The first letter inviting my daughter to consider attending a college showed up in our mailbox early in her freshman year in high school, and it brought The Future into our household, a not entirely welcome guest. Janet put the letter into a box, where it was soon joined by others. Each one attempted to differentiate the institution from its competitors. Some schools reveled in their obscurity, others in their renown. But I could not escape the idea that in one fundamental way, they were all alike. All across America, a collection of nameless, faceless, anonymous people had seized control of my daughter’s life. They were the members of college admissions committees—the people who handed out the perks to the class of 2001. Or withheld them. What were they looking for, I wondered? How could mere numbers—Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) scores and grade point averages—let them know who my child really was? I wanted to slip my own letter into the packets that we mailed off. “Let me tell you about the time I took Janet to Carlsbad Caverns when she was three years old,” I would have begun. “We walked down the steep path into the almost total darkness, with Janet getting more uneasy and afraid with each step of the descent. Our knees ached and our hands turned clammy in the cold, damp air. Finally, we reached the bottom. Janet turned to me and said, ‘Daddy, I’m brave now.'” I hoped they would get the point.
But events took an unexpected turn. Even as I reached the height of my anxiety about Janet, I became one of the people who had come to dominate my thoughts—a college admissions reviewer. In early February I evaluated thirty applications to the Plan II Honors Program at UT-Austin. For several years I have taught a Plan II seminar, so I was among the recipients of an e-mail seeking faculty help in evaluating applicants for admission. The opportunity to see the process from the inside was irresistible. I picked up my folder of thirty applications and joined the ranks of the nameless, faceless, anonymous people who held the fate of America’s youth in their hands.
The experience would prove to be at once exhilarating and disturbing—exhilarating because it was impossible not to be awed by the responsibility involved, but disturbing because it substantiated my worst fears about the admissions process. I wanted to judge my group of applicants by the standards I had hoped others would use to judge Janet. But it was just not possible. The students’ real personalities were shrouded by a blanket of numbers and résumés. In the end I came away with the belief that the system of admissions used by America’s most respected universities is deeply flawed and ought to be changed.
The applications contained the standard elements: personal data, SAT score, grade point average, career plans, nonacademic activities, and awards and honors. In addition, students had to write two essays—one about a significant personal experience, the other exhibiting critical thinking. A letter of recommendation from a high school counselor or teacher and the student’s transcript made up the rest of the application. My job was to give each student a grade from 1 to 9. (The director of the program and his committee would later examine every application.) A 9 meant that the student should get into any college in the country. All 8’s and 7’s would be admitted, about half of the 6’s, and an occasional 5. I also had to answer a series of questions that attempted to look beyond grades and test scores. Is there something about this student’s background that stands out? What are the student’s strongest qualities? Does the student exhibit broad interests? Has he or she demonstrated discipline in any area? Are there any red flags (for example, the failure to take calculus in high school)? And then I had a small space in which to summarize my opinion of the applicant.
I had expected the applications, like so many of life’s choices, to sort themselves into yesses, nos, and maybes. But there were only yesses. All of the students ranked in the top 10 percent of their class, which meant that they were guaranteed admission to UT, though not to Plan II. The range of their SAT scores ran from a high of 1550 (out of 1600) to a low of 1330—”low” being relative, because almost everyone ranked in the top 10 percent of students taking the SAT. Every one of my candidates was fully qualified to be a Plan II student, but the majority of them would be turned down for admission.
I had discovered the reality, the dilemma, the cruelty of college admissions in America. Since no large differences separate thousands of applicants, reviewers like me have to look for small differences. And if you look hard enough for them, you can find them. This is what I feared would happen to Janet. Her class rank is just outside the top 10 percent. Her SAT score was just a few points under the lowest in my group. I could give you oodles of reasons why these things shouldn’t matter—Janet’s consuming passion for all things Japanese (she has had four years of the language), her ability to write with wit and sparkle, her . . . sure, I’m prejudiced. But if she had applied to Plan II, I would have had to turn her down.
The most convenient way to distinguish among students is SAT scores, even though the test is no longer a pure measure of scholastic aptitude, if indeed it ever was. (The University of California system is considering dropping a portion of the SAT as a requirement for admission.) Scores can be improved through studying and practice. Parents can pay staggering prices for private SAT review courses. I bought Janet a CD called The Princeton Review: Inside the SAT and ACT (the latter is another widely used test) that promised “Higher score guaranteed or your money back.” And yet, for an admissions reviewer forced to make distinctions, the SAT beckons all too invitingly because it offers a quantitative base for comparison.
Another difference in the applications was more subtle—presentation. Students from private schools or affluent suburbs typed their applications or wrote them neatly. Instead of filling in the application form’s space for extracurricular activities, they submitted résumés that might go on for several pages. Their high school counselors wrote effusive letters of recommendation filled with personal details about the student. Applications from schools in smaller towns or inner-city neighborhoods just didn’t have the same impact. Most were handwritten, often gracelessly. Résumés? None. Counselors’ recommendations? Poor. Unrevealing. Their letters unconsciously damned with faint praise. (“Jane is one of our finest students.”)
About halfway through my stack of applications, I realized that the high scores—8’s and 7’s—were going to members of the suburbanite group. If I adhered strictly to merit, I really had no other choice. Their applications seldom had any weak points. The 6’s and 5’s always seemed to have a chink in the armor. But their imperfections sometimes made them more interesting. One girl from a town near San Antonio had an SAT verbal score of 600, but her essays were among the best. Is it more important to score well or to write well? Dutifully, I red-flagged the test score and wrote in a grade of 6, but in the space at the bottom for evaluation, I mentioned that I had scored just 609 on the verbal test and, I pointed out, “I is a writer.” The next application I read was another suburban clone, the daughter of parents with professional jobs. “Started with all the advantages and took advantage of them,” I wrote. Another 7.
In retrospect, I wish I had been more of a rebel and treated students the way I wanted Janet to be treated. Had I worn my parent’s hat instead of my reviewer’s hat, I might have given the girl who made all-state in two band instruments a 7 instead of a 6. I might have given the boy from an inner-city school who was raised by a grandparent and worked twenty hours a week a 7 instead of a 5. (I did plead his case in the space for evaluation and ultimately he was offered admission—but it shouldn’t have been in doubt.)
Better than grade inflation, however, would be a system that makes sure that all students whose grades and test scores qualify them for admission have a chance to get in. This could be accomplished by reserving a third of the places in the entering freshman class for high academic achievers, another third for solid achievers with interesting personal characteristics (say, a consuming interest in Japanese and writing with wit and sparkle), and the last third for all the remaining qualified candidates, for whom admission would be determined by lottery.
My reviewer’s hat is in the closet now, and so, thankfully, is my parent’s hat. Janet knew instinctively that the admissions system used by top-of-the-line universities would not give her strengths the weight they deserved. So she applied only to small, highly regarded, and alas, faraway liberal arts schools, at which she hoped she would be appreciated. And she was: She got into four of her five choices and is on the waiting list at the fifth. There is still the stress that comes with choosing, of course, but the hard part is behind us. Janet, I’m brave now.