How college admissions have become a mess, as well as moralistic and intrusive

April 27, 2021 • 1:15 pm

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?

From Feeney:

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.”

h/t: Luana

43 thoughts on “How college admissions have become a mess, as well as moralistic and intrusive

  1. The article is definitely to be recommended. The author convincingly indicts admissions officers for inflicting worthless stress on gifted kids.

  2. Authenticity’s like sincerity — once you can fake it, you’ve got it made (or so it seems as to college admissions).

  3. There are two obvious solutions here. For the schools, go back to giving rigorous skills-and-knowledge admissions tests, and accept as many top-scorers as will fit. For the students and parents, forget about getting into a “prestigious” school and pick a sturdy, reliable, skills-oriented college — even a community college — that concentrates on teaching skills and knowledge rather than political correctitude.

    1. I find myself wondering if there is at least one soul who has declined an offer from Yale or Harvard and has instead opted to go the community college/state university route.

      I reasonably gather that one can get a fine education at Yale or Harvard. Might one get a no less fine education at a state university possessed of not a few professors who got their Ph.D.’s (if not their bachelor’s) from Yale and Harvard?

      When I consider the “social status” (as opposed to academic excellence/achievement) allegedly conveyed by a Harvard or Yale undergraduate degree, I imagine a pit filled with a granular mucky material, in the wallowing of which one attains some permanent patina of “Harvard-ness” or “Yale-ness.”

      1. Don’t conflate community colleges and “state colleges”. The latter includes some world class institutions…many of the big land grant public colleges in the US are superb.

  4. Is this just in the U.S. or do U.K. And European universities subscribe to the same process? I know it is getting toward bedtime but if anyone across the Atlantic is still up and reading this, i would appreciate knowing how contagious this is.

    1. I believe it was Oscar Wilde who said that the USA was the only nation which went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between. No, it is nowhere near the absurd shenanigans in the States.

      Here is a brief description of how it works in Germany (essentially all state schools, and free tuition). For each topic, there are a certain number of places at a given university. The best candidates get this spots. Who are best? Mainly it is based on the final overall school grade. If one misses out one year and applies a year later, one gets moved up the list. A certain fraction are reserved for foreign students, and they compete among themselves via the same mechanism.

      That’s basically it.

      In some really popular fields, one applies to a central location then gets assigned a spot at some university, but that is the exception. Also, medicine requires an entrance test, but again that is an exception.

      No essays. No Brownie points for extracurricular stuff. No bullshit.

      1. Comparing grades from different schools isn’t very fair, right? If you go to a more rigorous school your grades will be naturally lower.

      2. I attended a high school in Freiburg for a Summer around ’83. I most enjoyed the teachers coming to the classroom instead of all the students going to their classrooms. I realized how much calmer that scenario was. A good policy as far as I could tell. And that was the small stuff. I also learned that Germany invested in their brain trust and University was more or less free. Unfortunately for us Americans, or rather for the politicians we seem to elect, we suffer from an inability to learn anything from other countries about how to take care of the general public or the future of its leaders- today’s kids. Straddling a couple generations of young people with educational debt, which is the norm here at the moment, is beyond stupidity. Instead of “In God We Trust” on our currency, it should read “Anything for a Buck!”

    2. Bulgaria, South-East Europe: Nothing of this sort. There would be riots if someone tries it. We use entrance exams. For fields that are not highly desired, grades from school or school-leaving exam will do.

    3. In Switzerland, universities must accept every applicant who has the final high school degree, called Maturité/Maturità/Maturität (equivalent of a bacalauréat in France or Abitur in Germany). The only exception I know of is medicine in German speaking universities, where there is an entry test. French speaking universities have no entry tests for medicine but they apply a strong selection during the first year’s exams.

    4. The current UK system is as follows. Prospective students apply via a centralised system to up to 5 choices of course; eg the same course at 5 different universities, or even 5 different courses at one Uni. This happens the autumn before they would start. The application includes academic record, predicted finishing grades, a personal statement and a reference from their school. The universities then decide whether to offer them a place, and what grades they will require. When all 5 have replied, the student can hold one firm offer, and one insurance offer (usually lower). When they complete their schooling and get their results, if they have gained the requested grades their firm choice must take them. If they have missed out, their firm choice can still give them a place, or they could be accepted by their insurance. Lastly, if all of this has failed, there is clearing, a frantic act of ringing around courses which are still advertising vacancies. There is a strong demand to change this to a streamlined system which only starts after results in the near future. By the way, the grades are those acquired in national standardised exams, A levels.

