Students are headed back to school, which means the media is busy enlightening us yet again about the university admissions process. Recent weeks have yielded a spate of earnest articles counseling college-bound high school seniors on how to set their applications apart; a novel, Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy, by a longtime private college counselor; and the release of that annual source of status anxiety and predictable debate: the U.S. News and World Report rankings, in which Princeton topped Harvard, surely sending the nation’s valedictorians scrambling to revise their own lists.
The usual debates rage, too, about whether certain qualities—like race, legacy and athletic ability—should factor into college admissions. And yet, few Americans question whether “character” should count. We take it for granted that, say, being president of the chess club and volunteering with the elderly should matter to admissions officers, as should overly edited essays and enthusiastic endorsements from our favorite teachers. But it's time we reconsider, if not overthrow, these assumptions—and we need only look across the pond, to Britain, for a better model.
Robert Sternberg, the president of the University of Wyoming and the author of College Admissions for the 21st Century, represents the current conventional wisdom. He believes that the task of a university’s admissions committee is not to select the brightest students, but to identify potential leaders. “If you look at the characteristics of leaders, they’re ethical, they’re creative, they’re analytical, they’re wise, they’re willing to subordinate their needs to those of the group,” Sternberg says. Such traits, he feels, cannot be deduced from hard data like grades and test scores. At Tufts, he oversaw the debut of an experimental admissions program that encouraged applicants to submit YouTube videos or create something out of an 8.5 by 11-inch piece of paper.
James G. Nondorf, dean of admissions at University of Chicago, shares Sternberg’s doubts about the value of academic credentials. “We could fill entire incoming classes with our applicants who are valedictorians, or those with nearly perfect test scores,” he told me over email. “Though such accomplishments are impressive and important in our deliberations, they do not tell the whole story.” A letter to prospective students Nondorf published on the University of Chicago’s website is somewhat more explicit. “We are hoping to find out who you are, as a whole person, and what you will bring to our campus,” it reads, and offers the following advice: “RELAX.”
But how do we expect an 18-year-old to chill out when colleges ask her not only to prove she’s academically qualified, but also to somehow convey— through a bunch of paperwork, essentially—that she’s an exemplary member of society, and a fun person to boot?
A better question: Who do these admissions officers think they are, anyway?
Rachel Toor, a former Duke admissions officer who retired after publishing her 2001 exposé, Admissions Confidential: An Insider's Account of the Elite College Selection Process, says officers are often barely qualified to judge applicants' academic credentials, let alone other qualities. “Admissions officers are hired because they’re perky,” she says. “A lot of my colleagues—they wouldn’t know a good essay…. They would just know whether or not they liked the kid.”
The debate over whether nebulous personal qualities like leadership and integrity are fair game effectively ended all the way back in the 1920s. As sociologist Jerome Karabel discussed in his 2005 book The Chosen, Harvard introduced “character” into its admissions criteria to weed out Jews, who, by the early twentieth century, had come to dominate the student body. The legacy of Harvard’s scheme: our “holistic approach” to college admissions, with today’s high school seniors sending colleges not just academic transcripts and standardized test scores, but lists of extracurricular activities and community service and multiple personal essays and letters of recommendation.
How Harvard selects its students remains a hot topic—and there’s probably not much the country’s oldest college could ask for that would deter the 35,000 applicants seeking a place in its freshman class each year. Perhaps that's why Harvard claims, according to its admissions website, to evaluate applicants’ “maturity, character, leadership, self-confidence, warmth of personality, sense of humor, energy, concern for others and grace under pressure.”
This is preposterous. Admissions officers never even meet the applicants, who are interviewed by alumni. Will an hour-long interview reveal a person’s true “warmth of personality” or “sense of humor”? Not if the student is nervous, it won’t. And while officers look for clues like community service and leadership positions, there’s no way they can gauge whether teenagers are motivated by a sincere desire to better the world or a cynical ploy for self-advancement; mean girls can chair community service clubs, and kids who go out of their way to help friends with homework get no extra credit. Nor can officers easily detect the work of parents or even professional editors in essays that are supposed to reveal the applicant’s own voice, perspective, and writing ability.
