It’s who you know: Connections may play a role in Penn admissions

Caroline Simon

March 23, 2015

In college admissions, connections mean a lot.

It was recently uncovered that applicants with connections to the University of Texas at Austin were more likely to be accepted to the school than those without connections. This phenomenon occurs subtly at colleges everywhere, with Penn being no exception.

Following concerns raised by a member of UT Austin’s Board of Regents — the equivalent of Penn’s Board of Trustees — the investigative firm Kroll, Inc. performed a study to determine whether applicants to UT Austin who submit a letter of recommendation from an influential individual, like a state legislator, have admissions advantages.

According to the study, applicants with this kind of recommendation have significantly higher rates of acceptance. When these students apply, they are placed into a category called “hold.” The investigation found that students on hold have an acceptance rate of 72 percent, compared to the university’s overall acceptance rate of 40 percent.

Although recommendations from prominent individuals were shown to have significant influence at UT Austin, having connections can prove advantageous at Penn as well.

“I think all of us would be naive to say that there isn’t politics or interest involved in anything that takes place,” Dean of Admissions Eric Furda said. “You want to keep your ears open to those people who are closest to your institution.”

However, while Penn encourages applicants to submit an additional letter of recommendation through the Common Application to supplement their two teacher recommendations, Furda said that such letters are treated sensitively. A majority of students choose to submit a third recommendation from a coach or employer, but some students are recommended by people who are affiliated with Penn.

“There’s a different between input and influence,” Furda said. “When that input becomes influence, that drives the process in ways that are seen as unfair.”

Brian Taylor, director of Ivy Coach, a New York-based college admissions consulting firm, believes that the advantage of connections in the admissions process is not unique to UT Austin.

“It absolutely happens at every school across America,” Taylor said. “That’s how the world works.”

The Kroll report offered suggestions for UT Austin to make its admissions process fairer. UT Austin Chancellor William McRaven said he will convene a committee to analyze the report’s recommendations.

Although the Kroll investigation was undertaken because UT Austin’s policies were seen as discriminatory, Taylor said that this trend is not necessarily unfair — it simply allows applicants to add one more dimension to their application.

“We’ve had students with terrible grades, terrible test scores who have gotten in because of the way they tell their story. And one of the ways in which they tell their story is a letter like that,” Taylor said.

Although Penn does not appear to take connections as seriously when considering applicants as UT Austin does, Penn continues to consider outside input from important individuals during the admissions process. Considering the competitiveness of Penn’s applicant pool, the policy is unlikely to change in the future, Furda said.

“I feel very good about the way Penn handles itself in what is a process of scarcity,” Furda said.

In a written response to Kroll report, McRaven said, “For all future admissions processes, I will work with all the academic and health institutions to ensure full and open transparency with respect to how admissions decisions are made.”

McRaven acknowledged UT Austin’s need to improve the fairness of its admissions process, but added that the admissions office would not face serious consequences.

“While I have elected to not take any disciplinary action, there are clearly steps we must take to ensure that we are administering the admissions process with fairness, integrity and transparency,” he said.