Eight things I wish people understood about elite college admissions, by a former dean

What the student might contribute to campus, take full advantage of resources lacking throughout his/her life, and contribute both socially and academically.

When people find out I used to work as a dean of admissions at an elite liberal arts university, they want to gab about the wealthy and famous, bribes and scandal, the boogeyman of affirmative action. People want soap opera storylines. Rarely do they ask about why the admissions process exists as it does, the ideals and values that shape these processes and why they might be worthy of contemplation. They simultaneously want the job to be more and less interesting than it is. They want it to be fantastical without being complex.

Here is what I wish they knew about what it’s really like to do this job.

1) Recent headlines notwithstanding, the ways the wealthy game the system are remarkably mundane

The mechanisms of affirmative action for wealthy white people are so well-oiled that few would know to name it. The process begins well before college: It’s societal and holistic and reaches beyond clichéd talking points about donated buildings and the influence of celebrity and prestige.

For instance, “early decision” — an admissions process occurring months earlier than general admissions in which students agree to attend if admitted — did many favors for wealthy white students, more than any unofficial affirmative action ever helped students of color or first-generation college students. (I say unofficial because no admissions office has official quotas; the desire for a racially and socioeconomically diverse student body is affirmed in spirit rather than cold, hard numbers.)

Universities benefit from early decision because it guarantees the base of their yield rate; the regular decision process is more unpredictable. They like to keep the rate high because selectivity conveys status in some popular rankings (which, themselves, are not as meaningful as they look).

I hated early decision. Most students we accepted were not exceptional in the context of the regular pool, and they got in at a much higher rate. Early decision applicants tend to have savvy private high school counselors who understand this. These students also tend to be from wealthier families who got a head start on the college search: They could afford campus visits the previous summer; financial aid isn’t an issue, so they don’t have to wait for offers of assistance.

Whether at the top of the class or more toward the middle, on paper they look prepared for rigorous coursework at an elite university.

Harvard University, founded in 1636. Fall 2017 acceptance rate: 5 percent.
 Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

2) When it comes to elite college admissions, private high schools reign supreme

As we learned from the most recent college scandal, the construction of a fabricated profile with illegitimate test scores and extracurriculars is tragicomic, but rare. But a prep school applicant curated by elite counselors, tutors, essay writers, and a manipulative school profile is routine, even though it inspires less backlash.

Private schools create applicants who are difficult to reject. The candidate is “prepared” (the assumption is that private schools’ courses are more rigorous), has a relatively high SAT score (a reflection of parents’ incomes and education levels), and is touted by carefully crafted recommendation letters from counselors who have many fewer students and far more resources than their public school counterparts.

Hyperbolic buzzwords frequently appeared in their letters: intellectually curiousdiligenta leader in the communityan even better person than studentprobingthe most exceptional student I’ve taught in 25 years (I saw this three times in two years from the same teacher). Some letters ran three pages, while public school applicants often got a paragraph that made it clear their recommender barely knew them. Neither type told me much about what the student might contribute to the campus.

Many top private schools manipulate their school profiles, a fact sheet that puts the applicant in context (percentage of the student body that goes to college, number of students, GPA range, etc.). An admissions dean will know who ranks in the top 5 to 10 percent of the class, but most students will be grouped in one broad block. I often couldn’t tell if an applicant was just outside the top 10 percent or closer to the middle.

Some private schools provided no grades at all, substituting platitudinous fluff for any measurable achievement.

3) Standardized testing is just as problematic as the vague concept of “preparedness” and as contingent on wealth

How should you define a prospective student’s value? Is there a magical chemistry between applicant and university? Should a student reflect a university’s ideals? Should admissions officers primarily value self-motivation, independent thinking, creativity? Demonstrated service to the community?

In theory, our office valued a mix of all the above. But in practice, standardized test scores, class rank, and private schooling (interchangeable with “preparedness”) ruled the day. Elite universities, no matter how high-minded, have corporate souls and bottom lines. Despite being nonprofits, elite universities are competing businesses in an ever-evolving marketplace. And more often than not, professed ideals will take a back seat to whatever drives the market. If your competitors boast an SAT median of 1450 and 60 percent of their incoming class ranks in the top 10 percent of their high schools, you need to at least match that.

Although standardized tests predict little aside from first-year college academic success and retention, some people still point to a correlation between SAT scores and future earnings. But using the SAT to predict income is a chicken-and-egg riddle because family income and education level so reliably predict SAT scores and class movement in America is so stagnant. None of my personal or professional experience has legitimized the notion that an applicant with a 1440 is going to be a better classroom student or more worthwhile citizen than an applicant with a 1250.

