Why do we allow college admissions offices to shape and pass judgment on our children's character?

That was my reaction after reading “The College-Admissions Crucible” in the New Yorker recently.

The following paragraphs hit me hard:

What “holistic admissions” means is that colleges give a boost to the applicants they like more, as people. From the Internet and their essay coaches, high schoolers learn in more specific terms the traits and attitudes, the moral commitments and performative tics, that prestigious colleges are rewarding these days. Given the stakes, kids have a potent incentive not just to affect but to adopt the preferred traits, to perform the latest tics so sincerely it’s as if they’re not performing at all.

In the nineties, a rapidly growing population of eager, highly qualified, competitively savvy applicants created a headache for colleges, overwhelming their selection tools. But this headache was also an opportunity. The importance of admissions departments increased within schools, giving them a greater and more specific say in what campus life would look like. More important for American society as a whole, it gave them immense influence over the inner and outer lives of America’s teen-agers. With so many applicants and so few open slots, and such a sought-after benefit to hand out, admissions deans realized they could literally tell their teen-age applicants how to be a person.

The admissions process is bathed in a language of therapeutic concern, but its basic logic is bureaucratic. The best explanation for why colleges started disdaining the well-rounded generalist strivers whom they used to reward is that, in trying to outdo one another in their crude quantities of extracurricular activities, applicants began to look too much alike. The administrative problem that the redundant joining of clubs and indiscreet bragging over accomplishments once solved has only become worse. The cycle continues, on ever-tighter timescales. Thanks to social media, teen-agers learn as a cohort about the latest preference, such as starting a nonprofit, then scramble to satisfy it, and once again they look too much alike. (If you’re a parent with college-age children, you should probably know that this novel admissions hack is already losing its value.)

So admissions departments employ more intimate and mysterious standards for kids to authentically satisfy. They invite their unformed teen-age applicants to form themselves before their eyes, indeed for them, via ever more idiosyncratic and heroically virtuous extracurriculars and, especially, the quirky, confessional essays they require. It may sound like overstatement that admissions personnel consciously view their selection protocols as guiding—in a totally healthy and defensible way—the profound evolution by which human identities take shape during adolescence, but they say it themselves.

The selection criteria that college admissions offices have put in place may serve their purposes but do they align with ours as parents? I feel we have gone against the grain in some ways but have also succumbed and acquiesced in other ways.

Those are the most most important words. It’s not “college admissions” writ large that is a concern. It is an incredibly small percentage of American universities that might be engaging in this. Conservatively estimating 3700 total unis in America, and assuming maybe the top 60 unis+LACs engage in what frames this complaint, that means 98.4% of all colleges do not. That also means this is not a concern for nearly 100% of families and applicants.

If the perception of holistic admissions policies at low-admit-rate unis make families upset, it seems an easy problem to solve. Apply to any one of the 98.4% of universities where this will not be a problem. Secondly, I’d blame the imbalance of applications/freshmen much much much more than “holistic” policies. This seems to be the new boogieman that is easy to blame. However, the numbers don’t lie, with or without “holistic” policies 90+% of applicants to T20s will be denied every single year.

The crucible is a self-made problem by students/families whose entire application process hinges on a handful of universities who yearly deny admittance to hundreds of thousands of applicants with some of the best stats of each year. If these families did more research and learned that there are several other utterly fantastic (and impossible to disrepute) options with better admission odds, they might avoid the mathematically probable outcome of being shocked, dismayed and ready to blame anything other than their own inability to calculate the odds that any one application (their own) will be denied.


Personally, I think it is the opposite. I get what the article is saying in terms of needing to change criteria or shift objectives to be able to make a distinction in a multitude of identical (on paper) applicants. Many parents push/encourage/allow their students to adapt their interests and traits to fit whatever specific thing is hot in an effort to chase admission to a highly selective school. SAT scores are important? Hire a tutor. Not enough kids play oboe? Sign Junior up for lessons. Starting a non-profit looks great? I’m in!

We see it on CC all the time with the posts from students about what else they can do to get into Ivy+ schools and from parents about how to help their kids look better. When a selective school gets ridiculously large numbers of applications for a relatively small number of spots, applicants are desperate to do anything to stand out and they lose who they are as an individual. Even worse, AO’s have to make decisions using the most arbitrary criteria (is a diaper drive for military families better or worse than knitting mittens for the homeless?). Sure, a student’s character drives what they do and someone is passing judgement on their choice. I think the thing is to encourage our children to be who they are for their own personal satisfaction not to chase someone else’s definition. If they end up at an “unknown” school instead of Princeton, so be it. There are more ways to define happiness and success than the name on the diploma.


Agree with EconPop - there are so many, many colleges in every single state that are very good and at which students can excel - schools that do not have the time and resources to dive into these incredibly deep and nuanced analyses of applications.

My sense is - do the best you can on the SAT/ACT and with grades, pursue an extracuricular you enjoy, and give some thought to an essay. That straightforward formula can get students into many great schools (with $). One doesn’t have to turn their teen years into a frantic striving to fulfill those ever-changing ‘perfect applicant’ standards. This may be a minority opinion. :slight_smile:


Fair point, @EconPop and @Jolynne_Smyth. Thanks.

For a brief period earlier this year, D22 became worried that she hadn’t started a non-profit and might therefore not be competitive for US universities. I told her there’s no [expletive] way I would allow her to do that just for the sake of a college application. I think she found that comforting and never raised it again.


It is an interesting question why an EC is deemed necessary for admission even at a “great” but not “prestigious” school. Or indeed why you need to write an essay about your personal/non-academic character.

