Category Archive 'College Admissions'

12 Sep 2018

Getting Into the Top Ivies These Days

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Harvard.

I once answered a question on Quora about Yale, so pretty much every day I receive a email asking to answer the question “How do I get into Yale?” from some exotic resident of the remote Third World.

Clearly, the mysteries of elite Ivy League admissions are an intriguing topic these days all over the world.

I ran into a Quora posting this morning from a U. Chicago guy named Hasnat, quoting an anonymous Harvard 2006 graduate who had worked in the Harvard Admissions Office.

I thought it pretty accurately captured a home truth applicable to Yale as well, that, beyond grades and test scores (which had better be high), they are looking for a certain kind of exceptionality and competitiveness. They want people out of the ordinary.

I think you need to join Quora and all that to open a link, so I cut-and-pasted the whole bloody thing to make life easier for NYM readers.

[A] little bit of advice.

“First of all, there are a number of small factors that can move the admissions needle in small amounts: location, economic background, race. You can just accept that these exist and don’t really count for much—a slight counterbalance to the general advantages that wealthier folks tend to enjoy as a rule. Or you can spend millions of dollars on lawyers and consultants, and hundreds of hours fighting in court in order to claw back this tiny little potential advantage from those in the lower half of the socioeconomic spectrum.

“Either way, these are things beyond your control, and I’d recommend not worrying about them. Frankly, it’s the cheaper and quicker option.

“Otherwise, the official party line, as taken verbatim from Harvard’s longtime Dean of Admissions, William Fitzsimmons (class of 1963, dean since 1986) is that Harvard selects for “academic excellence, extracurricular distinction, and personal qualities.” And that sounds good—who doesn’t love excellence?—until you think about it.

“What Dean Fitzsimmons really means is that he isn’t going to tell you anything substantial (that’s why he’s lasted for so long in his job). So I will tell you that in this context, measuring “academic excellence” really boils down to two things: Will this applicant graduate on time and happy?

“Pure intelligence is one part, hence the focus on scores and GPAs. Harvard is difficult, and someone who has never seen a differential equation will probably struggle in the basic required math courses; isomeone who has never read a Steinbeck novel or a Shakespeare play will probably feel excluded from general English Lit.

“But so is extracurricular activity. You might be smart, but do you have the discipline to keep going for four years? How do you respond to setbacks, challenges, opposition? Do you show signs of life in the wider world? In short: are you of sound mind?

“The 4.0 student who just works the ball-washing station at the country club does not necessarily demonstrate great time-management skills. On the other hand, we’ll take the person who has an A-minus GPA but spends most of her free time in a research lab breeding generations of flies for genetic tests, thank you very much. This is why admissions officers will say “well-rounded” until they’re blue in the face. There’s nothing wrong with plain old eggheads—but let’s try and get out there once in a while, too.

“And when the committee selects for the mysterious and ephemeral “personal qualities,” well, we want to know how much of a jerk the candidate is, and how well they’ll respond to a campus full of jerks.

“Let’s be honest: Harvard and its affiliates will inflict some kind of damage (academic, emotional, occasionally physical) on everyone who lingers there. It is a place where everyone is out to get everyone else. In a place where no one can be the best at everything, everyone takes any chance they can get to measure up to their peers. It is a mob of ruthless young overachievers with a taste for blood.

“Ayn Rand, eat your heart out. Your Objectivist paradise is alive and well, and its name is Harvard. Here, people believe that each of them is a “heroic being,” that their individual happiness is a moral absolute, that their own reason is ironclad and incorruptible. Just look at what four years of that does to a person. Never mind the outliers like Mark Zuckerberg and Ted Kaczynski. You just need to look at the offices of Wall Street investment banks (where half of the graduating class of Harvard ends up every year). Or the op-ed pages of New York newspapers. Or the halls of Congress (one shudders at the thought).
Read the rest of this entry »

03 Aug 2018

It Takes More than Test-Scores to Build a Meritocracy

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Some building at Harvard.

Wesley Yang, in Tablet (Funny, he doesn’t look Jewish.), has an intelligent, fair-minded essay on the paradoxes of Ivy League admission.

Private colleges in America were all founded to pursue a certain vision of the world. Even if many have fallen away from their original religious sectarian missions, they retain a certain coherence of purpose through their ability to mold their classes as they see fit. On its face, there is nothing wrong with maintaining admissions policies that favor certain kinds of people over others—provided of course that the preference doesn’t violate the law by discriminating against applicants on the basis of their race, gender or national origin. Some schools want to teach Catholics. Some want to teach Jews. Some want to train scientists. Others want to train investment bankers and politicians. Each of these schools will design admission policies accordingly.

