have seen that Harvard just set a record for low undergraduate admission rate. Only 5.9 percent of applicants for the class of 2016 were accepted. I was going to do one of my many rants on why we should wake up and see that being admitted to the Ivies and certain other schools is no more a sign of depth and brilliance than winning the Mega Millions lottery. I was going to point out that Harvard could admit a full class of its rejects that would be just as good as the students it accepted. But I already wrote a book about that, “Harvard Schmarvard.” And yesterday I got an e-mail that says it better than I ever did.

So I offer this as a theme for this week’s discussion. The writer declined to be identified other than as “Concerned Student.” I usually don’t print anonymous contributions, but I am making an exception in this case since he speaks well for his college age group. …

By “Concerned Student”

It’s a deeply rooted idea in today’s academic culture that more qualifications equate with better chances. After all, who doesn’t perceive the selection process as a judgment panel that deems one applicant, for want of a better word, superior to another? Call it a myth, a misconception, or whatever you like, but this belief is positively unshakable.

Perhaps a different approach is in order. It’s high time the public understands and embraces the notion that college admissions decisions aren’t based on better academic or extracurricular specifications any longer, if ever in the first place. Just as neither perfect SAT scores nor Nobel prizes guarantee a spot in the branches of the Ivies, it’s apparent that what we identify as top colleges seek attributes that are intangible, elusive, and quite plainly put, mysterious.

Take a friend of mine, for example. Despite the 14 Advanced Placement tests (11 top scores) and two consecutive placings in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair under his belt, he found no welcome at any of the eight Ivy League schools, and neither did his co-founded company aid him in clinching even a position on the wait-lists of several of their peers. His great weakness? He’s an Asian applying for financial aid. It’s easy to argue that one case alone does not justify a loss in faith in the college admissions process, but open the question up for discussion and there’s no doubt the resounding response will taste of misgivings flavored with skepticism. Taking a glance at the qualifications of despondent rejects is enough to convince anyone that surely not all who were accepted into eminent institutes performed better either in terms of academics or extracurriculars, or, for that matter, had more passion.

So, instead of rationalizing that the admissions decision is an objective verdict that evaluates one’s educational caliber and is not an assessment of character, and hence should not be taken personally, it would be more accurate to recognize that the admissions decision does no such thing. They’re not looking for the finest scholars or greatest leaders, and being the best won’t get you into the “best” universities. What they’re looking for is, well, whatever they’re looking for …

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There it is in a nutshell: What they’re looking for is what they’re looking for. Is there active cultural prejudice at work in college admissions? That would be almost impossible to prove. Is there irrationality at work? Seemingly, but we don’t know about those institutional priorities. Is college admissions at the highest levels a crap shoot? One could almost say, “Apparently.” But that would be too sweeping a generalization.

What, then, should we think? Well, as Concerned Student notes at the end of his cogent analysis, “… with over 4,000 colleges in the U.S. alone, it’s good to remember that we have almost as much bargaining power as they do.”

To that, I add a hearty “Amen!”

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