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Someone posted this in the Amherst forum, but I think it deserves more general discussion.
NPR had a pretty interesting segment this morning on college admissions. The reporter sat in with the Amherst admissions committee for a day during their final decisions. A few nuggets of interest, at least to me:
-- Effectively, almost all decisions to admit were unanimous (but see below). Any significant disagreement resulted in a candidate being held for further consideration later, but that effectively meant waitlisting or rejecting.
-- They applied an explicit socioeconomic status preference, such that the Dean of Admissions was recorded about a candidate, "Without the [preference] this would be a waitlist or reject, but with it I recommend admission."
-- The first complete pass through the pile produced more decisions to admit than the college had space for (based on yield projections, presumably). So a lot of work at the end consisted of culling students off the admit list. That's where everyone interviewed agreed that the process was as good as random, not really principled at all. It wasn't clear from the story how many students this involved, but it was clear that for some meaningful segment of the waitlist there was no meaningful distinction between them and admitted students. And as a result of this no one who didn't get a consensus admit vote on the first pass ever had a shot at a favorable outcome, even though that wasn't the intent of the process.
-- The members of the committee indeed feel a lot of empathy with students they reject or waitlist. Tears are often pretty close to the surface.
-- The initial readers of of an applicant's essays have enormous impact on the ultimate decision. Their enthusiasm (or lack of it) pretty much determines the initial vote.
-- Every successful candidate has to show intellectual passion, supposedly. Being unique is good; being bland is the kiss of death, no matter what your stats.