There is also something intuitively true about the proposition that grades and test scores are imperfect proxies for genuine merit in whatever area or field. The Ivy Leagues have always refused to be the colleges of the “best students” and have instead sought to identify the “leaders of tomorrow.” It doesn’t take too much thinking to realize how little overlap there might be between these categories of person. In an amicus brief submitted on behalf of Harvard University in 1974, the Harvard law professor and former solicitor general of the United States, Archibald Cox, noted that Harvard College selected less than 15 percent of its entering class purely “on the basis of extraordinary intellectual potential,” going on to express the fear that “if promise of high scholarship were the sole or even predominant criterion, Harvard College would lose a great deal of its vitality and the quality of the educational experience offered to all students would suffer.”

Any system focused on the likely leaders of tomorrow must include the sons and daughters of privilege along with the brightest and most driven students, giving the former the access to the latter and vice versa. Such a class will by definition have a better understanding of the ways of the world and how to master it, which is in part why Harvard intervened in the first case to go before the Supreme Court challenging affirmative action. As Jerome Karabel, author of The Chosen: A History of Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, makes plain, Harvard’s interest in the case “went well beyond the issues of blacks and other minorities.”

As Karabel writes, the case “raised the specter of an encroachment on the institutional discretion that Harvard believed indispensable to the protection of vital institutional interests. In the worst case, a ruling for DeFunis [the student who was denied admission] might lead to the court imposing the model of pure academic meritocracy that [Dean W.J.] Bender and his successor at Harvard had so definitively rejected.”

Karabel’s book is an exhaustively detailed survey of the ways in which the Ivy Leagues battled through the decades to hold the threat of pure meritocracy at bay. At the start of the 20th century, the meritocratic danger was Jewish. In 1908, Harvard began to select its students on the basis of a set of admissions examinations. By the 1920s, as Karabel writes, “it had become clear that a system of selection focused solely on scholastic performance would lead to the admission of an increasing number of Jewish students, most of them of eastern European background.” The institutions sought, as Karabel put it, “the latitude to admit the dull sons of major donors and to exclude the brilliant but unpolished children of immigrants,” and therefore created a system relying on “discretion and opacity—discretion so that the gatekeepers would be free to do what they wished and opacity so that how they used their discretion would not be subject to public scrutiny.”

The system of holistic admissions that place a heavy stress of highly subjective qualities such as character, personality, and leadership that we all take for granted was invented during an era of radical immigration exclusion to supply the discretion and opacity that the institutions demanded in order to maintain the kind of student bodies that they thought suitable—namely white, Christian, and Anglo native-born. But while holistic admissions were born in racist exclusion, the affirmative action debate presented a golden opportunity for the institution to recast this discretion as something at once legally and morally unassailable—by cloaking the institutional interest in independence and discretion in terms of protecting and advancing the interests of racial minorities. This ingenious move, reconciling the claims of justice and self-interest in the manner habitual to a certain kind of liberal, secured the cartel power of the Ivy Leagues to mint a ruling elite for a generation.

No one should fault the keepers of the Ivy Leagues for seeking to hold in balance inherited privilege with meritocratic excellence. It was the smart play. No one can gainsay the results obtained by what history will regard as some of the greatest brand managers the world has ever seen. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 ended a string of 27 consecutive years in which the president of the United States held a degree from either Harvard or Yale University. Every member of the Supreme Court is a graduate of one of two law schools, Harvard or Yale. Harvard University has an endowment of $37 billion, which is a sum at least four times larger than that controlled by hedge-fund king George Soros.

Neither should we begrudge those invested in this system of mutual advantage their exasperation at Asian immigrants for unwittingly acting as spoilers. For that is what Asians have done: By arriving here in such large numbers, and importing their distinctive orientation toward education—by doing so well on grades and tests and being so assiduous in their pursuit of extracurricular activities—they’ve made it impossible for the brand managers of the Ivy Leagues to preserve the balance between merit and social justice and inherited privilege in a way that is remotely tenable. Something had to give, and it appears that soon enough, something will, with large consequences for the country.

