‘Holistic’ admissions at Berkeley

When California voters barred the use of racial or ethnic preferences in college admissions, the University of California vowed to use a “holistic” process that considers socioeconomic disadvantages, leadership and motivation, as well as grades and test scores. As a reader of applications for Berkeley’s engineering department, Ruth Starkman saw the holistic process at work, she writes in the New York Times.

A highly qualified student, with a 3.95 unweighted grade point average and 2300 on the SAT, was not among the top-ranked engineering applicants to the University of California, Berkeley. He had perfect 800s on his subject tests in math and chemistry, a score of 5 on five Advanced Placement exams, musical talent and, in one of two personal statements, had written a loving tribute to his parents, who had emigrated from India.

The applicant was a 2 on a 1-to-5 scale (1 being highest) because he didn’t have enough extracurricular activities and engineering awards, she learned in training.

Now consider a second engineering applicant, a Mexican-American student with a moving, well-written essay but a 3.4 G.P.A. and SATs below 1800. His school offered no A.P. He competed in track when not at his after-school job, working the fields with his parents. His score? 2.5.

Readers were told to told to ignore minority background, but could consider whether a student came from a non-English-speaking household if it was a “stressor” that justified a special read looking for socioeconomic disadvantages.

To better understand stressors, I was trained to look for the “helpful” personal statement that elevates a candidate. Here I encountered through-the-looking-glass moments: an inspiring account of achievements may be less “helpful” than a report of the hardships that prevented the student from achieving better grades, test scores and honors.

Readers are supposed to look for “leadership,” a major criterion in the holistic process. That usually meant extracurricular activities. (Volunteer trips to exotic places were taken as a sign of  ”privilege.”)

In my application pile, many students from immigrant households had excellent grades and test scores but few activities. I commented in my notes: “Good student, but not many interests or activities? Why? Busy working parents? And/or not able to afford, or get to, activities?”

Many essays “lucidly expressed a sense of self and character,” Starkman writes.  Others “betrayed the handiwork of pricey application packagers, whose cloying, pompous style was instantly detectable.”

She read innumerable hard-luck stories, not all of them credible. Kids figure out what sells.

Favoring “stressors” over academic success has costs:  92 percent of whites and Asians at Berkeley graduate within six years, compared with 81 percent of Hispanics and 71 percent of blacks. In the UC system, 17 percent of Hispanic and black students who express interest in the sciences graduate with a science degree within five years, compared with 31 percent of white students.

It’s ironic that colleges claim to be looking for  “leadership” potential, writes Walt K in the comments.

. . . their entire process is designed to select compliant followers: people who have bought into the whole game, and are happy to play along.

People who do well on tests. People who do well in class. People who follow instructions. People who join clubs. People who follow the conventional wisdom People who teachers like. People who do what they are told. People who do all the ‘right’ things.

. . .  leaders are the ones who say, ‘To heck with this, I’m picking myself.’ Which may often mean bailing out on college to actually DO something instead of sucking up.

I think Walt K has a point.

Many elite colleges enroll few low- and moderate-income students, reports the New York Times. Berkeley is much higher than the average, due affirmative action for disadvantaged students.

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