      1. The British process is the same in most respects as the one I went through 40 years ago, except that in those days we weren’t (thank Bastet!) required to provide a personal statement. I hated writing essays, and I suspect I would have done badly if I’d had to write one to try to make myself sound interesting to the university admissions tutors!

        Back then, the order in which you listed your five choices on the UCCA form had to be carefully considered, since the universities regarded it as your order of preference. Oxford and Cambridge both expected to be listed first, if you were applying to them, which meant, of course, that you couldn’t apply to both of them, because the one you listed second wouldn’t even look at your application. And even among the other universities, there was a pecking order, with the older institutions such as UCL and King’s College London considering themselves superior to the 1960s universities, so you’d better put them above Sussex or Essex or East Anglia on your UCCA form!

        The offers came back in the mail printed on 80-column computer punched cards, with boxes to tick to indicate acceptance or rejection of each offer. Then, as now, you could only hold two accepted offers at a time, your first choice and an insurance offer as Kelvin describes. Back in the late Spring of 1981, I’d made my final choices: I was either going to study mathematics and astronomy at UCL if I achieved two A grades and a B grade in my A-levels, or astronomy at Queen Mary College London if I could scrape a couple of E grades. I got the grades to go to UCL. But I ended up teaching astronomy at Queen Mary College ten years later, so I guess I was fated to spend time on the Mile End Road one way or another.

  5. I am more and more convinced that the best way to go is two-year community college to start and a transfer into a state school. Obviously, this is somewhat dependent on the quality of those institutions near you – but in terms of getting bang for your buck and a decent education – I find it compelling. All the stress, effort, money & farting essays is just too much.

    1. Good advice. Just make sure you’re studying more than you need to get by. You can get an excellent, rigorous education way down in the academic hierarchy, but you gotta do your part.

      1. Exactly – as I tell the kiddo: ‘never strive for mediocrity or the minimum’. But really, the price folks pay for getting a degree with brand name recognition, I just don’t see it as worth it. Did you get to see the Netflix doc Operation Varsity Blues?

        1. I haven’t, but that was quite a scene. I saw a photograph of William McGlashan, one of the principals, on a stage at the 2019 World Economic Forum with Christine Lagarde and Bono. This is a guy who didn’t think twice about massive fraud when it came to college admissions.

    2. I’m happy to have done just that. But then I was trying to get an education, as meager as it might seem to some. I have no idea what these kids are doing. I suppose they are not preparing for a rich, fulfilling, and examined life, but for Christmas cards, office life, car dealerships, dinner parties, golf games, subdivisions with a Stasi-like HOA, and they’re very well-read, it’s well known…

  6. Are all of these schools still giving the legacy applicants a leg up?

    I think they should ditch all of the common applications and go back to each school having their own separate admissions application. This should drop the number of applicants simply because it is harder to apply to each school separately.

    I understand that the admissions people want to see authentic, since they created a system whereby each and every student has to have done so many extra-curriculars that they are a phony combination of Einstein, Mother Teresa, and Bill Bradley. But why on Earth would you TELL kids that you want authentic?? Did they think this would work? Wouldn’t it have been more effective to just ask them to write thoughtful essays based on various prompts? Isn’t that a pretty good way to see originality and authenticity? I think it’s pretty easy to spot essays that have been overly coached.

  7. A marvelous preparation for students who aim for a career in Corporate Marketing – developing all the necessary skills such as image management, advertising messaging, falsification of data, faux sincerity,moral ambiguity and posturing. A world of success beckons for these poor bastards.

  8. Holy sh1t – is that really how college applications are going in the US now? Doubtless the same approach will be heading to this side of the Atlantic soon, sadly.

  9. With grade inflation and variance by school, GPA is worthless. You can always get someone else to write your essay. SATs are racist. Holistic just means fuzzy biases.

    We need something fact-based like horoscopes and ouija boards.

    1. I could write an essay about the time I sat down with a seer. I’d never had my fortune told and was curious (also bored). I went in planning to give her as little as possible to work with. She gave me an hour more than I paid for, probably because I was being so difficult. After trying her darndest, she decided my future was as a ‘death doula’.

      1. “…she decided my future was as a ‘death doula’.”


        How’s that working out for you? 😉

        I wonder if you get extra points on your application if you claim to be a psychic (especially from, say, the Bayou, with roots in “traditional witchcraft” or something). After all, it’s another “way of knowing.”