RTWT

26 Feb 2012

Smith Alumna’s Letter Provokes Outraged Response

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Smith’s College Hall

A recent letter from an upscale 1980s alumna to the Smith College newspaper, The Sophian, questioned Smith’s current admissions policies and provoked howls of outrage in response.

To the Editor,

I am the president of the Smith Club of Westchester County. I enjoy reading the Sophian online because it helps me stay abreast of developments at the school.

I read your article about [President] Carol [Christ]’s resignation and it had some interesting statistics. It mentioned the percentage increase in the population of women of color and foreign students. The gist of the article was that one of Carol’s objectives coming into the position was to increase diversity and the article gave statistics that showed that she did.

As someone who has followed admissions for many years, I can tell you how the school is viewed by students in Westchester and Fairfield Counties. First, these counties are some of the wealthiest in the country. The children have parents who are highly educated and accomplished and have high household incomes. The children are programmed from day one to get into Ivy League schools.

To this demographic, Smith is a safety school. Also, very few of these students want to go to a single sex school. With the exception of Wellesley, it is not hard to get into the Seven Sisters any more. The reason why Wellesley is more selective is because it is smaller than Smith and in a better geographic location – Boston beats Northampton.

The people who are attending Smith these days are A) lesbians or B) international students who get financial aid or C) low-income women of color who are the first generation in their family to go to college and will go to any school that gives them enough money. Carol emphasizes that this is one of her goals, and so that’s why the school needs more money for scholarships or D) white heterosexual girls who can’t get into Ivy League schools.

Smith no longer looks at SATs because if it did, it would have to report them to U.S. News & World Report. Low-income black and Hispanic students generally have lower SATs than whites or Asians of any income bracket. This is an acknowledged fact because they don’t have access to expensive prep classes or private tutors.

To accomplish [President Christ’s] mission of diversity, the school is underweighting SAT scores. This phenomenon has been widely discussed in the New York Times Education section. If you reduce your standards for grades and scores, you drop in the rankings, although you have accomplished a noble social objective. Smith has one of the highest diversity rates in the country.

I can tell you that the days of white, wealthy, upper-class students from prep schools in cashmere coats and pearls who marry Amherst men are over. This is unfortunate because it is this demographic that puts their name on buildings, donates great art and subsidizes scholarships.

-Anne Spurzem ’84

The responses published in The Sophian are good for a laugh.

——————————————-

Drew Zandonella-Stannard, class of 2006, took personal charge of leading the angry mob brandishing pitchforks and torches to Ms. Spurzem’s email inbox.

Anne Spurzem: You Have Been Warned

Here at Vintage Smith, I try to keep an even temper. However, I’m not past putting anyone on notice. This week, that person is Anne Spurzem, the President of the Smith Club of Westchester County, who wrote a letter to The Sophian that can only be described as hateful, confused, bigoted and just plain mean. To read it, go here.

In these pages, I showcase the pieces of Smith College’s past that make us proud to hail from such a unique community. Sometimes it’s about Hilda Yen, the famed aviatrix who dedicated her career to teaching flight in China. Sometimes it’s about how one photo can encapsulate the bond felt by so many alums. Sometimes it’s about finding the perfect pair of saddle shoes circa 1949.

I was hoping some of you wonderful readers could pass along a message to Ms. Spurzem, telling her why you’ve been proud to call Smith home at one time or another.

I write all of this as a white, heterosexual alum who occasionally wears pearls, who accepted much-needed financial aid, who plans on giving to her school annually, and who hails from one big Lesbian family.

Please let Anne Spurzem know how much we love Smith College. Her email address is: [redacted –the college authorities intervened] and I think she needs to hear from you.

——————————————-


Jezebel
(being just a trifle dim) had actual difficulty understanding what Ms. Spurzem could possibly be going on about.

I’ve written Spurzem to ask her to clarify what she actually wants from Smith — does she think the college should admit fewer low-income and minority students, or does she have some other recommendation? Maybe there’s an interesting debate to be had here about how universities can keep their endowments healthy enough to offer scholarships while still serving low-income populations — but Spurzem’s letter hasn’t exactly gotten that debate off to a good start.

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How amusingly self-entitled members of recognized victim groups are today. They understand that it is none other than themselves, in all their accusatory glory, that represent the ultimate goal and endpoint of civilization and human achievement. Their unique worthiness makes it possible for them to elevate and ornament any sphere honored with their mere presence with Diversity.

