College Admissions: How RANDOM is it?

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Discus: College Admissions: 2002 - 2003 Archive: November 2003 Archive: College Admissions: How RANDOM is it?
By Collegeguy (Collegeguy) on Tuesday, November 25, 2003 - 10:53 pm: Edit

We've heard over and over again that admission to a top-tier Ivy or MIT/Stanford is...random. Random? Is it? Besides the randomness in the personality of the admissions reader, are admissions decisions really that arbitrary?

I'm inclined to say no...but I can't explain why overqualified superstudents with 1600's, amazing essays/recs/ecs/gpas can't get in.

By Over30 (Over30) on Tuesday, November 25, 2003 - 11:00 pm: Edit

Because there's too many of them? Because the school doesn't want a campus full of these overqualified superstudents? Part of me is glad there will be a little diversity and the other part of me - well, I have one of those overqualified students. But when 10,000 qualified kids apply for 2,000 spots, someone gets left out.

By Drusba (Drusba) on Tuesday, November 25, 2003 - 11:35 pm: Edit

Random is not the correct word, subjective is, meaning ultimately it comes down to some admissions officers personally believing you are the somewhat better choice over a lot of others that look almost the same as you; at the level of the elites that can mean someone just liked your essay a little better than someone else with the same stats.

By Theotherside (Theotherside) on Tuesday, November 25, 2003 - 11:40 pm: Edit

My girlfriends and I used to say, when we were young and single, that sometimes a man was not for us, even though he 'looked good on paper.'

Sure, the man in question might have been tall dark and handsome, a doctor from a good family, who donated his services one weekend a month to help the homeless, always recycled, and didn't smoke. But even with all that, there would be no ... spark. Nothing. He would be relegated to that sad status: He Looked Good On Paper. Theoretically, he was perfect, but in real life, he just ... wasn't.

Maybe it isn't that it is random, the selection process. Maybe those 1600's, amazing essays/recs/ecs/gpas come across as people who only look good on paper. Some schools don't like to admit students that look over-programmed, over-rehearsed. Sometimes these students look so slickly packaged that nothing of their personality comes through in the application. Some are so obviously 'grade grubbing' through their essay that the point of writing one becomes moot. Often it is clear how much parental hand is on the application.

There are 4000 students filling out applications to Harvard right now, with near perfect GPAs and SAT scores who are currently their Student Body President, banking ridiculous amounts of AP credit, and log 40 hours of volunteer work a month. When everyone is excelling, what stands out is not your SAT/GPA/AP/EC- it means that all that stuff that you are told counts so much, suddenly counts less, when everyone else in your applicant pool has the same credentials.

It isn't random - but it is more intangible than just a great number on a meaningless test.

By Coureur (Coureur) on Tuesday, November 25, 2003 - 11:46 pm: Edit

No, it's not random. Everyone is accepted or rejected for a reason. It just may not be clear to outside observers what the reasons are, particularly at the top schools. Hence the appearance of randomness.

By Kishi (Kishi) on Wednesday, November 26, 2003 - 12:04 am: Edit

Hmmm... if we knew what they were looking for, then the process would be flawed because many people would fake that one quality that appeals to colleges. The only reason that perfect scorers getting rejected confuses us is that we think that is what the elite colleges want, when in reality, we can never know.

By Thedad (Thedad) on Wednesday, November 26, 2003 - 12:05 am: Edit

I think Drusba hits the nail most squarely. Coureur, I've heard several associate director of admissions types that they could have just as easily admitted a different 2,000 than the ones they actually admitted without compromising the quality of the class or the integrity of the process.

You're at a party and someone passes by with a platter of hors d' take *this* one instead of *that* one. Sometimes admissions just about comes down to that. Not for everyone in a class but for quite a few.

By Ariesathena (Ariesathena) on Wednesday, November 26, 2003 - 05:38 pm: Edit

The engineer weighs in...

In terms of SAT/GPA, it is a *random* process... i.e. the R-squared value of admissions plotted against SAT/GPA is probably pretty low (for non-math people, it just means that there is little correlation). Throw in parental involvement, extracurriculars, committment to said ECs, quality of essays (some being great, some being terrible or mediocre), the SAT/GPA correlation is understandably less than you may expect. So it's *random* in terms of SAT/GPA, but not in terms of the whole package. More specifically, if a school makes it a requirement of admission that you have either athletics, work, community service, or leadership activites, a 4.0 1600 kid with none of the above would be rejected. The 1400 3.8 kid may have athletics, community service, helping the homeless, etc. and get in, despite slightly lower grades and not as stand-out SAT scores. Likewise, it could be a requirement that the essay be written at least decently, and the 4.0 1600 track star could dash off the essay, resting on his laurels, and lose out to the 1500 3.8 kid who is the best writer they've seen yet. Hence, low R-squared value.

Now, there is another *random* element. Many schools do reading for applications in this manner: 10 applications are given to one person, with instructions to give the best five back. Your application could be stellar, but in a group with five truly amazing people, so you get rejected. Statistically, the distribution of excellence in each "sample" of 10 applications should not be identical to that of the entire applicant pool, so some really good people do not make it through based on this.

The subjective, truly *random* in other regards element has been discussed already.

So is it random? Random in terms of what? SAT/GPA correlation with every college, yes! SAT/GPA correlation of otherwise identical students (athletics, essays, etc) applying to the same college... not to any great extent.

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