Is the college admissions process biased, either consciously or unconsciously?  Is the playing field level for all applicants, or are some students advantaged and others disadvantaged by what information colleges ask for, how they ask for it, and when they ask for it? Is an admissions process free from bias even possible?


Those questions are far from original, and in fact this blog has discussed issues related to fairness several times.  I’m also not convinced that “bias” is the right word.  But two recent conversations have made me reflect on the biases, assumptions, and unintended consequences attached to the application and admissions processes.


The first conversation was with a retired admissions dean whose opinions I trust greatly.  He observed that the admissions process is biased towards kids who are verbal, who are able to write well.  I think that’s true, with possible exception of engineering applicants, but I would also amend his hypothesis to “write well in a certain way.”  The personal essay is a different, and perhaps even peculiar, form of writing, and many students who are perfectly good academic and analytical writers struggle with the personal essay format.


Another dean for whom I have great respect but who is nowhere near retirement, Lee Coffin at Dartmouth, has observed that a student’s voice (activities, essays, recommendations) is more important in the admissions process at highly-selective colleges and universities than data (transcript, test scores) because every competitive applicant has superb data, making the voice piece what distinguishes among applicants. 


That raises two questions.  How much does a personal essay reveal about applicants, especially when so many personal essays are crafted with so much assistance?  I used to think I could identify a legitimate Ivy candidate just by the depth of thought and creative flair found in their essays, but I’m not as sure today.  The other question is whether the personal essay actually translates into the kind of writing and thinking that a college student will be required to do.


The second conversation was with the Executive Director of one of the nation’s leading merit scholarship competitions.  The scholarship recognizes excellence in scholarship, citizenship, and leadership.  Just as almost all the applicants to highly selective institutions have outstanding data, making voice more important, in the scholarship competition all the nominees have outstanding scholarship and citizenship, making leadership the most important of the three supposedly equal “legs.”


I wondered if the scholarship foundation was thinking any differently about what signifies leadership.  In her best-selling book, Quiet, Susan Cain argues that the unique leadership strengths of introverts are often overlooked in a culture that values a certain style of leader.  Another scholarship competition has moved away from judging nominees based on resumes and elected leadership positions to looking for evidence of the growth mindset identified by Carol Dweck, defining leadership as making a difference rather than holding office.


The answer was that the scholarship process had always recognized that leadership comes in many forms, but the Executive Director also commented that the nature of the scholarship competition is very different from, and potentially alien to, schools with an ethos of modesty and self-deprecation.  The scholarship competition is not necessarily designed this way, but it advantages those who are at best self-confident and at worst self-promoting. 


Are there other examples of admissions procedures or conventions that may have unintended consequences?  Much of what passes for merit, particularly heavy reliance on test scores for admission or scholarship consideration, may actually reflect socioeconomic privilege, advantaging those who are already advantaged.  Colleges that admit half their freshman class under Early Decision or Early Action help students from affluent, educated families or who have access to savvy college counseling.


Not all the consequences of admission practice may be unintended.  Jerome Karabel’s fascinating history of admission at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, The Chosen, argues that application mainstays such as essays and recommendation letters were put in place back in the 1920’s to make sure that the “right” kind of applicants were admitted to keep the percentage of Jewish students in check, to make admission to college more like admission to a social or country club.


Fortunately the admissions process today does not seek to exclude certain groups, although some Asian-American groups would beg to differ.  But admission, particularly in hyper-selective places, is a zero-sum game.  Valuing or giving preference for one type of skill or talent may disadvantage those with a different skill set, and making progress with one type of diversity may hurt a different kind of diversity.


Karabel’s history identifies three epochs in the selective college admissions process.  First came Best Student, where the evaluation was based purely on academic preparation.  Then came Best Graduate, where personal qualities assumed greater importance.  The current epoch is Best Class, where the aim of the admissions process is not admitting individuals but rather a class full of differences that helps an institution achieve a variety of institutional goals.


Is it time for a new epoch?  I don’t pretend to know the answer, but I hope we will question the admissions process we currently have.  Do we ask the right questions and measure the right qualities?  Do our assumptions stand scrutiny?  Are there subtle, unintended biases?  Do we have an admissions process we’re proud of, or merely one we’re satisfied with?