Revamping the college admissions process

Over at Room for Debate (The New York Times), various commentators have offered ways to improve and revitalize the college admissions process.

The problems? The application process is so convoluted and complex (even with the Common Application) that students spend hours, weeks, months on applications that might get a quick read at most. Also, application numbers have soared at selective institutions, leaving students uncertain and anxious over their chances. Mixed messages abound. The admissions results often seem illogical or arbitrary, and financial aid awards (or lack thereof) can amount to acceptances and rejections in themselves.

Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, revives a suggestion he made a decade ago: Create a lottery system, where those students qualified for the college would be entered in a pool, and a given number would be chosen at random. This would eliminate the pretense that colleges select “the best.”

Alan T. Paynter, an assistant director of admissions and the coordinator of multicultural recruitment for Dickinson College, recommends that colleges give clearer information (not only in brochures but in conversations with applicants) about what they seek.

Alvin E. Roth, the McCaw Professor of Economics at Stanford University, recommends establishing a system whereby students indicate their two top choices. (The American Economic Association established a similar system for the job market.) This would cut down on the number of applications and allow colleges to admit interested students.

Ron Unz, a software developer and publisher of The Unz Review, recommends ending tuition altogether at elite colleges. The free tuition would draw a more diverse applicant pool and allow the colleges to enroll those who qualify, not just those who can pay.

There are more ideas, and most of them strike me as good. Yet I doubt that any one of them would work in isolation. A lottery system could easily lead students to apply to still more colleges. Clear communication is great, but what if colleges are communicating similar messages, even with the new clarity? Roth’s idea could leave many students without a college, and Unz’s would still leave the elite colleges with far more applicants than they could thoroughly consider.

A combination of reforms could work well. Limit the number of colleges to which a student may apply. Have students indicate their top two choices. Give priority to subject-matter tests over SATs. Simplify the financial aid application (and give students earlier information about their financial aid eligibility). Cut excessive administrative costs and increase financial aid. In short, make the process more straightforward and economical. Take the awe and hype out of it. That way, students can apply to colleges with reasonable confidence, and colleges can devote more of their attention to those likely to attend. On the other hand, the streamlining required for such an approach could create problems of its own.


Does Harvard matter?

Frank Bruni’s Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania is “a soothing balm for upper-middle class parents whose children do not quite manage to scale the highest peaks of prestige,” writes Nick Romeo in The New Republic.

Bruni doesn’t challenge the desire for status, writes Romeo. He tells parents their kids can attain wealth and status with a not-quite-Ivy education.

Bruni provides anecdotes about non-Ivy “people who run huge companies or work at prestigious consulting or law firms,” notes Romeo. “There are ‘myriad routes to a corner office,’ as he puts it. He never seriously considers the possibility that college might shape students into adults who are not interested in a corner office.”

Asian students face diversity penalty

Playing piano or violin -- like the daughters of "tiger mother" Amy Chua -- fits the Asian stereotype, but hurts in college admissions, say counselors.

Playing piano or violin — like the daughters of “tiger mother” Amy Chua — looks “too Asian” on college applications, say counselors.

Asian-Americans have “turned against affirmative action policies” that make it harder for them to get into elite colleges, reports Frank Shyong in the Los Angeles Times. “In the San Gabriel Valley’s hyper-competitive ethnic Asian communities, arguments for diversity can sometimes fall on deaf ears.”

In a tutoring center’s workshop on college admissions in the valley, Ann Lee tells Asian-American parents about a Princeton study on how race and ethnicity affect admissions. Being black is worth 230 SAT points, according to the study. Hispanics receive a “bonus” of 185 points. Asian applicants are penalized by 50 points, says Lee. “Do Asians need higher test scores? Is it harder for Asians to get into college? The answer is yes,” Lee says.

For immigrant parents raised in Asia’s all-or-nothing test cultures, a good education is not just a measure of success — it’s a matter of survival. They see academic achievement as a moral virtue, and families organize their lives around their child’s education, moving to the best school districts and paying for tutoring and tennis lessons. An acceptance letter from a prestigious college is often the only acceptable return on an investment that stretches over decades.

Private college-prep academies counsel Asian-Americans on how to stand out. “Everyone is in orchestra and plays piano,” says Lee, founder of HS2 Academy. “Everyone plays tennis. Everyone wants to be a doctor, and write about immigrating to America. You can’t get in with these cliche applications.”

Crystal Zell, HS2’s assistant director of counseling, urges students to volunteer in poor neighborhoods and find activity other than tennis, taekwondo or chess.

“One parent asked Zell whether it would help to legally change the family name to something more Western-sounding,” reports the Times.

Some Asian-American students have filed lawsuits against colleges that rejected them, but admitted blacks and Latinos with lower grades and test scores.

