Ivy League admissions: Stop the madness

By Maura Kelly


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As a graduate of the Harvard class of 2000 I was interested to hear what admissions officers had to say now that I am no longer a prospective applicant. I was disheartened to see that not only did the Salon interviewer seem to be somewhat off the mark, but the university representatives failed to reveal some important (although unpleasant) information.

To begin with, the idea that stress over college applications begins during senior year of high school and is based primarily on information disseminated by the colleges is simply ridiculous. The first time someone mentioned going to Harvard to me was when I was 6 years old (and no, it wasn’t my overeager mother or father). My high school began the college counseling process at the beginning of my sophomore year. The role of high school college counselors is a crucial element in the problem of burned out students, and one that no one mentions in this article. Just as colleges rely on ratings and selectivity statistics to market themselves, most private high schools use college acceptance rates as an important tool to lure in new students (and new parents with fat checkbooks). It was in my high school’s interest to get as many kids into Ivy League schools as possible, regardless of whether it was a good “match.”

In addition, anyone applying to schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford needs to know that there are three elements that will distinguish a highly qualified applicant from the vast pool of other highly qualified applicants: athletic ability, ethnic background (the issue of diversity at top colleges continues to be a hot topic) and legacy (my own personal favorite — my father, brother and numerous cousins were all Harvard graduates). Almost everyone I knew at Harvard had one of these three factors going for them. Without them, no matter how great the applicant is, his or her acceptance is purely luck of the draw.

Finally, while all the talk about “finding the right fit” often seems like more meaningless propaganda from admissions officers, it truly is the most important part of selecting a college. I was one of many people who, enchanted by the prestige of a big-name school, failed to consider whether it was the right place for me. While I got an excellent education and a nice degree to hang on my wall, I didn’t have a very happy four years. If I had known that while I was applying, I would have spent less energy worrying about filling in the activities section of the application and more energy actually spending time at the schools I was so desperate to attend.

– Elisa Rassen

In my second year at Princeton, Pulitzer Prize winner Yusef Komunyakaa leads my creative writing poetry workshop and photography great Emmet Gowin critiques my pictures in his course. Both are entry-level classes of about a dozen students (and both are amazing). I am generally ecstatic about the quality of education I am getting, and I know that not many schools offer this kind of education.

When I tell people that I go to Princeton, I usually go up several notches in their estimation of my intelligence, drive and talent. I assume that this will continue with my possible future employers.

For me, all the pressure was worth the excellent education and impressive name. I fully understand why today’s high school students are tearing their hair out over admission to top schools. There are too few spots for too many qualified applicants, and no admissions office or parent can change that.

– Adena Spingarn

None of the admissions officials interviewed by Maura Kelly concerning the high-pressure admissions process for high-prestige colleges had any good suggestions for lowering the pressure on applicants. This is because the coin of the realm in Ivy League-level admissions circles is how interesting you are, how unique you are, how you’ve defined yourself in extracurricular activities. But how fair is it for colleges to expect this breadth of achievement from students who may or may not have the opportunity to develop deep or abiding interests? Isn’t the point of college to free you from the circumstances of your upbringing, the narrowness of the community in which you were raised?

As a teacher at a Texas community college and a teaching assistant at the University of Texas at Austin, I think it’s unreasonable — even ridiculous — to expect college applicants to have defined themselves deeply or well in any activity before they even go away to college. Well-roundedness is a surreptitiously classist notion, favoring the privileged who have the leisure and the financial resources to become well-rounded. Students who grew up outside the upper-middle class wouldn’t have the opportunity to become well-rounded even if they knew it was necessary to get into a good college.

At UT-Austin, I teach frazzled students bruised by their rejections from schools like Cornell, Rice and Dartmouth, who struggle to regain a sense of self-worth at what they perceive to be a second-rate university, thanks to the distorting propaganda the American media lavishes upon Ivy-level colleges. At a local community college, I teach students who work in retail stores, offices and pharmacies during the day, and these students never had the luxury to make themselves marketable to prestige institutions. Many of them are bright enough — but never had a chance to make themselves interesting enough — to gain admission to a school like Duke, where the admissions officer freely admits that many valedictorians are turned away in favor of more well-rounded students. My community-college students correctly perceive that Ivies are out of their reach.

What the best schools need to do is fire most of their admissions officers and forget about the well-roundedness of students. Favor the applications of students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and of students whose parents didn’t go to college, by weighting their admissions index. But otherwise, admit students based on SATs and grades alone. Anything else favors the privileged.

– James DeRossitt

One way to stop the madness might be for each college to choose an arbitrary percentage (say half) of its class by traditional one-by-one selection. The other half would be chosen by sorting applicants who fit into certain categories of excellence (academics, music, sports, art, writing, overcoming personal difficulties) and then choosing these people by lot. No applicant would know how he or she was chosen. I would anticipate that this latter half of accepted applicants would be oversubscribed in many cases by four or five times, given that these elite institutions only take a small fraction of qualified applicants. I recognize that the criteria to get into the lottery would still be pretty hard to establish, but if refined it would at least reduce the level of tension, and of needless competitiveness, that separates an “accept” from a “reject” from one of the 25 or so schools. The schools could also consider other steps, more or less controversial, like limiting the number of applications to any of these schools to, say, three, and also limit the bidding for scholarships that is going on (fully recognizing that there are antitrust considerations at work here).

Yale College and Yale Law School (where I also went) were highly selective 25 years ago, but not nearly so much as now. For too long a time, I thought that it was great that selective admissions committees had seen fit to recognize my merit. (I don’t think that this was an isolated reaction, as schools of this sort foster an arrogant camaraderie among their elect, which is part of their sinister allure). I would have proceeded more quickly to adult life, rather than merely competing for prizes and feeling smug about my supposedly elite status, had I been forced to realize early on that I had simply won a lottery.

– Vincent Teahan

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