My final year in admissions, the way we treated an applicant broke my heart. I interviewed her in my office and was struck by her depth, self-effacing humor, drive, maturity, and critical thinking. She had two working-class parents without advanced degrees and grew up in an economically depressed region of western Massachusetts. She had the grades and the extracurricular activities, but her scores were 70 points below our median.

During our committee session, I gave an impassioned speech on her behalf, which might account for the four votes I got in her favor. I’d never advocated so desperately and enthusiastically for a student. She was precisely the sort of person who would reach our campus, take full advantage of the resources she’d been lacking throughout her life, and contribute both socially and academically. Unfortunately, five colleagues still voted against her. Her case helped see me out the door.

4) Men — especially white male athletes — have an unfair admissions advantage over women

The process at my college (and many elite liberal arts schools) was particularly brutal to qualified women. We simply had more qualified women than men in the pool; to keep a gender balance on campus, many ended up in the rejection pile. (Rarely do you hear people debate this form of affirmative action.)

There’s another reason that men — specifically, well-to-do white men — had an advantage over women: athletics. Division III athletics allowed a regressive system of affirmative action for the demographic that needs it the least: white wealthy males.

No one can give a solid enough answer of why it’s important for an elite liberal arts school to have a strong D-III athletic program. Some claim it raises student morale; others theorize athletes go into more lucrative fields post-graduation (business, law) and are more likely to donate down the line. In some cases, it seems as simple and silly as a better football team making wealthy donors happy: They have reason to tailgate on campus and bragging rights at the water cooler among other liberal arts alum.

The most farcical aspect of this system was it favored underwhelming white male candidates. White female athletes who were unspectacular candidates were still generally qualified enough to get admitted the traditional way.

I witnessed the cynical strategy of deferring black male athletes to the general committee, their cases then championed on the grounds of increasing diversity. This saved tips in the athletic committee for more underqualified white men, while robbing non-athlete black students in the regular committee.

It was unsettling then, and it’s infuriating now. White males with wealthy, educated parents and substandard academic profiles and SAT scores had a back door into elite schools through athletic talents that couldn’t net them Division I scholarships. You wouldn’t want to pay to see the teams play, but these students were admitted as if they were contributing to revenue-producing sports teams at larger universities.

5) Rankings are arbitrary, misleading, and poisonous

Any admissions officer worth their position knows rankings like the US News & World Report Best Colleges list are capitalistic undertakings rooted in junk science.

Parents and students should self-sort and then contextualize: What are my strengths and interests? What environment would best suit me? What do I need most from a campus and from a classroom?

The four years of college are as important socially as they are educationally — the right fit is far more important than getting into the highest-ranked school you can.

Identify the strengths of specific programs that interest you, the proximity to places you might want to spend time, the student body’s general personality, and professors’ work in your field of study.

Spend a month identifying what you want from a college and researching the schools in step with your ideals. It’s a lot cheaper than falling victim to the grifters out there waiting to prey on your sense of insecurity.

6) Deserve’s got nothing to do with it

The truth is, at least half the incoming class at one elite college is utterly interchangeable with half the class at colleges ranked several slots above and below.

It’s never really clear which candidates are more qualified. Even less clear is who deserves a spot in the class, and how anyone could comfortably determine such a thing. The bulk of those credentialed enough for serious consideration are in that position because of circumstance and wealth. As William Munny said to Little Bill Daggett in Unforgiven, “deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

I spoke to Doron Taussig, a visiting assistant professor of media and communication studies at Ursinus College, who is writing a book about perceptions of meritocracy. He said, “Our cultural standards for what it means to earn or deserve something are extremely subjective and flexible, probably necessarily so. This means that when people tell stories about how they got to where they are and what merit had to do with it, most of us can conclude whatever we want.”

In other words, it’s difficult to get anyone to acknowledge the luck of birth and circumstance. To do so undermines a key cog in the American dream machine: the myth of the self, which reduces wealthy children’s built-in advantages to irrelevant biographical footnotes, while transforming others’ disadvantages to personal faults. It’s difficult to get those on the short end of the stick to see that diligence and acumen can take you only so far; they internalize failure or seek out scapegoats (“the black kid stole my spot”).

As a society, we’ve created a system of credentials that keeps the wealthy in place. The wealthy define “deserve” to ensure their self-interest is disguised as the greater good. The wealthy teach the middle class the checklist for college admissions success and who to blame if things don’t go their way, engendering a suspicion that their birthright is being curtailed by an undeserving “other.”

