How Highly Selective Admissions Offices Can Be Better For Students

Yale University in New Haven, Conn.
Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

This is the third entry in a three-part series on fairness in highly selective, “elite” college admissions. Part one presented the problem created by the race to the top among the most highly selective schools; part two introduced the challenges created by an opaque admission process. In part three, we consider what admissions could be.

As leaders in this industry, elite admission offices have the opportunity to change the highly pressurized and competitive atmosphere at high schools around the country, but they have to be willing to abandon some of the things that they have traditionally valued in the admission process. I’m not optimistic we’ll see much change over the next decade, but I’m hopeful that one creative risk-taker at the helm of one of these outfits might try something new that will improve the educational experience and mental health and wellness of thousands of future students.

Stop Publishing Admit Rates

This is a minor idea, and wouldn’t be hard to implement. If colleges simply stopped the practice of announcing the admit rate in press releases, it would help depreciate the elitism of the institutions. Counselors and students could still figure out the rate if they wanted to—by using the number of applications and a rough estimate of the number of students in the freshman class—but by not giving it top billing, admission offices could send the message that this isn’t something we should care about. Extra points if you stop publishing the number of apps, or bragging that you’ve seen an X percent increase in apps from the previous year.

Establish Baselines

Admission offices are loath to introduce “cutoffs” for students, and occasionally for good reason. A first-generation student in rural South Dakota with serious intellectual aptitude but zero AP classes shouldn’t feel like she needs at least four APs to get into a top school. We don’t want students to feel like they can’t get in when their application might convey that they can. But for every rural South Dakotan, there are 200 A- students in Los Angeles who think they’re competitive for top schools, and it’s in the best interests of these students to let them know if their apps just won’t be competitive. Publicize this—especially in high-pressure areas like Silicon Valley, suburban DC, or Manhattan. Go through high school or independent counseling outfits if you need to. Introduce caveats if you like. But please stop pretending that everyone has a shot at getting in when we know so many students don’t.

Release Case Studies

To admissions officers at Ivy League and other selective schools: grab 15 of your most typical admitted student applications and scrub them of all identifying details. Now publish these applications for students and counselors to read. Describe what made them effective, why they demonstrated a particular hook, what concerns you may have had, and why you ultimately decided to admit them. I think many students nationwide would be shocked by the quality of admitted applications to top institutions, and letting them see what the standard is would be helpful in giving them a fair sense of their chances.

Educate, Don’t Recruit

Some universities are already doing this, which is a step in the right direction. Instead of visiting high-resource high schools in affluent areas, put the energy into explaining the process for all students. Application numbers will remain high for top institutions, whether they choose to recruit or not. Use the travel time of your staff to talk about the admission process in general, to conduct essay workshops, or to partner with nonprofit organizations to mentor and support first-generation students.

Introduce a Formal Lottery

This idea is a little out there, but I think it’s a great one. Many institutions will argue that the difference between many admitted students and those that were closely denied is indistinguishable. If 15 percent of students who apply are admissible but only five percent can get in, there’s something wrong with claiming your process chooses only the best five percent, and based only on merit. Instead, draw a line in the sand that establishes qualifications for students in all categories, including academics, scores, extracurricular engagement, essay writing, and teacher support. If you deem it necessary, adjust your factors accordingly for different parts of the country, access to educational opportunities, and even donor status. It’s your call. Make clear to students that if they exceed the designated line, they’ll be considered in the lottery for admission.

Such a practice would help students understand that there’s a pronounced element of luck to the process, even for the strongest applicants to the most selective schools. Sometimes getting in (or not) is about who reads your application on what day, and the mood in the room when it comes up in committee. While this seeming randomness doesn’t extend beyond the line where applicants are considered “admissible,” it’s nonetheless in the best interests of colleges and especially students to make clear that there is some randomness in choosing the final class.

In such a system, the lucky admitted students would know that there was an element of chance to their acceptance, that there were other similarly talented students who could just as easily have had their spot, and that this is rare opportunity ought not be squandered. And those students who came close, but were not randomly selected to fill the class would be able to let go without feeling they had somehow failed over the course of their remarkable high school careers. They would be free to attend another wonderful institution with well-earned confidence in their abilities. That’s as fair as fair gets.

Ian Fisher is a Director, Educational Counseling with College Coach. He has an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Reed College, where he also worked for five years in college admission, and a M.A. in Policy, Organization, and Leadership Studies from Stanford University.

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