Is College Admissions Really Personal?

Admissions committees don’t really know applicants personally*.

After re-reading Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s 2013 Atlantic article, I have been thinking a lot lately about how claiming to do so is often bad for students. Although her thoughts were penned about five years ago, I consider them true today. The word “holistic” is still being widely used in college admissions, when how applicants are evaluated—and to an extent, what they are evaluated on—has not changed much.

“Holistic” evaluations may be superior to algorithms, but what’s clear is they’re not actually holistic. Much of who a person is would be off-topic or altogether inappropriate for colleges to take into account, even if it were possible for them to do so. If someone frail or ten months pregnant gets on the bus, do you give up your seat? Are you devastatingly attractive to your preferred gender(s)? Ultimately, what’s at stake in college admissions isn’t who you are as a person, but whether you’ve demonstrated that you have the skills and experiences that qualify someone for a slot at a particular institution. If a school rejects you, what they’re really rejecting is your application.

Because schools, parents, and students all find it so persuasive, “holistic” is unlikely to leave us any time soon. The best we can do, then, is to remind applicants and their families that despite what the schools themselves might have them believe, it isn’t personal.

Sara Harberson’s 2015 article also sheds light on some holistic admissions truths.

Elite universities — public and private — practice what is called “holistic admissions,” a policy based on the idea that a test score or GPA does not completely reflect who a student is and what he or she can bring to a college community. It allows a college to factor in a student’s background, challenges overcome, extracurricular involvement, letters of recommendation, special talents, writing ability and many other criteria. Private schools and many public universities can include race among the characteristics they consider, as long as they don’t apply racial quotas.

In the end, holistic admissions can allow for a gray zone of bias at elite institutions, working against a group such as Asian Americans that excels in the black-and-white world of academic achievement.

And as Willard Dix points out in his 2017 article on the topic:

The bottom line for students? Once they submit their applications, they’ll be read [holistically] at many schools (even large universities may offer to do a special read if requested instead of relying primarily on numbers), but they’ll then be buffeted by all the other forces tugging at the admission office. You can’t control any of them. The best you can do is present yourself fully and forcefully as someone who will be an asset to the institution. After that, you simply have to ride it out and hope for the best.

Those forces and needs being:

  1. Enough full-pay students to keep the budget as balanced as possible.
  2. Enough diversity to serve the institution’s stated desires for a diverse population.
  3. Enough students on significant financial aid to enable the institution to fulfill its stated commitment to serving students from every economic level.
  4. Enough qualified students to keep up the college’s reputation, however defined.
  5. Enough athletes to populate teams important to the institution’s local, regional and (if Div I) national reputation.
  6. Enough “legacy” admits to keep alumni happily supporting the college.
  7. Enough “development” cases to stack the deck in favor of future financial benefits. Not a quid pro quo, exactly, but perhaps a bet on a favorable windfall at some point in the future.
  8. Enough students with other talents and interests to keep small departments, the arts, and various other campus activities active.
  9. Enough attention to the president’s, trustees’ and professors’ requests for more potential computer scientists, philosophers, writers and so on.
  10. Enough students, period.

Read more about the misunderstandings around “holistic” college admissions here.

The * above is because this is not totally true at all schools. Take, for example, Hampshire, a school that dropped from the US News ranking because they decided not to accept SAT/ACT test scores from high school applicants seeking admission. You can read more about what happened when they completely dropped standardized tests from their application as part of a new mission-driven admissions strategy, distinct from the “test-optional” policy that hundreds of colleges now follow. Thought-provoking stuff! Imagine if others followed suit…


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