Things have changed a lot in college admissions in the past decade, and I can’t say that it’s for the better—at least as reported in the article below from The Chronicle of Higher Education (click on screenshot).
We’re all aware that indices of merit, including standardized-test scores, have become less important in college admissions, as they’re seen to be “anti-inclusive”. In addition, the number of applications to “elite” colleges have ballooned. The result, as Feeney notes, is that college admissions officers secretly admit that that two or three times as many students who are actually admitted are pretty much just as qualified as the top tier, so one could choose almost randomly from among the “admittable” students.
With the decline of standardized-test measures has come the fuzzy notion of “holistic” admissions. Previously this demanded lots of extracurricular activities, which of course meant that applicants began engaging in these activities merely to pad their application. This in fact was going on when I applied for college.
Now, however, this kind of padding has become so pervasive that colleges have once again changed what they’re looking for. The key word now is “authenticity”: the student should present “their most authentic selves” in their application. What does that involve?
But there is a problem with the new authenticity standard. The people who made applying to college an elaborate performance, a nervous and yearslong exercise in self-construction have now decided that the end result of this elaborate performance must be “the real you.” The tacit directive in all this — “Be authentic for us or we won’t admit you” — puts kids in a tough position. It’s bad that kids have to suffer this torment. It’s also bad that admissions departments actually think that the anxiously curated renderings that appear in applications can in any way be called “authentic.” It’s like watching Meryl Streep portray Margaret Thatcher and thinking: Now that is the real Meryl Streep.
Here’s are two bizarre examples of students striving for “authenticity”:
Of course, for the clumsier applicants whose self-presentations are derided by admissions deans, their failures often aren’t ones of authenticity. They are, rather, failures of discernment. In one of his many columns bemoaning the college admissions process, Frank Bruni of The New York Times shared an embarrassing story fed to him by a former Yale admissions officer named Michael Motto. Bruni writes of one application by which Motto “found himself more and more impressed.” “Then” — Bruni says — “he got to her essay.” The essay was about how, during an involved conversation with an admired teacher, the applicant, instead of killing the conversational moment by running to the bathroom, chose to piss herself. Now, if this doesn’t demonstrate commitment, I don’t know what does.
. . . . After all, nervous applicants are assured that, as Joie Jager-Hyman, who worked as an admissions officer at Dartmouth College, told Bruni, “Being a little vulnerable can give great insight into your character.” Remember the application advice of Haverford’s Lord: “Everybody’s imperfect.” Ed Boland, a veteran of Yale admissions, recalls a girl whose essay on how she was a “serial farter” improved her chances at Yale. The serial farter, in Boland’s words, was going for something about “gender and socialization.”
This of course, leads to striving for a faux authenticity, as for you must give the best presentation you can of yourself given what the college demands. There’s a new app for this that you can use to start flaunting your authenticity years before you apply for college:
The other major recent reform is the Coalition App, an online application originally designed by and for a group of 80 of the most selective colleges in America, including every member of the Ivy League, known together as the Coalition for College. It now comprises over 150 institutions. The Coalition App (now branded as MyCoalition) is intended to replace the Common Application, and the declared mission behind it is to apply technology to improve access.
The great innovation of the Coalition App is that it takes the form of an online account that students can open when they reach ninth grade. After they open their Coalition App account, students can start assembling a portfolio of their high-school efforts, uploading papers and image files and other documents both curricular and extracurricular, into their personal master file, called a “locker.”
Of course, “can” start in ninth means “must” start in ninth grade. Veronica Hauad, deputy director of admissions at the University of Chicago (one of the founding schools of the Coalition) explains some of the thinking behind encouraging students to start so early: “The application process shouldn’t be this frenzied process in the fall of your senior year, which is already busy.” To illustrate, she addresses a hypothetical high-school student. “Let’s think long term,” she says, “about my identity and what my application will look like.”
Given that this process is invidious, time-consuming, and intrusive, what solutions does Feeney suggest? He floats the idea that a lottery might be a “good option”, but that leaves the question about “what information is the lottery based on”? Feeney also sees admissions departments as changing their function from a administration and selection to applying a certain kind of pressure to make students “morally agreeable.” Sound familiar? Here’s Feeney’s peroration:
Setting up a yearslong, quasi-therapeutic process in which admissions goads young people into laying bare their vulnerable selves — a process that conceals a high-value transaction in which colleges use their massive leverage to mold those selves to their liking — is reprehensible. It is terrible thing to do. It renders the discovery of true underlying selves absurd. Sometimes, as we’ve seen, admissions people will admit they have this formative leverage over young people. But they fail to show the humility that should attend this admission, the clinician’s awareness that to use this power is to abuse it. Instead, they want even more power. They want to intrude even more deeply into the souls of their applicants. The name they give these ambitions is “reform.”
I’m just glad I don’t have to apply to college now, nor have to adjudicate among the many applications that flood a school such as mine. And I don’t see things improving as admission becomes more and more “holistic.”