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NPR College Admissions Story

JHSJHS Registered User Posts: 17,073 Senior Member
edited April 2011 in Parents Forum
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.

Behind The Scenes: How Do You Get Into Amherst? : NPR
Post edited by JHS on

Replies to: NPR College Admissions Story

  • sryrstresssryrstress Registered User Posts: 2,357 Senior Member
    Was the socioeconomic status preference a bump up for those from the lower rungs or for the full-pay applicants?
  • kxc1961kxc1961 Registered User Posts: 801 Member
    WOW! Thanks JHS for sharing!

    It certainly had answered some of my questions on the college admissions process. My S did not apply to this school. I am sure that all admissions process are slightly different. However, this one is very interesting. I have scratched my heads on some of my S1's acceptances and rejections. Now I have a rough idea as to how to rationalize them. My jaw dropped when hearing the comment of "I had the privilege of rejecting a Rhode Scholar." I hope I was hearing things.....Again, you learn something new everyday. That is the beauty of life.

    Yes. That is my understanding. I would agree to this practice to some extent. Everything being equal, a kid who has never been packaged and compete with the kid of privileged would have a better chance to be successful later in life. I have seen many examples of this in my life. My S does not fit into the first-gen category. I still would favor this approach.
  • barronsbarrons Registered User Posts: 24,595 Senior Member
    I hope some of those feeling angry on the UW board heard this. Very arbitrary nearly random process.
  • kxc1961kxc1961 Registered User Posts: 801 Member

    If you look at UCLA admissions thread and you will find the common theme there. It appears to be as random as hell.
  • mathmommathmom Registered User Posts: 29,723 Senior Member
    Good summary JHS! I heard it too, and thought it was fascinating. It really is a lottery for all practical purposes at schools like these where so many are qualified.

    I'm sure there are admissions officers everywhere kicking themselves about students they rejected who go on to do great things elsewhere.

    The bump was for the poor kids.
  • Momom2Momom2 Registered User Posts: 416 Member
    Note to self: Be sure S includes line about chicken nuggets in esssay.

    Very interesting report indeed.
  • Deborah TDeborah T Registered User Posts: 4,314 Senior Member
    Yeah, that desire for junk food is a winner. <shakes head>
  • rom828rom828 Registered User Posts: 1,428 Senior Member
    thanks! I sent the link to several family members to help them better understand the process. The admission committees are looking at nothing but top students and the process will definitely appear to be random and arbitrary from the outside - because it is. And honestly, as much as I want every school to want my kids, if they think it is not a good fit than so be it. Very helpful!!
  • momof2kidsmomof2kids Registered User Posts: 320 Member
    Terrifying, just terrifying.
  • azcpamomazcpamom Registered User Posts: 292 Junior Member
    I fall in the camp that feels this process is somewhat random, more like a lottery than a carefully designed research study, but this glimpse was tough to take. One line in an essay? Jewish, Japanese, Muslim and Hindu clubs? They were down to the last few slots. I think I would have felt better about it if they had just thrown darts.
  • BayBay Registered User Posts: 12,499 Senior Member
    Amherst is need blind, so how do they know what each applicant's socio-economic status is? Just guessing based on geography or high school is pretty imprecise.
  • JHSJHS Registered User Posts: 17,073 Senior Member
    ^ Actually, I think the part the reporter observed -- and recorded some of the discussion -- was before they were down to the last few slots. (Which turned out to be the reverse -- the "last few slots" were "which kids that we have voted unanimously to accept are we going to waitlist anyway?") Then she interviewed people again after the process was complete. But there were no recordings of the actual deliberations for those "last few slots".