Inside a Chinese test-prep school

Students leave Maotanchang High at the end of a 16 1/2-hour day. (Photo: Sim Chi Yin/VII, New York Times)

Rural Chinese parents pay for their children to attend high-pressure test-prep schools like Maotanchang High, reports the New York Times Magazine. Students must pass the gaokao test — the sole criterion for university admission — or face a life of manual  labor, like their parents.

Yang Wei starts his first class at 6:20 am and finishes his last class at 10:50 pm, writes Brook Larmer.  After taking the Sunday morning practice test, he gets three hours of freedom. He shares a tiny room with his mother, who quit her garment-factory job to support him in his final years.

. . . the pressure to start memorizing and regurgitating facts weighs on Chinese students from the moment they enter elementary school. Even at the liberal bilingual kindergarten my sons attended in Beijing, Chinese parents pushed their 5-year-olds to learn multiplication tables and proper Chinese and English syntax, lest their children fall behind their peers in first grade. “To be honest,” one of my Chinese friends, a new mother, told me, “the gaokao race really begins at birth.”

Unemployment and underemployment is rising among new college graduates in China. Yet, “the competition is fiercer than ever,” says Jiang Xueqin, an assistant vice principal at Tsinghua University High School. “And rural students are getting left behind.”

Perhaps nobody on campus is more motivated — and exhausted — than Maotanchang’s 500 teachers, whose jobs hinge on their students’ success. Base salaries for teachers are two to three times as high as China’s normal public-­school wages, and bonuses can easily double their incomes. For each student who gets into a first-tier university, the six-member teacher teams (a head teacher and five subject teachers) share a $500 reward.

. . . The head teachers’ schedules are so grueling — 17-hour days monitoring classes of 100 to 170 students — that the school has decreed that only young, single men can fill the job. The competition to hang onto these spots is intense. Charts posted on the walls of the faculty room rank classes by cumulative test scores from week to week. Teachers whose classes finish in last place at year’s end can expect to be fired.

On campus, decorative rocks bear the school’s motto: “We don’t compete with intelligence but with hard work!”

Yang was “ecstatic” to qualify for a second-tier regional university. His childhood friend, Cao, failed the gaokao. Days later, Cao “left their home village to search for migrant work in China’s glittering coastal cities,” writes Larmer. “He would end up on a construction site, just like his father.”

Those who can afford it try to go to high school and/or college in the U.S.

‘Diversity’ keeps Asians out of top colleges

Do Diversity Initiatives Indirectly Discriminate Against Asian Americans? asks Andrew Giambrone in The Atlantic.

I’m not sure “indirectly” is accurate, but otherwise the answer is “yes.”

Students for Fair Admissions has filed a federal suit charging that Harvard’s admissions practices violate Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by discriminating on the basis of “race, color, and national origin.” A similar suit targets University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The suit cites an Asian-American applicant who was turned down despite perfect SAT scores and AP Scholar status. The applicant was the captain of the varsity tennis team, a volunteer fundraiser for National Public Radio, and tutored classmates.

Highly qualified applicants are routinely rejected,” writes Giambrone.

The Harvard complaint notes that Asian Americans comprised more than 27 percent of applicants at the three most selective Ivy League colleges between 2008 and 2012 but represented only 17 percent to 20 percent of their admitted students . . .  according to the complaint, Asian Americans made up roughly 46 percent of applicants in 2008 “with academic credentials in the range from which Harvard admits the overwhelming majority of students.” That threshold was defined as an SAT score higher than 2200, out of 2400 total points.

According to No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, published in 2009, Asian-American students need about 140 more SAT points than white applicants, 320 more than Hispanics and 450 more than African-Americans to get into elite, private colleges.

“Asians are the new Jews” at elite colleges, writes Charles Murray.  In the mid-90s, when the Ivies limited Asians to 16 percent of enrollment, plus or minus 2 percent, Asians at meritocratic CalTech rose from 28 percent to 39 percent of enrollment.

If Caltech is too narrowly science-oriented for you, consider the comparison between Stanford, which uses the same “holistic” admissions procedures as the Ivies (“holistic” means considering the whole applicant, not merely academic achievement) and Berkeley, the most elite of California’s public universities, which is required by law to have a transparent set of criteria for admission. Stanford’s Asian enrollment averaged 23% from 1995–2011. Berkeley’s Asian enrollment averaged 41% during the same period—almost double Stanford’s.

Stuyvesant, one of New York City’s nine specialized (elite) public high schools, admits students based on test scores: 73 percent of  “Stuy” students are Asian, 22 percent are white, 2 percent are Hispanic, and 1 percent is black. And the admissions process is under attack as a result.

