Be fair to yourself

The most common misconception about the admissions process at highly selective colleges is that it’s a meritocracy, that the admissions officers choose the empirically best applicants based on a scientific evaluation of transcripts, test scores, activities, essays, and letters of recommendation. But that’s just not possible at a school that (1) receives applications from the most qualified students in the world and (2) can only admit fewer than 20% of their applicants. There are more perfect-on-paper applicants—including valedictorians with top-notch test scores and awe-inspiring activities—than they can possibly admit. It’s inherently unfair because there’s just no unassailably fair way to do it.

Frank Bruni’s recent New York Times piece explains this reasonably well. Bruni acknowledges that while the current lawsuit against Harvard has clearly identified that Asian Americans were in fact at a disadvantage, the process itself has never been about choosing the objectively best applicants.

“But even clearer [than the apparent discrimination] is something that I’ve long known, something that we need to recognize more bluntly, something that’s smothered under this illusion that getting into an exclusive school is a triumph of merit alone. Harvard, Duke, Pomona and the rest aren’t choosing the best students who apply. They’re choosing the students who, in the inevitably flawed estimation of strangers who barely know them, best fit the school’s vision of an ideal freshman class, best serve its immediate needs or best safeguard its financial future.”

I’m not sure I agree with the implication that the schools themselves have somehow worked to suppress those imperfections of their processes. One of our Collegewise counselors who worked at MIT used to explain to audiences at his information sessions exactly how the process was flawed. I’ve also seen many highly selective colleges do the same in their blog posts and even on the admissions sections of their websites. The truth is that it’s often that students and parents are reluctant or outright unwilling to accept the reality that the highest numbers don’t necessarily win.

But colleges are also under enormous pressure to drive up applications (you can thank the US News Rankings for that), and as a result they’ll almost never discourage anyone from applying. And I’ve yet to see an example of a school outright stating the advantage that wealthy donors, children of alumni, or other special interest groups carry. Colleges can certainly do more to give families the whole picture even if families don’t like what’s painted right in front of them.

Students and parents, when you make the goal of high school to be admitted to a highly selective college, when you define success in terms of which school says yes of those who are most likely to say no, when you place the highest premium on an outcome with the lowest probability of occurring, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and for a high school career full of uncertainty and anxiety.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to attend Harvard, Duke, Northwestern, or any other highly selective school. But please make that decision with your eyes wide open. To treat the process as if it is fair just isn’t fair to yourself.