    The kid with the multiple ethnic clubs was indeed an informative example. If all you heard was that one line in his essay, I would think he would be an automatic rejection. But in context he was a popular choice to admit, because everyone felt he was really someone desperate to know everyone's religious culture, not a resume-builder or spiritual tourist. (I suspect it helped somewhat, also, that he was raised as a Hindu. First, in general that's not a group known for ecumenism and interest in other people's practices. Second, South Asians are not an "overrepresented minority" at liberal arts colleges. A free-thinking, out-of-the-mold South Asian student with good grades, etc., is a great profile for getting admitted to a top LAC.)

    And, Bay, the story says that Amherst is not "need blind," but is "need preferring". The two things they looked at were poverty and first-generation college students.
  • CalreaderCalreader Registered User Posts: 1,029 Senior Member
    I don't think the process is random. It's hard to describe and doesn't follow a straightforward algorithm. But they know what they're looking for, and they can recognize it when they see it. It's not just one line in an essay - it's how one line can create a spark that adds depth to the entire application. (Sorry for mixed metaphor.)

    I heard the Rhodes scholar comment as saying that their process ends up leaving out many wonderful students who would have thrived at Amherst. It was an "oops." Except that they can't admit all the wonderful students who apply because they don't have enough space for all of them.
  • placido240placido240 - Posts: 636 Member
    One line in an essay? Jewish, Japanese, Muslim and Hindu clubs?

    Geez -- this sounds exactly like what they tell us NOT to do: bunches of "joins," with no leadership involved. Sure sounded like an auto-reject to me. But then, I forgot how Amherst (like almost all colleges) is completely about PC and "diversity" etc. etc. ad nauseam and so this smattering of meet-once-a-year-and-put-on-resume-to-impress-an-adcom clubs hits its mark perfectly. You got to give kudos to the kid for knowing how Amherst would just roll over for this perfect blend of "diversity" wtihout suspecting it was playing to its own biases.

    Really, I have yet to read a college brochure that doesn't have a page on "diversity" or fails to emphasize how they support students' "passion." Gag me. I wish we could all turn on the colleges and tell them just how bland they all are: they all TOTALLY sound completely identical.
  • gadadgadad Registered User Posts: 7,762 Senior Member
    There has been posted from time to time on CC a very apt analogy of selective college admissions as a process similar to casting a HS musical. That remains the best description of the process that I've heard, and this report seems to strongly support it. Here is a quote about that analogy, posted recently by Jonri:

    "Think of the high school musical director who is choosing a cast for a show. I like to use "Guys and Dolls" as the example. The director isn't going to choose the 35 most talented singers, dancers and actors and make them the cast. She needs to cast so many males, so many females, so many sopranos, altos, etc. She needs to cast particular roles. She may take work her prior experience with those auditioning into account.

    "Unless it's a rather unusual high school, lots more girls than boys will try out. One part is "Nicely Nicely," who sings "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat." It is supposed to be sung in a deep voice. It's traditionally played by a plump guy. Now, the supply of plump young men with good, deep voices at any high school is usually quite limited, so it would be surprising if there are more than 2 or 3 young men vying for that role.

    "Meanwhile, there are probably a lot of young girls with good soprano voices trying out for the role of Sarah Brown. In choosing the young girl to play Sarah, the teacher may take into account the fact that one candidate is a full six inches taller than the young man she plans to cast as Sky Masterson (Sarah's love interest). So, in choosing her Sarah, the casting director may make the decision based solely on the fact that one of the best sopranos is shorter than the boy playing Sky is.

    "When the cast list comes out, the best soprano in the class may be stunned when she learns that she is not Sarah Brown. Nobody is going to tell her the only reason is that she's six inches taller than the young man playing Sky. She looks down the list. Adelaide (sp?) is the next best part. She's stunned. She didn't get that either. Why? It's a comic role and this young girl simply isn't a comedienne.

    "If our young soprano decides based on this experience that she has no talent, she's a darn fool. It's reality that should she try to become a professional, she probably has more of a chance of succeeding than the young man who is going to play Nicely Nicely and probably a better chance than the girl who beat her out for the role of Sarah. (Teen boys grown into taller men.)"
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