I think the holistic nature of US admissions (ie having to do more than just getting good grades and test scores in high school) shapes the lives of many more of our high schoolers than just those applying to the sub-10% admit colleges.


It always used to be the well-rounded kid would have the best shot and when D20 was in late elementary or early MS, the “ spike” became the thing. It has just gotten so far away from letting kids find themselves and pursue their own interests. I’ve tried to help my D learn that she needs to find satisfaction from within herself and not be searching for someone else’s approval. It isn’t easy! I feel bad for the kids whose parents are pushing them to do things they aren’t interested in just to impress a stranger reading a piece of paper. I feel worse for the kids that think that’s what they have to do and their parents aren’t a voice of reason reining them in.


Twoin18 - the essay and a few ECs to me don’t seem that onerous. There are some great prep videos on YouTube about the essay (SuperTutorTV is very practical and good). Those aspects are also baked in to the current process (Common app requires these). The nuances above and beyond those (start a non-profit? do summer science research and get published?) aren’t required by many, many very good schools.

Applicants think they need to make themselves into what schools want. The kid who is successful in this process is their authentic self and then finds a school where that self will thrive.

Decades ago the average family really didn’t know what any school, including HYP, wanted beyond “good student”. The feeder boarding schools groomed the young men who attended them knew what was in the secret sauce and they knew how to prepare and present their students successfully but the rest of us were clueless. There was no test prep beyond sharpening your pencils. In many ways, when you applied, you were what they were looking for - usually the “real deal” or you weren’t. But the ability to craft a persona,was pretty much a non-concept for most students.

As the system has become more transparent, and it has inspite of the angst it produces, students have gotten a better idea of what colleges want. It is not the kid who puts on the costume of what the college says it wants. It is still the real deal. It is easier to craft that persona on paper than to be it in real life, and often AOs can see the difference but kids see it as a box Checking exercise.

It helps of course to know what a school is looking for. If your family has given tons of money to a school and you want to ensure your kid is admitted, you know which boxes to check because looking the part is enough. But mostly of us aren’t major donor legacies. Checking the boxes won’t be enough.

I am always a little sad when kids come here trying to figure out what would make them a better applicant. This isn’t to say they don’t get useful prodding on how to allow their interests to stretch them in new directions. But the idea that they can’t use these four years of high school to just figure out who they are, what they want to be in the world, and the best place for both of those… it’s disheartening.

I am always grateful to all the folks here who guide them to think about good options where they can be themselves.


Articles like this one in the New Yorker help to perpetuate the idea that there are only 50 schools in this country that are worth attending and that, as a result, what happens at these schools is worthy of countless articles, discussions, debates - and, of course, lawsuits. Elite college admissions is a near obsession on CC with frantic kids (and parents) desperate to find a way to stand out - it is, frankly, dispiriting and has little to nothing to do with actual learning. Sadly, I see no end in sight in terms of the elite college rat race because you can’t escape the basic math - far too many accomplished students and far too few seats. My advice to kids is to be themselves and maybe worry a little more about what kind of person you are going to be instead of what accomplishments you have. Do what interests you and not what you think will “look good” to someone else.


Finally an explanation for all the teen non-profits popping up in CC this year!

I always say, don’t try to fit a college, find a college that fits you. Ironically, some of the kids who do that DO end up at the selective schools because authenticity shows.

This article seems to say that colleges are making families behave a certain way. That is ridiculous. We can all keep our heads on straight and prevent our kids’ precious high school years from being tainted by the rat race.


100% agree that kids need to do what interests them and then find the schools that value that, AND that the adults around them need to stop with the “elite school or bust” mindset. College admission doesn’t have to be stressful. Our society makes it so artificially.

IMO, the colleges can target whatever kind of student body they want. If that isn’t a good fit for a particular student, don’t apply there. There are thousands of a other options.


I agree wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, is often the parents and not the “you” behind the madness.

If my kid doesn’t get into X University, maybe they don’t belong/fit at X University.

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But why are they necessary at all? Other countries don’t require them, they just look at your exam results. The US is moving even further away from a reliance on academics for admission, as colleges now become “test optional”, or even (semi-) permanently “test blind” in the case of the UCs, which is looked at with incomprehension elsewhere in the world.

For example, dropping SAT subject tests has led to considerable puzzlement in the UK, as universities there have to figure out what to do in the absence of a test that was a critical component of many applications from the US.

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It changed before that. My nephew graduated from Yale in the early 2010s and therefore entered in the late 2000s. He had told us back then Yale wasn’t looking for well-rounded students, but rather “pointy” students, and that Yale would pick a mix of them to create a well-rounded class.

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“pointy” - that made me laugh :smile:

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British universities provide validation that a student is really smart. American university admissions provide proof the applicant played the admissions game well.


It’s another case of “American exceptionalism”. Somehow, most of the world’s great universities seem to do just fine looking at the merit of the applicant pool. But in the USA we allow admissions officers, many of whom would not be admitted to the schools themselves, to pass judgment on students.

I have written in other posts that elite college admissions is nothing more than a complex game with obscure rules. Like most games, skill matters a great deal. But also like many games, coaching can help players (students applying for college) achieve their true potential. For example, there are many essay topics that are meaningful to the student but that admissions officers are bored with. One common example of this is that a family illness may cause a student to express interest in medicine, whereas the admissions officer is unmoved, having read this essay topic hundreds of times. Longtime CC readers immediately know this, but the bright child with uninvolved parents probably doesn’t.


There are plenty of schools that rely mostly on stats. If that’s what you are after, apply to them.

I think most US students would feel even more stressed if college admission was based on one high stakes test.