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.