My wife is a high-school counselor, and her boss (the head counselor) conveyed a revealing tidbit to me: An Ivy League admissions dean told her that his office could simply replace the class they admitted with the next most competitive group of applicants, and the next several after that, and it would make no difference. In 2015 the undergraduate admissions dean at Tufts University made a similar
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My wife is a high-school counselor, and her boss (the head counselor) conveyed a revealing tidbit to me: An Ivy League admissions dean told her that his office could simply replace the class they admitted with the next most competitive group of applicants, and the next several after that, and it would make no difference. In 2015 the undergraduate admissions dean at Tufts University made a similar confession, noting that 74 percent of the nearly 20,000 applicants to Tufts were deemed qualified for admission while 42 percent were recommended for acceptance. The school’s actual acceptance rate that year? Sixteen percent, a number that has likely only shrunk: This year, applications to Tufts ballooned by 35 percent.
A sane approach to this glut of qualified applicants would be for a college’s admissions office to take the names of all qualified applicants, spread them over a cork board, and start throwing some darts. Indeed, such a straightforward and compelling proposal to reform the admissions process — a type of lottery — has been offered in these pages by Barry Schwartz and Dalton Conley.
Colleges haven’t done this, of course. Instead they’ve delved further and further beyond strictly academic qualifications in an attempt to peer deeper into the character of their applicants. This is “holistic admissions,” something practiced by virtually all selective colleges. (Less-selective colleges speak this language as well, even when their application numbers make a holistic approach less useful as a practice.)
Admissions offices began systematically stressing qualitative line items such as extracurricular activities as the competitive behavior of applicants intensified in the 1980s and ’90s. (In response, parenting time devoted to extracurriculars boomed in the mid-90s.) While admissions then initially favored the “well-rounded” applicant, more recently they have come to favor the passionate specialist, otherwise known as the “well-lopsided” applicant.
What caused this shift? A pair of institutional reasons suggest themselves. First, the generalist résumé padding grew so blatant that it came to be a legitimation problem. Admissions departments were clearly being gamed. Word was getting out, and they were starting to look bad, stewards of a mechanistic process that turned kids into grinds and admissions people into obvious dupes. Second, and more fundamentally, it began to exacerbate the discovery problem it had initially solved. When fewer applicants were strategically attuned to the process, well-rounded applicants were exceptional, and easier to find and admit. When ambitious high schoolers enacted such strategies en masse, seeking to outdo each other through their sheer number of clubs and teams, all these well-rounded candidates started to look alike. Changing the rules to a more individualizing scheme solved both problems.
Without actually reducing the stress and time investment of extracurriculars (because applicants now had to exhibit singular magnitudes of commitment and leadership), it gave the admissions process a huge legitimation victory. It colored an intensifying selection process in the softer tones of “passion” and “individuality” and veiled it in a therapeutic conceit of applicants coming to understand and reveal their “true selves.” The new approach also helped solve the discovery problem, goading and compelling applicants to make themselves even more legible to university admissions’ machinery of observation and selection.
John W. Boyer, dean of the college at the University of Chicago, enthuses about the school’s test-optional application: “We are delighted to now also provide an admission process that makes UChicago even more accessible by enabling students to present their best, most authentic selves.” Jess Lord, dean of admission at Haverford College, went deeper: “Everybody’s imperfect [and] those that portray that aspect of themselves are that much more authentic.” Hampshire College’s admissions website has featured, as a sort of headline, a single two-word phrase: “Authentic Admissions.”
But there is a problem with the new authenticity standard. The people who made applying to college an elaborate performance, a nervous and yearslong exercise in self-construction have now decided that the end result of this elaborate performance must be “the real you.” The tacit directive in all this — “Be authentic for us or we won’t admit you” — puts kids in a tough position. It’s bad that kids have to suffer this torment. It’s also bad that admissions departments actually think that the anxiously curated renderings that appear in applications can in any way be called “authentic.” It’s like watching Meryl Streep portray Margaret Thatcher and thinking: Now that is the real Meryl Streep.
Reformers take a process defined by unwonted nosiness and presumption and make it nosier and more presumptuous.