  10. Unless this is happening ‘just now’, I have not personally seen anything too crazy for our 3 kids, who have each entered our local university over recent years without much fuss and bother. The last started just last fall. Admission was pretty traditional as it was based on test scores, a personal essay, and letters from former teachers.

  11. Down here in NZ the eight universities are pretty much the same -or at worst there are the four that have been around since the nineteenth century and the other four. Admission is based on a minimum level of achievement at school and there are very few subjects with restricted entry – medicine, veterinary science and law being the main ones. Generally admission into these is by first year grades – although medicine is now paying considerable attention to equity criteria. No coached essays about how wonderful you are.

  12. During the 30 years I have been in secondary ed (primary job, engineering practice is job two), mostly teaching top-tier students (5 to 12 AP’s at college admission, and an average of more than one Siemens AP scholar/year between roughly 2000 and program termination in 2014), I have kept decent record of what schools my students were accepted to.

    I can’t draw strong conclusions due to the small sample size, but the trend from maybe 2010 until a couple years ago was that students that used schools own applications rather than the common application were more often accepted to top schools, and students that applied to fewer schools were more often accepted to top schools (I had a student in 2017(?)- maybe 2018- apply to nearly fifty schools, including all Ivy’s, MIT, CalTech, Stanford, and nearly every other prestige name. Very good SAT’s, excellent GPA, no acceptances from a top tier). I also have seen a trend in favour of those for whom I submit paper recommendations, rather than electronic, when the schools permit. Same rec- exactly the same, occasional mis-spelling and all- but on paper, with hand checked boxes and a signature on the letter.

    It also seems to help when I use one of my personal email addresses rather then the school in cases where my personal email matches the school applied to (I have alum email from several schools, and still-live faculty email from another from a single course taught) or a relevant professional society (IEEE, etc)

    The last three years (2019 through this year) have been very odd. Top students (perfect SAT, ten AP scores of 5, first and second in their class, with other supporting factors) getting NO acceptances to top schools. Very odd.

  13. Erving Goffman, in his lethal tour de force The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, showed quite convincingly that in any interaction with the larger community whatever, a self is being presented that has been concocted to accord with the view of himself or herself that the individual wants accepted , and that this self will indeed be accepted *as long as the individual reciprocates* and buys the personae that others, in their turn, are trying to project. TPSEL depressed the hell out of me in my sophmore year of university, because of his clinical depiction of the largely empty nature of social interactions. In Goffman’s view—echoed several years later in another brilliant, equally discouraging book by the anthropologist Robert Murphy, The Dialectics of Social Life—all connections with people outside our very closest and most intimate relationships are strictly transactional.

    If that view is correct—and the arguments in both books struck me as sound, and still do—the demand for ‘authenticity’ is itself, in Goffman’s theatre metaphor, part of a scripted transaction in which the university depicts itself—with total insincerity—as genuinely interested in the inner life of the student, their soul, so to speak, and the student will respond with equal insincerity by supplying a profile composed strictly for the meat-grinder admissions process years down the road and barely less fake than the one Lori Laughlin’s daughters presented to USC to get admitted—nonexistent competitive rowing ‘experience’ and all—in the Varsity Blues scandal. And will learn that that is surely the way to get what you want in life. Way to go, Coalition for College!

  14. The Atlantic featured an interview with Professor Peter Turchin: (Squeezing elites through hoops:) Turchin then adds another layer. … Too many elites relative to the general population (a condition I call ‘elite overproduction’) leads to ever-stiffer rivalry in the upper echelons. And then you get trouble. ..Since the number of political offices is fixed, as the ranks of the wealthy swell, so too do the numbers of people who think they can lead a society than are needed to lead that society, and there are not enough roles for them to occupy. .. Turchin suggests that rivalries between elites lead to political instability..’ So, I see this as a twist on rivalry of the elites.

  15. 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.

    This is IMO the key issue – supply of well-qualified young people has exceeded the available spots at well-qualified schools.

    Long-term, the states need to expand their “U of…”, “X state…”, and profession/trade school systems to better serve their citizens. This isn’t just good for the kids, it’s good for the state; it creates a workforce who can contribute better to an economy which is increasingly driven by brains rather than muscle or rote action.

    Short term, I don’t think there’s any good solution. It worries me as a parent. In particular, it is really hard to think of any criteria other than academic merit which isn’t more manipulable by the wealthy than just plain old academic merit. Sure they can access better schools. But you make up some other criteria, it’s likely they can access a better way to do that too, and without the kid needing to actually learn academic material.

