The ‘holistic’ admissions lie

The Devil's Advocate

jason.web

Today, UC Berkeley’s application for fall 2013 admission will become available online. Nervous high school seniors around the world will finally be able to begin the rather unpleasant process of compiling grades, SAT scores, extracurricular activities and essays and entering them into the university’s sleek, blue application portal.

Unfortunately, UC Berkeley’s admissions office — like those of many other colleges and universities — represents its applicant evaluation process to these students in a way that is both implausible and unhealthy by suggesting that it is qualified to determine not only an applicant’s academic promise, but whether he or she is a good person.

Consider the Office of Undergraduate Admissions’ freshman selection criteria. They include a list of personal qualities, like “character,” “responsibility,” “insight,” “maturity” and “concern for others and for the community.”

Or watch the video put out by the undergraduate admissions office, which has more than 167,000 views on YouTube, called “Mythbusting the Application Process.” An admissions officer says Berkeley looks at the “whole person” when making admissions decisions. Students suggest that admissions decisions are based on “who you really are,” and one student claims that “what Berkeley was looking for was not necessarily what was in my GPA or in my test scores, per se, but … what I did for my community.”

Other universities also seem determined to portray their admissions processes as evaluations of applicants’ quality as people rather than assessments of their quality as students. A blog post on the MIT admissions website says “the application process is about people, about you, not about your numbers.” UCLA lists many of the same admissions criteria on its website as Berkeley does. Yale University claims to look for “applicants with a concern for something larger than themselves.” The University of Chicago’s admissions dean says his office undertakes “a truly holistic process, not just test scores and GPA. We are hoping to find out who you are, as a whole person.”

There are two serious problems with this portrayal of college admissions. The first is that it is dishonest — and arrogant in the extreme — for admissions offices to claim that they are entitled to pass judgment on the character of each of the tens of thousands of 17- and 18-year-olds whose applications they read each year. Berkeley’s admissions officers have at their disposal a transcript, test scores, a list of extracurricular activities and two short essays. On the basis of this information, colleges can make some inferences about an applicant’s academic ability. They cannot possibly rate the quality of applicants’ personalities.

Second, it is unhealthy for anxious high school students applying to college to be under the impression that they are facing a type of comprehensive judgment — not just of their academic and extracurricular performance but of their quality as human beings and their value to their communities. Students who are accepted are effectively told that they are not only academically superior, but morally superior, to the applicants who were rejected. And students who don’t get in may feel they were rejected because of some personal deficiency.

Why do admissions offices go to such great lengths to present their selection processes in this dishonest, harmful way? I think, unfortunately, that part of the answer has to do with the college rankings frenzy that has become so influential in the admissions process. Colleges are desperate to maximize the number of applications they receive so they can reduce their acceptance rates and boost their rankings. Admissions offices therefore encourage unqualified students to apply by suggesting that, even if their test scores and grades aren’t good enough, they might get in if only they can show that they are sufficiently mature, kind and responsible.

Another possibility is that admissions offices want to insulate themselves against charges that the admissions process for elite colleges has become utterly random. Some higher education experts have even suggested, rather compellingly, that it would be more honest and fair for colleges to merely identify all reasonably qualified applicants and perform a lottery to determine which ones get in. In the face of these types of radical proposals, admissions offices understandably want to defend their relevance and value, so they assert that they are there to ensure that admitted students are not only smart but also virtuous.

None of this is to say that colleges shouldn’t consider the context in which an applicant achieved. But admissions offices should acknowledge their limits — they do everyone a disservice when they pretend they have special powers to see into teenagers’ souls.

Contact Jason Willick at [email protected] or on Twitter: @jawillick.