The Madness of American College Admissions

When I finished high school, I wasn’t a particularly interesting person. I didn’t have many discernible hobbies or interests. I played chess, but not very enthusiastically; I wasn’t even in the better half of chess players in my own club. I liked “reading”, but my tastes were eclectic and protean. I played no instrument. I proudly detested sports. I didn’t take part in any foreign exchange, and never visited foreign countries beyond family trips. I learned no foreign languages beyond English, and even that I dropped in favour of Latin. I took part in one summer school, only because my high school pushed me into it. I won a state Latin competition, but wasn’t particularly invested in Latin. I did no meaningful amount of “volunteer” or charitable work. I spent lots of time with my local church, where I helped organise events for children and teenagers. But that’s just what our church did; it wasn’t particularly glamorous.

So when I finished high school, my list of provable life achievements was remarkably short. But luckily that didn’t matter, because German universities do not care. I did well in school, and I could cobble together a not-terrible letter explaining why I liked philosophy. Most German universities simply select on the basis of GPA (Abiturnote), and I got places at all the universities I wanted to go. (Indeed, I only applied to three.) Because the system is transparent and uncomplicated, I never much worried about my “CV” before university. I didn’t have to; the system of applying to university wasn’t mad.

Whenever I read about American college admissions, particularly at elite schools like Harvard and Yale, I have a feeling that there is no way in hell I would have made it to those universities. This article in the New Republic is particularly insightful. The selection criteria at Yale certainly sound like an elaborate put-down of my own achievements as a teenager. I wasn’t a “musician in the highest category of promise”, or really an “X in the highest category of promise” relative to any X other than academic achievement. I didn’t have “five or six items on [my] list of extracurriculars” which, we hear, already isn’t enough. I am confident that I would have been judged to have “no spark”, and I am not sure I would qualify as “a team-builder”, whatever that is (perhaps it’s just a synonym for being American). Furthermore, you have to be a “well-rounded” or a “pointy” person to be considered as a potential Yale student (but if pointy, then really pointy). But I certainly wasn’t either. I was just a normal teenager: awkward, incomplete, unsure.

Fair enough—perhaps I’m not Yale material. But if I’m not, then I feel that I’ve just been dismissed on the basis of strange, largely irrelevant features. Generally, I find the idea that “personal qualities” should play any role in university admissions, certainly that they should play a primary role, troublesome. There are some obvious worries. First, most of the demanded “personal qualities” closely correlate with being from the middle-to-upper class. To become the kind of “interesting” person Yale demands, you first and foremost need parents with the money and/or time to provide you with the opportunities to become such a person. (Admittedly, I am from such a background, so maybe I was just lazy.) That’s hardly a new point, but powerful nonetheless. In the article, William Deresiewicz suggests a number of ways of mitigating the impact of this imbalance (limit the amount of extracurriculars applicants can mention, discount other achievements such as foreign trips altogether, etc.)

A second worry is that the type of “personal qualities” that Yale is looking for—if Deresiewicz’ piece is to be believed—strike me as skewed and overly specific. They select a certain type of person: the hyper-motivated over-achiever who engages in a list of socially recognised activities (music, sports, volunteering). Or they’re “pointy” characters, which I guess means nerds and other people obsessed over a specific issue. But many of the most interesting, most intelligent, most impressive people I’ve met during my undergraduate didn’t really fit any of these descriptions. That’s because what made them interesting isn’t easily measured in a list of “extracurriculars”.

More generally, I find it strange that universities—certainly public universities—should play arbiter on what counts as an “interesting” or “well-rounded” personality. Even if Yale didn’t have the exclusive, absurdly high-powered and skewed version of desirable “personal qualities” that it seems to have, it would feel awkward for me to apply to a university where I knew my personal qualities were judged at all.

I’ve been involved in Oxford admissions, and I’ve trudged through applications by the type of accomplished teenager who applies to elite schools. And my impression was that most of them were precisely that—teenagers. Teenagers who have experienced 2-3 years of semi-adulthood, who are still in the process of finding their own voice and interests, whose horizons are quite naturally limited and partial. I was quite glad that I didn’t have to judge them on their “personal qualities”; I would have also found it difficult, and moreover, inappropriate to do so.

Just as an example: I know my own “letter of motivation”, and those of some select friends, and of the Oxford applicants I read. It is a terrifying thought that anyone’s future should depend on engaging in this weirdest of all forms of literature; and luckily, in Germany and the UK it generally doesn’t.

Another question is: when do we want the capitalist rat race to start? I spent much of my high school obsessing over Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Kant (in this order; don’t ask); I dallied away lots of time planning events for children at church; I programmed this-and-that computer program without ever really getting anywhere; in short, I grew up without the kinds of pressure which come from knowing that you’ll be judged on your achievements (beyond the academic) and “personal qualities” once you finish high school.

This is not to defend laziness, or the dallying that I indulged in as a teenager. British and German pupils on the whole, I suspect, are not less or more engaged in “extracurriculars”. But the form and nature of these activities changes significantly, I suspect, if they’re not already part of a competition to get to the top.

What underlies all of these objections is, of course, a deeper disagreement about the point of universities. I tend to think that, given the kind of good that universities dispense (liberal education), access to it should be guided by individuals’ capacity to profit from, and excel in, that type of good. Given the kind of societies we live in, university education, certainly elite university education, also bestows other, unrelated benefits such as career success. This means that beside merit, access to (elite) universities should also be guided by other considerations, such as justice and equality. How to balance these two is a difficult question. There’s also the practical question of how we estimate academic ability; “personal qualities” (though of a much broader, differently focussed kind) might correlate with academic ability.

But ultimately, merit and distributional fairness are the guiding concerns on this picture; selection on the basis of “personal qualities” isn’t. Sometimes I’ve heard that diversity is important in university admissions. Insofar as socio-economic and ethnic diversity are concerned, I agree, insofar as these look like dimensions relevant to justice. But I find it hard to believe that beyond diversity of these kinds, diversity “in character” or “personal qualities” should somehow play a role in admissions. University isn’t like a reality show where it matters that everyone has a distinctly interesting backstory.

The German-British (continental?) system in which university places are distributed almost exclusively on the basis of tested (Germany) or perceived (UK) academic ability certainly has its own problems. Personal interviews in particular—towards which Oxbridge admissions are heavily slanted—are not the panacea they’re sometimes made out to be, as they tend to reinforce the implicit biases of interviewers. Nor is “GPA only” the perfect solution—in its extreme (say, Chinese) forms, it is certainly worse than the American system. But all things considered, I’m glad that I never had to apply to American (elite) colleges. European universities often look enviously at the achievements of American elite universities, and try to copy them in many ways; but I would suggest that they ignore how those universities select their students.

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