    I personally think the notion of using a satisfice criteria and then pulling semi-randomly from everyone who makes it takes a great deal of pressure off of students to invent resume-boosters. But it certainly wouldn’t reduce their overall stress and would probably raise it, since instead of stressing out over something they can partially control – i.e. whether they’ve done enough “resume work” – they’re now stressing out over something they can’t control – i.e. the semi-random draw.

    Perhaps a partial solution is satisfice criteria combined with something like a coordinated preferential system? Students rank their top 10 choices. The schools determine who satisfies their entry criteria. We use big data analysis to create best match of students to schools they (a) satisfice and (b) rank high. Then, to stop the inevitable snafus you’ll get with any heuristic (because no algorithm is going to do every case justice), you have a big collective pool of human admissions officers from various schools to take a look at the kids the algorithm “left behind”, and try and fit them using good ‘ol human brainpower instead.

  16. I know I am being a bit of an ass here, but why just not forget college and university? Alright, if you want to be a doctor, or a lawyer, you really need it, but a lot of these kids are just doing it because they’ll have better chances later on, no matter what field they are going in to. In the end a lot of them work in fields that have nothing to do with what they studied. What ever happened to just getting on with life?
    Assuming, of course, that they would get the chance without a degree. Personally I’d rather have an intelligent person without a degree working for me than an idiot with one (plenty of experience with that). What happened with giving people a chance and just seeing what they can do?
    I think this is a basic problem with our society.
    That would be true meritocracy, which, to be honest, I am a fan of. And when you give people a chance and notice that they aren’t quite the thing, you may also notice that they have other merits that can’t possibly be captured in notes. You may find that they have capabilities they weren’t even aware of themselves, capabilities that are simply useful, not just for me, but for society as a whole.
    I find the current system far too regimental and focused on things that are not necessarily expedient in real life. Naturally you may also notice that they have no merits whatsoever, whether they have studied or not.
    Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we have universities, and there are certain fields in which I see these long years of study as essential. I also think that studying can be very enrichening, and probably most people would benefit from it (my “kids” do), but I also think that it has become an industry for milking money from people who don’t benefit from it. It’s sort of like this: if you don’t want to end up cleaning toilets, you have to at least go to college (and even that won’t always work).
    That’s how it was presented to me from my teachers in high school, so many years ago (well, at least those who didn’t hate my guts for being such an unruly bastard). All my high school teachers said: go to college, otherwise you haven’t a chance. You’re a bright spark (they said, but that is actually beside the point), study something and make something of yourself.
    Smart people who get the chance will make something of themselves, whether they study or not. IF they get the chance.

    1. You are definitely on to something here, but the societal restraints still exist. I got a really good job when I was 19 in an industry where you could still work your way up in a sort of apprenticeship model. I didn’t go to college. At 25, I bought my house, and was feeling pretty smug about all of that student debt that I didn’t have. A year or two later I kind of topped out at what I could make without a degree in that industry. Turns out, the work that I was good at, was not necessarily work that I enjoyed. I decided that I needed to go to college if I wanted to do something else and make a decent living.

      I enrolled in community college, with full support of my employer. I continued to work full-time. I received scholarships, grants and what those didn’t cover I paid for myself.

      I had a perfect academic record. Turns out when you realize that you’re paying for school, you’re losing income because you’re at school and not at work, and you’re losing time with your family because of all the school and work – you take it really seriously. I transferred to a state school to finish my degree. I hadn’t realized that science was my passion when I was 19. And the subject matter that I was interested in, I needed to be taught.

      I was able to get a good job in the field of my study and I’m quite happy doing what I do now. I didn’t accrue any student debt, and I made the very most of my classroom time.

      One thing I did learn, is that much of the undergraduate experience is an exercise in hoop jumping. That is why employers want potential employees to have completed a four-year degree, they want to know they can jump through hoops. It doesn’t particularly matter what the hoops are for a lot of industries.

      I was lucky enough to have spent some years in Finland during high School. The model there is pretty great. After 10th grade you take your GCSE and basically you can work in a McDonald’s. Then you decide whether to go into a trade track for the next 2 years or an academic track that will prepare you for a university. After those two years if you took the trade track you’re ready to go into a line of work. If you took the academic track you test into a university in your field of study. Of course this is mostly free for everyone.
      – apologies for the novel.

      1. Thanks for posting that link! Remarkable. “Joseph Pujol.” If his last name is pronounced the way I think, it’s remarkably serendipitous.

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