Jurassic Park boy’s college admissions essay

I was amused by The Boy from Jurassic Park’s College Application Essay by Julia Drake on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

Claws scrabbled at the door, each scratch a shock of fear to my heart. Inside the kitchen, my sister and I hid behind a stainless steel table, slick as the sweat that dripped from my brow. A creak of the door handle; a clicking of prehistoric toenails across the tile floor; and I looked at my sister, panic searing through me: the raptors had made it inside.

I never thought I would find myself in such a situation when I went to visit my grandfather on his remote island where he’d created a paradise of living dinosaurs. In fact, my face lit up with childlike joy upon seeing the place, my intellectual curiosity instantly piqued. I got my first taste of fieldwork examining an ailing triceratops with seasoned paleontologists, which instilled in me a passion for hands-on learning. That passion for learning is certainly something I would bring with me to a college classroom; it is also a feeling I have tried to impart to my fellow students in my work as French Peer Tutor.

Boy from Jurassic Park “overcame copious obstacles such as surviving a Tyrannosaurus rex attack, escaping from a treed car, and being electrocuted by a high-voltage fence,” he writes. “Indeed, the adult traits I acquired surviving dinosaurs will make me an enthusiastic and passionate member of a college community, whether I brave a Friday night dance or experiment in a new discipline, such as figure drawing.”

BJP learned from his grandfather that “learning never stops.” For example, as Senior Class Co-Treasurer he has to “learn how to share leadership and how to manage a budget.”

Thanks to his experiences on Isla Nublar, BJP feels “comfortable tackling the plethora of challenges that await me on campus, be they academic or physical, modern or prehistoric, quotidian or genetically engineered.”

80% of top students get into a top college

Harvard accepted 5.9 percent of the nearly 35,000 students who applied for admission to the class of 2018, writes Kevin Carey in the New York Times. Stanford accepted 5.07 percent of applicants. But most top students get into a top college, he writes.

The admissions data is misleading because so many students — some of them not well qualified — apply to so many schools, writes Carey, a New America Foundation scholar with an upcoming book, The End of College.
Eighty percent of “well-qualified students who apply to elite schools are accepted by at least one,” according to, which helped 800,000 students send more than 1.6 million transcripts.
I applied to five schools and got into two, including my safety school. My daughter applied to 10 and got into four, including her safety school. These days, some students apply to 20 or more.

Artificial intelligence outscores 12th graders

A Japanese student celebrates her admission to an elite university.

A Japanese student celebrates her admission to the elite Tokyo University.

An artificial-intelligence program outscored the average Japanese high school senior on the English section of the college-entrance exam, reports the Wall Street Journal.

To-Robo earned a 95 (out of 200)on the multiple-choice English test, compared to 93.1 for the average test-taker. That’s nearly double the software’s score last year.

Japan’s collegebound students take two days of very high-stakes exams  in geography, history, civics, Japanese, foreign languages, math and science to qualify for public and private universities.

Developers are grooming To-Robo to qualify for the prestigious Tokyo University. (And then? Take classes?)

On the English portion, the AI program was able to choose the answer that best fits this conversation:

A: I hear your father is in the hospital.
B: Yes, and he has to have an operation next week.
A: ????. Let me know if I can do anything.
B: Thanks a lot.

To-Robo correctly picked “That’s too bad” to fill in the blank, rejecting “Exactly, yes,” “No problem” and “That’s a relief.”

The technology may be used for translations some day, developers said.

Testing for competency

New Hampshire requires high schools to measure credit in terms of competency rather than “seat time,” writes Julie Freeland. Schools are trying different ways to evaluate competence.

At Sanborn Regional High School, students take pen-and-paper exams, but they can retest if they haven’t achieved mastery.

North Country Charter Academy students follow a self-paced online curriculum with frequent online tests to evaluate mastery. Teachers provide support as needed.

Next Charter School uses student projects.

For example, the students in a social studies course might be asked to write a letter to President Obama proposing foreign policy strategies. The letter might have to include both a historical account of previous foreign policy strategies, a proposed action, and a rationale and justification for why that proposed action was the best option.

If the project doesn’t show mastery, the student can revise it or pick a new project.

From Policy to Practice, by the Christensen Institute, looks at New Hampshire’s shift to competency-based learning.

CreditWren McDonald

Replace the college admissions systems with assessment centers, proposes Adam Grant in the New York Times. Businesses, government and the military use these to evaluate job candidates, he writes. “Today, at a typical center, applicants spend a day completing a series of individual tasks, group activities and interviews. Some assessments are objectively scored for performance; others are observed by multiple trained evaluators looking for key behaviors.”

How to get into Harvard

In Legally Blonde, Ellie Woods submitted a video essay to get into Harvard Law School.