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Everything About College Admissions Is Less Bad Than You Think
'Tis the season
My regular lunchtime pick-up basketball game has been displaced a bunch of times over the last few weeks (and will be again tomorrow) thanks to various Accepted Students Day events that feed dozens of students lunch in the gym with the good courts. It’s peak college decision season right now in the elite private college world— the deadline for students to make a deposit to secure their place in the entering class for next fall is May 1— so we’re welcoming large numbers of families to campus as part of their scramble to choose between various options. And, of course, it’s the time of year for reams of punditry, both in the form of unsolicited advice to students and grandstanding about the awfulness of one aspect of the system or another. The season is, for those of us in the discount-public-intellectual game, what you might call a market opportunity.
I’ve written a lot on this general subject in the past, in various iterations of my blog, though my general lack of organization makes some of it harder to find than it ought to be. There are a lot of versions of my general take floating around (last spring on Substack, some years back on Forbes, etc.), but to the extent that there’s a theme, here, it’s probably what I put in the title: It’s less bad than you think.
There are kind of two pieces to that, one from the student side and one from the faculty/ administration/ general commentariat side. On the student side, the main problem is undue stress for the students and families making the decision, and my advice to them is that from an educational standpoint everything matters a lot less than you’ve probably been told.
That might seem like a weird comment coming from a professor, but I absolutely believe it— enough so that I’ve said it from the stage at any number of Admissions events over the years, and they’re either okay with it or too desperate to stop inviting me to speak. It’s a true statement because ultimately education is not about anything the faculty or the institution do to or for students, it’s about what students do for themselves. The faculty and the school provide resources to help the process along, but the ultimate responsibility for shaping the end result lies with the student.
One of the things I say to students and families at the events that have been screwing up my hoops game is that any student whose qualifications are good enough to get into Union (or another school in our general category) has the tools to be successful regardless of where they end up going. What matters is that they take an interest in their own education, and maximize the opportunities available to them.
This is not to say that the institution is completely meaningless— different places have different characters, which will be more or less congenial to individual students, and richer schools obviously have more resources than poorer ones. A student at a cash-poor public college will have to work harder to get a particular level of opportunities than one at Yale, but the ultimate determinant of educational quality is student effort. Someone who pushes themselves to maximize opportunities at a less prestigious public university will leave there with a better and more rounded education than someone who exerts absolutely no effort through four years at Harvard.
This also doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be a joyless grade-grubbing gunner who only does things obviously relevant to a narrowly defined career track— practical majors are impossible to identify in a foolproof way, after all. Some of the most influential parts of the college experience are things that happen outside the class context— friends you make, jobs you take, etc. Not just in a cynical networking sense, either— the direct value of personal connections varies wildly among fields— but in the more general sense of shaping a better life. A class taken on a whim can spark an interest in some subject that opens opportunities you might never have had otherwise, or puts you in contact with someone of the appropriate sex who becomes a future spouse, etc. The point is to maximize what the institution offers to you, which can take a lot of different forms. What matters is that you care about it, put some effort into whatever catches your interest, and don’t just sleepwalk your way to a minimum-effort degree.
On the other end of the process, there’s a lot of angst about various aspects of how colleges go about the process of choosing which students are faced with the decision about where to go. The most recent example is this piece from Erik Hoel about the de-emphasizing of standardized tests in the admissions process. Hoel writes from the perspective of someone who might charitably be described as an indifferent student who drew attention from good schools thanks to a high SAT score.
That strikes a bit of a chord for me. Not the indifferent-student bit so much— I can’t honestly say I worked hard in high school classes, but I always got good grades— but I was at a small public high school in a farming town in a part of New York state that people forget exists. I doubt I would’ve been recruited as aggressively as I was had my SAT score been 200 points lower, so I’m pretty sure that opened doors for me, and think that opportunity ought to be there for other students like I was.
I also share the concern voiced by Hoel and folks like Freddie deBoer that while standardized tests correlate strongly with class, so do all of the other measures used in college admissions. If anything, tests like the SAT and ACT are slightly less easy to game than things like personal essays. Making admissions standards more vague and qualitative and less transparent and quantitative ultimately means giving institutions more power to shape their classes in whatever way they like, and I don’t entirely trust that, as a matter of principle.
That said, though, I suspect that in practice, this will be less bad than the idea of it can be made to seem, if you’ll excuse a slightly tortured construction. What schools are doing is de-emphasizing standardized tests by dropping the requirement to submit scores, but they leave the door open for students who scored particularly well to submit scores that make them look good. And I suspect the initial recruiting of students will still draw pretty heavily on standardized tests— high scorers will still get whatever the 2023 equivalent is of the wagonload of glossy brochures that turned up at my parents’ house in 1988 after I took the PSAT. In some ways, that’s the most important factor: putting a particular school on the radar of a student who would be able to take advantage of its opportunities, but might not have realized it was an option.
Going test-optional undoubtedly makes the process harder for those students, and also for the admissions officers trying to sort out who to admit. Rather than having a direct comparison between scores submitted by every student, they have to weigh students with mediocre grades and excellent test scores against those with very good grades and no test scores. That’s not a job I’d want to have, but then I didn’t want it when they required the scores, either…
Ultimately, though, I suspect the real effect will be pretty small— most students whose grades are good enough to make them plausible candidates will also have test scores good enough to submit, and most students whose grades see like a problem will also have mediocre test scores. It’ll make the edge cases harder to sort out, but isn’t likely to lead to a huge transformation in the overall population of admitted students, or the opportunities available to those students on the margin.
(As I’ve written about before, the same goes for things that commonly turn up cutting in the other direction, like legacy and athletic preferences. The image of legacy admits and athletes as drooling idiots taking spaces away from those more deserving is not remotely accurate. Dropping those preferences might be good PR, but in practice wouldn’t make nearly as much difference in the actual composition of an admitted class as you might think from the way they’re talked about. )
And then we sort of circle back to the first point: what matters is less what college a student gets into than what they do once they’re there. Which has been and will remain mostly in the control of the students themselves.
It feels a bit like I write this every year, because I basically do. Then again, I could probably write it once a month and still get the same response. If you’d like to be here the next time it comes around, here’s a button:
And if you want to take issue with anything I said, the comments will be open. I’ll be procrastinating from grading midterms, too, so I might be more likely to respond than usual.