When some Devonian fish first crawled upon dry land; when the first human beings pursued the Wooly Mammoths amid the retreating glaciers; when the Spartans held the pass at Thermopylae; when the Pilgrim fathers crossed the ocean, cleared the forest and settled the New England Wilderness; when Washington crossed the Delaware and defeated the redcoats; when the wealthy spinster Sophia Smith decided to use her inherited fortune to found a women’s college (instead of an institute for the deaf), lesbians and persons of color were always the intended beneficiaries. Everyone knows that.

——————————————-

As to poor confused Jezebel: I suppose I need to explain that elite colleges function as a system of prestige exchange. They traditionally admitted representatives of wealthy, powerful, and influential families, leavening their student bodies with a percentage of outsiders distinguished by exceptional demonstrated academic talent.

One would go to such a school in order to bask in the reflected glory of a grand tradition of famous alumni and distinguished scholars and to be accredited oneself as a member in good standing of the national elite. Elite schools were founded to educate the children of the richest families, of the heads of major corporations, and of prominent officials and political leaders. These kinds of schools would graciously admit persons of obscure origin and humble background (like myself), and would even in essence pay them to go there, when such persons could offer potential future prestige in return.

The transformation of Smith College’s admissions criteria from a focus on academic talent evidenced by high scores on standardized tests to a focus on politically correct victimhood, as Ms. Spurzem notes, fatally compromises the prestige exchange, accepting the counterfeit currency of membership in privileged victim groups instead of the real gold of actual existing status and demonstrated superior talent.

Any elite college or university that follows Smith’s example will find that it has dramatically cheapened its brand and devalued its own currency of prestige. It will inevitably move downmarket, having less of exactly what matters most to offer potential applicants. Less qualified students with lower SAT scores translates directly to less prestige associated with the school’s degrees and fewer applications from the most competitive first rank students.

06 Mar 2011

The College Admissions Process

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If you want to go to naked parties, first you have to be admitted to the appropriate elite college, and even if you don’t want to go to naked parties, you are going to need to get your ticket stamped in our credential-obsessed society in order to get any kind of serious job.

In my day, places like Yale, in the aftermath of Sputnik, were scouring the country in search of anybody with good standardized test scores. All you had to do was ace the 9th grade Stanford-Binet IQ test, then do well on the SATs and alumni representatives of Yale would come and plead with you to accept a full scholarship. Things are a bit more complicated today.

Daniel Akst, reviewing Andrew Ferguson’s Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College in the Wall Street Journal, has a lot of negative things to say about the process.

The most darkly humorous aspect of this often hilarious book is its depiction of an admissions process that corrupts everything it touches.

It’s a process that discourages reticence by requiring students to write revealing and disingenuous personal essays; discourages thrift by regarding parental savings as fair game in the financial-aid evaluation; discourages intellectual curiosity by encouraging students to pursue grades rather than knowledge; and discourages honesty by transforming adolescence into a period of cynical calculation.

“At its most intense,” Mr. Ferguson writes, “the admissions process didn’t force kids to be Lisa Simpson; it turned them into Eddie Haskell. . . . It guaranteed that teenagers would pursue life with a single ulterior motive, while pretending they weren’t. It coated their every undertaking in a thin lacquer of insincerity. Befriending people in hopes of a good rec letter; serving the community to advertise your big heart; studying hard just to puff up the GPA and climb the greasy poll of class rank—nothing was done for its own sake.”

This stressful process practically demands cynicism from all parties. To “climb the page” in the closely watched U.S. News & World Report rankings, schools solicit applications so that they can increase the numbers they reject, thereby appearing more selective. Elite institutions claim to be open to all but devote wide swaths of their entering classes to athletes, the offspring of donating alumni, members of minority groups and others with “hooks” that give them an edge.

Matters have been complicated in recent years by the success of girls, who persist in outperforming boys academically in high school and outnumbering them in college. But a university may admit so many girls that a tipping point is reached, making boys even less likely to apply or, as Mr. Ferguson notes, “attracting the wrong kind of boys for the wrong reasons.”

Admissions officers have tried to rectify this problem by making schools more appealing to male applicants, expanding math and science departments, adding sports—and lowering admission standards for males, most of whom are white. Asian boys generally don’t need any such help. “After several generations of vicious racism,” Mr. Ferguson says, “followed by protest marches, civil rights lawsuits, accusations of bigotry, appeals to color-blindness, feminism, and eloquent invocations of the meritocratic ideal, the latest admissions trend in American higher education is affirmative action for white men. Just like the old days.”


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