“Of course, I think it’s really hard to evaluate character,” says Lisa Montgomery, former director of college counseling at the American School in London and current chairman of Edvice, a college-admissions consultancy. “Are we talking about decency? Grit? Ability to overcome obstacles? Does it mean someone might be denied access to higher education if their character is deemed lacking in some way?”
Ironically, the pressure to demonstrate compassion leads some students down morally questionable paths.
“There’s a charity race,” says Lacy Crawford, whose experiences as a private admissions counselor in New York City inspired Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy. “I worked with one family who took what I call a ‘miserable children of the world tour.’ They brought their children to volunteer with the most wretched children on the planet— children born into brothels in India, impoverished children in the Appalachian Mountains. This is absurd. There’s a kind of grandiosity of volunteering that undermines the whole process.”
One explanation I kept hearing from college admissions officers and consultants is that the holistic approach gives colleges wiggle room to accept students who’ve had fewer academic opportunities but are exceptional in other ways, thus helping to build a more socio-economically diverse class. This may be true, but it’s also true that only the privileged can afford to hire a consultant. Bev Taylor, the founder of an Upper East Side-based private admissions service called The Ivy Coach, told me the problem with some clients’ personal essays.
“So few kids can write,” Taylor says. “I just read this essay. This kid was patting himself on the back so hard, I thought he would fall down. The kid did some cancer research. Well, big deal, you didn’t cure cancer, but you’d think he had. I marked it up and said, ‘Send me a rewrite, and keep in mind, you’ve got to be humble, you’ve got to be likable.’”
There is an alternative. In the United Kingdom—home to four of the world’s top ten universities, according to one recent global table— candidates are judged on academic criteria alone. “We pick the best and brightest students purely on their academic merit and passion for their chosen course,” reads Oxford’s admissions website. Cambridge’s mission is unashamedly academic, too: “The principal aim…is to offer admission to students of the highest intellectual potential, irrespective of social, racial, religious and financial considerations.” (Not that the British have a monopoly on academic-based admissions; applying to college is even more straightforward in most Asian and European countries, where places are allotted based on students’ scores on national entrance exams.)
Applicants to U.K. colleges write “personal statements,” but these focus on academic interests, not general passion; otherwise, admissions decisions are reached based on test scores and, at some universities, performance at academic interviews, where professors pose open-ended questions designed to gauge candidates’ potential for intellectual engagement. (When I applied to Oxford in 2009 to study anthropology, I was asked questions like whether human nature exists; when I applied to American colleges, my interviewers were more interested in what I do for fun and what vegetable I identify with.)
“The work of a university is research and teaching,” says Dr. Lisa Bendall, a tutorial fellow at Oxford who selects undergraduate candidates for Archaeology and Anthropology. “We assess on the grounds of academic potential, because we are an academic institution.”
If the logic of the U.S. system held, then U.K. universities should be more homogeneous. But obviously British students play sports, make music, and volunteer, too; British colleges fill their sports teams and orchestras, even if they don’t seek out a goalie and an oboe player every four years. And British students’ extracurricular interests might even be more genuine: As Crawford told me, “In the U.K., it might still be possible for students to undertake extracurricular activities because they’re interested, not because they’re planning an application.”
Rafael Figueroa, who has worked in admissions at Wesleyan University and Occidental College, insists that it’s important to find students with unusual interests, because “college isn’t just about what you learn in the classroom. It’s about those conversations you have at 2 a.m.” No one would dispute that students (and people in general) learn from engaging with a diverse group of their peers. But do people like Figueroa think that students in other countries don’t talk to each other at 2 a.m.? Admissions officers don’t need to create amorphous admissions criteria to ensure that happens.
The project of applying to college in the U.S. is time-consuming and confusing for all involved: for busy teachers, who spend hours writing lengthy letters of recommendations; for parents, many of whom fork over thousands of dollars for private consultants; and, of course, for the students themselves, who apply, on average, to nine colleges, many of which require individualized essays and supplements. The result: a colossal waste of time and money. Given that other leading countries prepare college students for the real world as well as, if not better than, American universities do, it’s time we kept our warm personalities and senses of humor to ourselves.
This post has been updated.
Alice Robb is an intern at The New Republic. Follow her @AliceLRobb.