Of course, for the clumsier applicants whose self-presentations are derided by admissions deans, their failures often aren’t ones of authenticity. They are, rather, failures of discernment. In one of his many columns bemoaning the college admissions process, Frank Bruni of The New York Times shared an embarrassing story fed to him by a former Yale admissions officer named Michael Motto. Bruni writes of one application by which Motto “found himself more and more impressed.” “Then” — Bruni says — “he got to her essay.” The essay was about how, during an involved conversation with an admired teacher, the applicant, instead of killing the conversational moment by running to the bathroom, chose to piss herself. Now, if this doesn’t demonstrate commitment, I don’t know what does.
For Bruni and Motto, this story is evidence that the process is out of control, but what they’re willing to confront of that process is anodyne and abstract. Neither of them thinks to connect the mortifying excesses they cite to the admissions strategies that cause them.
After all, nervous applicants are assured that, as Joie Jager-Hyman, who worked as an admissions officer at Dartmouth College, told Bruni, “Being a little vulnerable can give great insight into your character.” Remember the application advice of Haverford’s Lord: “Everybody’s imperfect.” Ed Boland, a veteran of Yale admissions, recalls a girl whose essay on how she was a “serial farter” improved her chances at Yale. The serial farter, in Boland’s words, was going for something about “gender and socialization.”
What distinguishes an applicant here is not authenticity, but access to the best advice on how to create the right authenticity effect — cultured parents, costly admissions coaches, able and informed college counselors. The applicant who pissed herself committed a misjudgment at once gross and exquisitely subtle: She needed a more refined sort of self-abasement. A story about someone pissing their pants is simply less pleasing to the reader than one in which a savvy teenage girl celebrates her harmless feminist farting.
This points to another dark aspect of all this personalizing, with its imposed subtleties of performance and discernment — the barely hidden class bias. Admissions personnel are generally eager to add their voices to the chorus bewailing the socioeconomic and racial bias in standardized testing, but they’re largely incurious about the class bias in their own softer measures. In practice, that is, what ends up resembling “authenticity” to admissions officers is an uncannily WASPy mix of dispensations better understood as discretion, or, perhaps, good taste. After all, what admissions readers really dislike are the braggarts, and isn’t bragging a vice of the classless, the parvenus and arrivistes?
“The college-admissions process,” they write, “is powerfully positioned to … help young people become more generous and humane.” The report pits the moral failures of parents against the rich moral potential of admissions offices: “Some colleges have sought diligently to communicate the importance of this commitment [to the common good] in the admission process, but too often these messages are overwhelmed by messages from the larger culture and from parents that narrowly emphasize academic performance and personal success.”
What “Turning the Tide” proposes, basically, is that admissions departments keep doing what they were doing already, taking problems caused by their selection tools as license to extend the reach of those tools. For instance, one recommendation is for admissions to begin “Assessing Students’ Daily Awareness of and Contributions to Others.” It is a subtle mystery how an admissions office would discern an applicant’s daily awareness of anything, let alone of “others.”
Another report recommendation concerns “Service That Develops Gratitude and a Sense of Responsibility for the Future.” The admissions process should not only to tell applicants which activities to do, but how to feel as they do them. This perhaps foretells a later, more ambitious stage of college admissions, one in which the process and its human facilitators don’t just observe teenage dispositions and evaluate their attractiveness and authenticity but prescribe specific emotional outputs. The reformers’ big idea is to take a process defined by unwonted nosiness and presumption and make it nosier and more presumptuous. (A 2019 follow-up called “Turning the Tide II” continues in this vein, offering “actionable guideposts” to parents like “Follow your ethical GPS,” “Be authentic,” and “Model and encourage gratitude.”)
The other major recent reform is the Coalition App, an online application originally designed by and for a group of 80 of the most selective colleges in America, including every member of the Ivy League, known together as the Coalition for College. It now comprises over 150 institutions. The Coalition App (now branded as MyCoalition) is intended to replace the Common Application, and the declared mission behind it is to apply technology to improve access.
The great innovation of the Coalition App is that it takes the form of an online account that students can open when they reach ninth grade. After they open their Coalition App account, students can start assembling a portfolio of their high-school efforts, uploading papers and image files and other documents both curricular and extracurricular, into their personal master file, called a “locker.”
