Elite College Admissions Is Not Arbitrary

There’s a misleading headline on college admissions in today’s Wall Street Journal.

There are a couple of letters to the editor in The Wall Street Journal today under a headline that reads “The Arbitrariness of Elite College Admissions.” As our loyal readers know all too well, the core objective of this college admissions blog is to demystify the highly selective college admissions process for all and to debunk commonly held misconceptions about the ins and outs of holistic admissions. So we’re not exactly going to let a misleading headline in one of our nation’s most prestigious newspapers slide. After all, the highly selective college admissions process is anything but arbitrary. If it were arbitrary, Ivy Coach’s students wouldn’t so often earn admission to their dream schools. If it were arbitrary, our crystal ball wouldn’t be able to so accurately predict, year after year, who can get into which school and it wouldn’t be able to so accurately forecast changes to the process as a whole.

The Argument that Holistic Admissions at Elite Colleges is Arbitrary

In one of the letters to the editor in The Wall Street Journal, Paul E. Greenberg from Brookline, Massachusetts writes, “When I took two of my then-college-bound children to visit my alma mater, the very wise, longstanding dean of admissions said that he admitted students who pursued their prime interests to the fullest extent possible. He emphasized that he wasn’t looking for well-rounded students but rather was trying to build a well-rounded class. I thought: ‘What sage advice.’ Several years later, I took my youngest child to the same information day. The admissions dean had retired and been succeeded by a new leader who offered exactly the opposite advice. As best I can tell, this natural experiment in admissions-department emphasis has done nothing to change the standing of the college in various rankings nor the on-campus experience of students. Maybe a lottery would be a better approach.”

Don’t Confuse Misleading Advice from Admissions Deans as Reflective of an Arbitrary Admissions Process

So, essentially, Mr. Greenberg went to an information session at an elite university where he encountered a longtime admissions dean who told it like it is. Then, several years later, he went to an information session at the same elite university where he encountered an admissions dean who didn’t characterize their admissions process accurately — because, yes, all highly selective colleges have sought out singularly talented students rather than well-rounded students for many years and this remains true today. But, Ivy Coach, are you suggesting that admissions officers don’t always tell it like it is? Absolutely! Many elite universities claim to be need-blind. Then why on so many of their application supplements, which admissions officers can read with their own two eyes, does it ask applicants if they need financial aid? Why would this not be on a separate document that admissions officers aren’t privy to? Of course not all admissions officers tell it like it is. It’s why we make a point on our college admissions blog to praise admissions czars — like the University of Pennsylvania’s outgoing Dean of Admissions Eric Furda and Duke University’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag — for speaking the truth.

And while we empathize with Mr. Greenberg’ frustrations in encountering a truth-telling admissions czar and an admissions czar spewing inaccuracies, his experience — one regrettably all too common — isn’t reflective of an arbitrary admissions process. And it certainly doesn’t call for the drastic institution of the all too commonly suggested lottery-based admissions system.

 
 

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