We’ve all got those words, phrases, and sentences that we use all the time. I over-use the word “apparently,” and some quick searches through this blog make me realize I apparently also over-use the phrase “all the time.” But behind the words and sentences that we repeat often are the ideas and worldviews that drive us. So this week I thought I’d explain the thoughts and motives behind some of the sentences I use most in my job as someone who writes about college admissions and advises students on their own admissions paths.
Earlier this week I wrote down my thoughts about the admissions scandal as we know it right now. In that post I argue, among other things, that massive cheating and bribery are not normal. I also argue that major donations to colleges are not actually legal bribes to get sub-par kids into elite schools, despite popular perception. However, popular perception is absolutely correct that elite universities are largely populated by wealthy students. So how do wealthy kids get into elite colleges? Are they, as many people have written in the past two weeks, gaming the system and destroying meritocracy? They are…kind of. Let’s look at some of the ways that wealth plays into college admissions.
Go on a practice college tour.
For many high school students, especially juniors, Spring Break is a popular time for college campus visits. I wouldn't necessarily call this "normal." Lots of students do it, yes. But lots of students don't do many--or any--visits until they're seniors and visit only schools they've already been admitted to. And plenty of students don't visit a college at all until they show up in the fall of their first year as students. What's "normal" is up to you and what you think is really best for you. While I don't recommend skipping college visits altogether, neither do I recommend going on big multi-campus trips just for the heck of it.
Dear Harvard College Admissions,
As you’re quite aware, there have been increasing calls for you to try out an admissions lottery system. Calls like the one here, for example, and here and here and here and here. A lot of people think the most fair way to handle admissions for a program that is worth a whole lot but only has an acceptance rate under 5% is to literally leave it up to chance. No legacy admissions, no diversity goals, no athletic recruitment, no committee votes. This, they say, would guarantee true diversity by taking away all biases and loopholes.
I completely understand your reluctance to go in this direction.
Arguments in the Harvard trial wrapped up last week, and the judge is expected to make a ruling some time in the next few months. If you haven’t been following the case, here’s a pretty good summary of what you’d need to know.
Before I talk about the Harvard trial, I want to explain why I wasn’t going to talk about the Harvard trial.
Here's a pop quiz for you: what's the difference between Harvard College and Harvard University? I'll answer at the bottom.
But first here's a story. A few weeks ago I was at a conference for educational consultants, in a session about demonstrated interest. One of the presenters gave an interesting example from when he was an admissions officer at a major university in the Mid-West. He said a high school student flew in from the West Coast to do an on-campus interview. That's definitely a sign of demonstrated interest. However, the student ruined it when he said in the interview that he was really excited about studying business. This particular university has a well-known business school for people getting an M.B.A., but doesn't offer business as a major in the undergraduate program. And this, the presenter said, was a negative sign of demonstrated interest. The kid says he's really interested in the school, but doesn't even know they don't offer the major he wants?
Early Action is just like regular admissions...only you do it earlier. You have an earlier deadline, and you get an answer back early. Whereas most regular application deadlines are somewhere around January 1, most Early Action deadlines are around October 1. And instead of getting a decision back in March, you get it in December. It's not Early Decision--you aren't committed to going to the school if you get accepted. You have until May 1 to make your decision, and you're welcome to turn them down even though they accepted you Early Action.
So what makes the Ivy League schools so special? A few things. One is that they're old, so they've had a lot more time than many universities to differentiate themselves. Harvard is the oldest college in the U.S., founded in 1636. Cornell is the young one of the league, founded in 1865. The other six were all founded in the 18th century.
Last month I wrote about affirmative action, and now I want to talk about Legacy. Legacy is the practice of a university giving an admissions advantage to children of alumni.
I've seen increased calls to end Legacy lately, and one of the clearest and strongest just appeared. In "Higher Education's Biggest Scam Is Legacy Admissions Policies," Richard D. Kahlenberg looks at three reasons that many colleges cite for their legacy policies and refutes them. Kahlenberg edited a book about Legacy, so he knows what he's talking about.