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A Hive of Authentic College Applicants

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As someone with a couple of college-age children who have navigated the admissions process at selective colleges, I found myself nodding in agreement with Matt Feeney's essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "The Abiding Scandal of College Admissions: The process has become an intrusive and morally presumptuous inquisition of an applicant’s soul" (April 16, 2021). A basic fact is that applications at selective colleges are way up, and given a fixed number of slots of students, acceptance rates are way down. For example, the Washington Post just reported: "Columbia's applications were up a stunning 51 percent this year, and Harvard's were up 42 percent. There were also double-digit increases at Brown (27 percent), Dartmouth (33 percent), Princeton (15 percent), the University of

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As someone with a couple of college-age children who have navigated the admissions process at selective colleges, I found myself nodding in agreement with Matt Feeney's essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "The Abiding Scandal of College Admissions: The process has become an intrusive and morally presumptuous inquisition of an applicant’s soul" (April 16, 2021). 

A basic fact is that applications at selective colleges are way up, and given a fixed number of slots of students, acceptance rates are way down. For example, the Washington Post just reported: "Columbia's applications were up a stunning 51 percent this year, and Harvard's were up 42 percent. There were also double-digit increases at Brown (27 percent), Dartmouth (33 percent), Princeton (15 percent), the University of Pennsylvania (33 percent) and Yale (33 percent)." Acceptance rates at places like Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton are in the range of 4-5%.

When a school is accepting only one applicant of every 20, or every 10, or every five, you might think that the school would want to be clear with applicants about their low odds--before those applicants invest time, sweat, soul, and money in writing the essays and doing the paperwork. But of course, that's incorrect. Lots of applicants and a low acceptance rate may mean wasted time and enormous disappointment for applicants, but it looks good for the school. 


So instead, selective schools encourage everyone to apply: we were on tours at multiple selective schools that started with hundreds of people in auditoriums where such encouragement was given. We were repeatedly not to worry too much about test scores or high school grades--although even the most casual acquaintance with the facts about who is actually admitted suggests that these measures are pretty important. Instead, the emphasis was, as Feeney points out, on "holistic admissions" and "authentic" application that demonstrates the real specialness of you. 

On one side, saying that it's all about "authenticity" is an encouragement to apply. On the other side, if not accepted based on your authentic self, while others are accepted based on their authentic selves, it will seem pretty clear to an overwhelming majority of applicants that either your authentic self was either presented poorly or judged and found wanting. It's all too reminiscent of what Groucho Marx said about "sincerity," "If you can fake that, you've got it made." 

Moreover, it's clear at selective colleges that the applicant all need to show their special personal authenticity in some very specific ways: grades/test scores, involvement in extracurriculars and the community, ability and willingness to diagnose and write about their own selves, and so on. 

As Feeney points out, as college admissions have become more selective in recent decades, what the admissions people say they are looking at and emphasizing has changed, too. There was a stretch in the 1980s and 1990s where the emphasis was on extracurricular activities and the "well-rounded" applicant After this (quite predictably).after this resulted in an epidemic of extreme resume-padding, "more recently they have come to favor the passionate specialist, otherwise known as the `well-lopsided' applicant." Apparently on the horizon is an admissions online platform that will let you start storing your essays and videos starting in ninth grade. 

(Bad news here for applicants to selective colleges: Multiply the number of applicants by, say, a generously estimated one or two hours to look over every application. The admissions personnel on average don't have much more time than that. The idea that they are going to spend many hours looking over video and text of the best science reports, short stories, choir/band concerns, sports team highlights, and community service projects for every applicant is delusional. At best, they could skim and skip through a few entries for specific applicants.) 

Here's Feeney in the Chronicle of Higher Education:  
The people who made applying to college an elaborate performance, a nervous and years-long 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. ... 

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. ... 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? ...

Admissions bureaucrats faced with thousands more applicants than they can accept soon reach a level of arbitrariness. At that point, they launch an inquisition of their applicants’ souls. This makes little sense academically but allows them to stage a powerful, utterly undeserved disciplinary claim on the inner lives of teenagers — that is the abiding scandal of college admissions. ....

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. ...

Setting up a years-long, 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. ...
I can easily understand some sensible reasons why colleges want their own admissions department. Sometimes there is a really good fit between the abilities and interests of student and the specific strengths of an institution. Pools of applicants will vary from year to year, and there's some logic in trying to make sure that you admit a class that has a degree of balance in terms of academic interests, nonacademic interests, and geographic and demographic characteristics. 

But with no deep disrespect meant to the admissions personnel at selective colleges and universities, who I think are mostly just doing the best they can, they aren't professors or therapists. So who died and made them the monarchs of defining what is the desirable kind of authenticity, and how a holistic view of that authenticity should be expressed?  Especially the authenticity of 17 year-olds? 
Timothy Taylor
Managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, based at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, which can be read free on-line courtesy of the American Economic Association.

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