Of course, “can” start in ninth means “must” start in ninth grade. Veronica Hauad, deputy director of admissions at the University of Chicago (one of the founding schools of the Coalition) explains some of the thinking behind encouraging students to start so early: “The application process shouldn’t be this frenzied process in the fall of your senior year, which is already busy.” To illustrate, she addresses a hypothetical high-school student. “Let’s think long term,” she says, “about my identity and what my application will look like.”
Admissions reformers, as this example shows all too clearly, address problems with their process by proposing huge expansions of that process. It’s also a nice statement of the existential conceits of admissions personnel in prestigious colleges. Two very different things get blithely bundled together in their minds — the profound matter of who a young person is becoming, and the administrative preference that the young person be more legible within a process of selection and rejection. “My identity and my application,” Hauad says, as if these two things are part of the same ethical process of becoming a person.
They should renounce these spiritual procedures and concede that their successful applicants are lottery picked from a pool of qualified contenders. This would remove the engineered mystery and inflated personal stakes of the process, which now encourages teenagers to game out certain desired personality traits and then to feel like ethical failures when, despite the self-exhibitions they so passionately curate to accompany their manifest academic qualifications, they are rejected. Lotteries would also reveal the personalizing admissions requirements — the essays and extracurriculars — as the administrative make-work and moral rent-seeking they are. More generally, they would dispel the haze of spiritualized meaning that surrounds the crude bureaucratic event of a kid being selected into one damn college or not.
Admissions officers have come to see the process they oversee in therapeutic terms. They present the college application as a set of therapeutic prompts, gentle invitations for the applicant to free herself from repression and self-deceit and move toward authentic self-expression and self-knowledge. But, as in psychoanalysis, this process is haunted by uncertainty. There’s always the risk that the applicant’s personal confessions hide new evasions, new obstructions that block insight, prevent the healing appearance of the young self’s uncorrupted truth.
In the Freudian realm — per a familiar comic portrait — the psychoanalyst tackles the problems of unreliable confession and uncertain clinical knowledge by having the patient’s weekly sessions continue endlessly. Admissions deans have more limited methods. But instead of abandoning their quest for authentic insight into their young applicants, they treat the knowledge problem that makes this quest absurd as an ongoing crisis, which they must invent ever-new measures to solve. As John F. Latting, associate vice provost at Emory University, lamented to The New York Times, “I can go down the components of an application and I am concerned about every single one of them as showing the true voice of an applicant ... Literally, every single one.”
Twenty or 30 years ago, admissions departments were not treating the therapeutic search for true voices and true selves as the goal of their investigations, and if you devote a moment’s thought to the absurdity of this search, you will be tempted to laugh at Latting’s hysterical protest against imperfect knowledge. But there is a good reason not to laugh.
Setting up a yearslong, quasi-therapeutic process in which admissions goads young people into laying bare their vulnerable selves — a process that conceals a high-value transaction in which colleges use their massive leverage to mold those selves to their liking — is reprehensible. It is terrible thing to do. It renders the discovery of true underlying selves absurd. Sometimes, as we’ve seen, admissions people will admit they have this formative leverage over young people. But they fail to show the humility that should attend this admission, the clinician’s awareness that to use this power is to abuse it. Instead, they want even more power. They want to intrude even more deeply into the souls of their applicants. The name they give these ambitions is “reform.”
Reaction to such “reform” efforts has been depressing. Purported critics of the admissions process such as The New York Times’s Bruni have gone along with the new plans to make college admissions even more invasive than it was already. Equally depressing is the indifference of college faculty. Elite colleges are filled with humanities and social science professors who claim inspiration from the social theorist Michel Foucault, who described the intimate, burrowing power that moves and works through therapeutic methods, especially when these methods are plied by authoritative institutions. But one hears few Foucault-style complaints about the intimate and invasive moral training by which their universities are populated.
The admissions department isn’t an educational body. It’s an administrative one. Its mission isn’t teaching. It’s seeing and selecting. As its preferences and methods drift into the larger culture, they have formed themselves into a vague and largely unquestioned assumption that a central ethical duty of American teenagers is to make themselves legible to a bureaucratic process — and morally agreeable to its vain and blinkered personnel.
This essay is adapted from Little Platoons: A Defense of Family in a Competitive Age (Basic Books).