7) Where you go to college doesn’t define you — or guarantee your future

I was at an information session once where a colleague told the visiting parents and students that many rejected applicants are as deserving as those we accept. A mother lingered afterward to share a story about her daughter, who was extremely distressed about her own college rejections and killed herself. She didn’t want her other child to ever feel this way and was thankful for his take on the process’s arbitrary nature.

That story has never left me.

Where you are accepted into college is no reflection of your worth as a student, and certainly not as a person. There are duds attending Ivies and gems attending public universities. If you go to graduate school, you’ll find that all sorts of talented people never set foot on an elite campus.

Just as a Gucci belt or a Chanel purse won’t automatically make you stylish, the brand on your degree can do only so much work for you.

For the underprivileged, though, some educational brands are perceived strongly enough to open doors. In my opinion, the most compelling argument for affirmative action is access to resources and to social and economic networks. I recall thinking about a brilliant black woman from Detroit I taught at a public university, “If she were at my alma mater, they’d already have her partnered with a mentor, doing research.” But at that school, no one was invested in her enough to identify her potential.

Attending an elite college has allowed me to develop a network that includes doctors, lawyers, people with multiple advanced degrees and experience in academic administration, etc. That’s what affirmative action was meant to alter — to make education a true means of upward mobility.

Ideally, college would function as a counterbalance to the rigged games of American capitalism and meritocracy. That it doesn’t is a mark of failure not on the students, but on the system itself. I’d urge students to fight the good fight here: try like hell to hold these elite universities accountable to their high-minded ideals, that they might better reflect the composition of our society.  

8) The job isn’t easy, and admissions officers do a lot of thankless work

When I worked in admissions, there seemed a nobility to the work, helping curate the ranks of future difference-makers. Reading applications felt honorable.

But it quickly became clear that few people understood the process — even those making the decisions. The goal was to evaluate each student in her individual context. If that sounds absurdly vague, I sympathize.

With thousands of applicants and a relatively small staff, it’s easy, over the course of consecutive 16-hour days, to lose your bearings.

It is also Sisyphean to mesh admissions’ idealistic language with a university’s practical goals of maintaining its tenuous spot in the rankings; to contextualize the relative strengths of various high schools, student achievement, intellectual curiosity, leadership qualities, drive, and character while making sense of test scores (spanning different regions and economic backgrounds) that are within a 150-point range.

These relatively small staffs are traveling across the country for school visits, doing several information sessions for prospective students a week, reading thousands of applications (difficult and monotonous work that takes eight to 12 hours a day if you’re doing it right), and then sitting through full-day committee sessions to debate specific cases. All while trying to maintain a personal life and some sanity.

In my experience, the bulk of the admissions deans and directors I encountered were decent, empathetic, and forward-thinking. When I first wrote critically about elite college admissions, the dean and director of admissions at Carnegie Mellon took me out to lunch to pick my brain. Later, they invited me to address their staff, then brought me to a conference to speak with admissions folk from across the country. There, I met many people who want to fix the system.

To foist the task of remedying societal inequity on relatively underpaid, unappreciated admissions officers is mostly unfair. (I had a huge office, a fancy title, and a lot of frequent flyer mileage. But the salary is peanuts — another reason, other than progressivism, the field has a disproportionate number of women and minorities in high-ranking positions.)

When I departed my job as an admissions dean, it was for an opportunity to study at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and eventually teach writing at a university. But I’d also had enough of the job — I felt more like a rubber stamp than an agent of change. And I worried I was actively widening the gap between the haves and have-nots.

I don’t believe you can reform college admissions from the inside. The game favors the wealthy and powerful, and that’s an extension of our society. There’s no doubt these elite institutions have the money and the brainpower to rethink admissions’ and education’ purpose, and to innovate their processes accordingly. But do they have the desire or the commitment to do so? They might be content to be fortresses that hoard their money, while the best and brightest pay mostly only lip service to societal health. In the words of Albert Schweitzer, “my knowledge is pessimistic, but my willing and hope are optimistic.”

While I don’t envy people who work in elite admissions, I do feel great sympathy for them.

Stories like that of the recent FBI investigation revealing fraud, racketeering, and bribery don’t actually give much insight into the admissions process. That particular crew consists of grotesque caricatures of white privilege who distract from worthwhile discourse. Some see in them vindication for pro-affirmative action arguments; others see proof positive that white students at elite schools are an unqualified, insipid lot.

When I was done reading about it all, what I felt most was relief that it was no longer my problem to make sense of.

Jason England is a former admissions dean and an assistant professor of creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University. Find him on Twitter @JasonAEngland1.