Why Elite-College Admissions Need an Overhaul

The current system for gaining entry to elite colleges discourages unique passions and deems many talented students ineligible.

Students walk on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. (Shannon Stapleton / Reuters)

March madness is almost here. No, I’m not referring to the college-basketball playoffs; I’m alluding to the anxious waiting of young people and their families of word about their fate from the highly selective colleges of America. And I’m talking as well about those who are about to venture forth on the ritualistic campus tours to determine where they will apply next fall. What few of these families realize is how broken the admission system is at these selective colleges.

At these institutions of higher learning, the goal is to “shape a class,” which involves trying to admit qualified and diverse students who will learn from each other as well as from their experiences in the classroom. These are the students who have the greatest potential to use their education in productive ways and to contribute to their own well-being and to the needs of the larger society. Diversity is not defined here as solely pertaining to race, ethnicity, or gender, although that weighs on decisions, but also on a range of interests and talents that students can develop and share with others during their college years. These are high-minded goals.

Undergraduate admissions decisions rest in the hands of a staff of well-trained and highly motivated young people: the often-dreaded admissions officers. They travel around the country touting the virtues of their school, train students to give campus tours, and provide professional videos of what life is like at their institution. A director of admissions, usually significantly older and more experienced, oversees their work. Faculty members, however, rarely have any input in these undergraduate admissions decisions. In fact, at most elite colleges and universities, the faculty have almost nothing to say about admissions policies or what criteria should be emphasized in admitting students. Even at the Ivy League schools, there is rarely a discussion with the faculty about how the admissions office defines a “success” or a “failure” in a past admissions decision.

Despite their considerable abilities, many admissions officers are arguably not as talented or as interesting as the thousands of students who are applying to these schools—lots of whom will be rejected. The smartest, most imaginative, and most creative administrators are seldom located in the office of admissions, despite the office’s dedication and determination to admit the most qualified students.

There is a superabundance of applicants who are extraordinary by almost any of the standard numerical indicators: GPA, SAT, and ACT. But as much as applicants would like to think that there is some inherent rank of quality applicants from, say, 1 to 36,000 at Columbia, there is not. Instead, diversity guidelines are set, including race, ethnicity, gender, and geographic distribution. It is not simply by chance that the proportion of students in each of these categories rarely varies much from year to year. These may not be quotas, but they certainly represent goals or targets.

Beyond demographic and geographic criteria, there are also athletic teams that have to be filled, bands that need a trombone player, alumni children that need a break, and talented students in a variety of disciplines that need to be recruited. For colleges and universities that don’t have deep financial-aid pockets, the ability to afford the education may also be a factor that is considered along with the student’s record. Contrary to the opinion of some secondary-school guidance counselors, these colleges are looking for a well-rounded class as much as for well-rounded individuals. And yet it seems that the nation’s elite colleges rarely take chances when it comes to filling each freshman class—they are too often guided by what the final result will look like in numerical terms compared with their competition, and how that might play out in U.S. News & World Report rankings.

An empirical study conducted in 1996 by Patricia Conley, a political scientist at Northwestern University, of 300 admissions applications at a highly selective college demonstrated that although admissions officers talk about having a good deal of discretion in making decisions that circumvent customary attributes, College Board scores, GPA, race, gender, ethnicity, legacies—the standard factors that can be easily examined in an application—are by far the most significant determinants of the admissions decision.

If you are not a kid who has gone down the straight-and-narrow path for your entire high-school career, doing exceptionally well in everything and racking up impressive scores, you are rarely advised to apply to one of these highly selective colleges—unless you fall into some category (e.g., a star athlete) where it is well-known that lower standards are typically applied in terms of many academic credentials.

Within the group of high achievers whose SATs and GPAs are already off the charts, youngsters are often pushed by their parents and secondary-school teachers to differentiate themselves from the thousands of others by doing something special in extracurricular activities. So they may, say, enroll in a volunteer program, not necessarily because of true passion but for the record.

The brilliant poet, distinguished novelist, or political cartoonist of the future who just did not care about that physics course in his or her sophomore year (and received a grade that showed it) is told that he or she doesn’t have a prayer of getting into one of the selective schools. So is the kid who starts out entertaining tourists on the street but who will eventually do extraordinary work as a performance artist. There is an appreciation for diverse talents, but only if they go hand-in-hand with great College Board scores and uniformly high GPAs.

But that should not be the way the world works. If Columbia can produce a poet of Allen Ginsberg’s quality, who cares if he was lousy in mathematics? And if the university can produce a physicist as brilliant as the eventual Nobel Laureate Julian Schwinger, does it matter if he had no interest in high-school European history?

By gauging the achievement of secondary-school students according to current admissions standards, many of the top schools seem to have taken the quirkiness out of the student body—and the rebelliousness of intellect, style, and thought that is often critical to doing something important in fields other than law or medicine. And in my experience, it shows. I’ve noticed that students today are rarely willing to challenge their teachers in class. College becomes an instrumental bridge between high school and graduate school—or to a good job. The admissions process currently used by many highly selective colleges leaves behind some of the most talented kids. Of course, many of these youngsters go to other places and thrive—and have wonderfully productive careers pursuing their interests. It is unfortunate, however, that the admissions criteria used by the some of the most selective schools end up classifying the exceptionally talented but “one-sided” youngster as “not eligible” for admission.

The schools’ proclivity to “do everything right” may be limiting students’ impulses toward the rebellion and inquisitiveness that could lead to greater skepticism and creativity.

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Is a transformation of the admissions system doable? For many colleges and universities, it may prove too costly in terms of both faculty time and dollars spent. But at the top schools in the nation—with their relatively large endowments—perhaps resources can be transferred and properly used in the admissions process. The quality of the institution depends almost as much on the interesting nature of its student body as it does on its faculty members. Consequently, student admissions ought to be one of the main functions of the university and its faculty. The job is too important to leave to well-meaning young administrators. It requires intervention and guidance—indeed, decision-making—by faculty dedicated to admitting students with what the Harvard developmental psychologist Howard Gardner calls multiple intelligences, and providing them with an exciting and creative learning environment.

There could be a standing committee of experienced and judicious faculty members who work on shaping the class—the “truffle dogs,” with the ability to sniff out talented individuals who may have gone against the grain but who have exceptional potential. Being part of such a committee could be as prestigious as being part of a tenure-review committee. Admissions-committee faculty members could serve three-to-five-year terms, rotate on and off, and be given a reduced teaching schedule (or substantial additional compensation) for agreeing to be part of the process.

Their first order of business would be to define the types of students they seek and how those students will fit into the education offered at their institution. Obviously, the criteria for admissions are apt to be quite different at a place like MIT than they would be at Amherst. The admissions staff, composed of people with experience identifying talent and potential in the various domains of intelligence, could make the first big cut. When the number of students has been winnowed from, say, 35,000 to 3,500, the faculty committee could then discuss these applicants. Of the 3,500, perhaps 2,000 would be interviewed by two of the faculty on the admissions committee—as is done in the final phase of admissions to medical schools.

The goal is to create an environment where those interested in writing, computer science, physics, cognitive psychology, anthropology, earth sciences, and economics can join together and use their abilities in an optimally creative way. Scott E. Page, a professor at the University of Michigan, has found that diversity in forms of skills and intelligence leads to better group decisions, more productive firms and schools, and ultimately to a more creative society.

For students who have exceptional artistic talent, the great universities could adopt a system of final selection similar to that used at the Juilliard School or Cooper Union. The Committee on Admissions at Juilliard, for example, selects students on the basis of their performance at competitive auditions, which are evaluated by members of the faculty.

The current high-stakes-testing mania in schools also plays a role in these trends. From its inception, the testing movement has been an effective way of classifying people as either “gifted,” “average,” or “challenged” (“challenged” is the current jargon that replaces such terms as “dumb,” “stupid,” or “not bright”). These labels, often applied to students at an early age, can stick with people for the rest of their lives, affecting their own definition of self as well as how they are viewed by others. Those who are currently in positions of power and wealth control the content of the IQ, ERB, SAT, ACT, and other tests administered to youngsters before they enter college; and these tests can be skewed in any number of ways. Moreover, profit-making organizations like U.S. News and World Report overly rely on the derivatives of the standardized test.

These examinations not only classify people into various groups, but also offer vastly different opportunities depending on how one is classified. The American reward system is built by those who control the examination and creates the illusion that those who do only moderately well on these exams are not as worthy of recognition as those who do well. Moreover, the quality of schools and teachers in the public schools is being measured disproportionately by how students do on standardized tests. Teachers teach to the tests, for their own careers depend on how their students do on them. As one prominent educator at the Bank Street College of Education said of the Common Core: “I have only one problem with the Common Core. It forgot about the children.”

At a more fundamental level, the exams are also deeply problematic as predictors of talent. Although these tests try to measure one form of intelligence, even in that role they turn out not to be very good predictors. They measure the speed at which a person can get what the examiner defines as the “correct” answer; they are slightly correlated with first-year college grades and with how well the test-taker does on subsequent examinations of the same kind—such as examinations for entrance to professional schools. Basically, if you’re good on these kinds of tests, you’ll be good on these particular tests—but how good are the tests themselves in measuring quality of mind, creativity, and potential?

Maybe it is time to return to some of the fundamentals that John Dewey discussed in his philosophy of education more than 100 years ago. Dewey espoused the pragmatist’s idea of “learning by doing”—of learning from engagement with life and experiences that are actually interesting and that lead students to formulate new questions for which there may not be answers at the back of some textbook. Some primary and secondary schools, like the Bank Street School for Children in New York, actually stimulate the creativity of children to work as individuals and as part of groups to have fun solving problems.

Students ought to understand that they learn from failure. It is not evidence of their lack of ability; it is testimony to their need to practice more and work harder at gaining skills. Great teachers give students confidence to fail because they know they can succeed. Finally, educators and schools need to instill in students a thirst to pursue their own interests, even if it is at the expense of creating the “well-rounded” student. Colleges want to produce young people with enormous curiosity who have developed talents and skills in a finite set of areas that conform to their type of intelligence—youngsters who are at least as much interested in generating provocative, unanswered questions as in producing answers to existing questions. This is what all institutions of higher learning ought to be looking for as they consider applicants for admission to their schools.

This piece is adapted from Jonathan R. Cole's book, Toward a More Perfect University.