The Necessary Unfairness of College Admissions

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It starts at the beginning of high school, for some even earlier: your principal, your teachers and your guidance counselors tell you that if you get good grades, high test scores, and do the right extracurricular activities, you’ll have the choice of any college in the country. They love to point to some intelligent, driven, successful upperclassman and say, “John over here can go to any college he wants!” And it’s not just in school that you’re hearing this: pop culture has further promulgated the notion that, with the right blend of intelligence and hard work, you will get into Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. Almost every high school TV show or movie includes the protagonist’s smart friend who gets straight A’s, a great score on his SATs and thus inevitably gains admittance to a top tier Ivy League school.

But as you get closer to college application time, start visiting schools, and having more serious discussions with your guidance counselor, the story begins to change. Admissions officers at information sessions tell you how the school could fill two whole classes with qualified applicants and your guidance counselor stresses how arbitrary the whole process can be. Now there are schools that are “impossible to get into,” regardless of whether or not you’ve achieved all the standards for GPA, test scores, extracurriculars etc. You apply, get rejected, and start wondering what happened to “any school in the country.”

To be clear, I’m not speaking for myself, but for a lot of people much smarter and harder-working than me. I’m talking about kids at the top of their class with near-perfect, or even perfect test scores, who excel in multiple sports, music, and a whole lot of other things. I’m speaking for a whole host of “ideal” candidates who did not get into their top school, or even top few schools. From their example, it’s clear that the story they tell you when you enter high school—that all colleges are a possibility for the gifted and industrious—is fictitious.

Yet, some kids are on the other side of the ball and do actually get into their first choice school. How does a college make the decision to accept this student, but not one of the thousands of other qualified individuals? What distinguishes him or her from the pack? Well, according to the Yale Admissions Office, “the great majority of students who are admitted stand out from the rest because a lot of little things, when added up, tip the scale in their favor.” They assert that, because so many small factors can differentiate one applicant from another, it is useless for applicants to worry themselves over any particular thing. [1]

To the high school student working tirelessly with dreams of attending a top-tier school like Yale, this answer would certainly be unsatisfactory. It is basically to say that all you can do is ensure that you have the grades and scores that thousands of other students have, and then just hope that the little things work out in your favor. Students cannot possibly control the complete array of factors that may decide admission, and thus have limited power in determining their own fate.

This sort of system, where even the most hardworking, intelligent student can be rejected based on a host of uncontrollable “little things,” clearly lacks the fairness that our culture likes to attribute to the admissions process. For one, it violates the “up by your bootstraps,” Americanized version of fairness, by which one can succeed through his or her own agency. In the selection process, no matter a student’s work ethic and level of individual achievement, there is no way to ensure admission. Furthermore, the process strays from the objectivity that we normally ascribe to fairness. Even if a student meets all of the quantifiable standards for admittance into a tier one school, he or she may still be rejected. In fact, Yale estimates that three-quarters “over three-quarters” of its applicants are qualified to do Yale-quality work, even though the school only accepts a meager seven percent.[2]

But perhaps fairness is not the right criteria for judging the admissions system. For even if tier one colleges did accept all qualified applicants, is this fair to those who worked just as hard as these qualified applicants, but were merely born with less inherent talent, or grew up in situation that made academic success nearly impossible? Surely any system that judges people on their accomplishments violates the notion that fairness should account only for individual agency.

I think the question we should be asking is do colleges have any alternative (and I ask this question ignoring the effects of race, legacy or athletic recruitment on admission, because I think each of these factors deserves analysis in its own right)? Do schools have any better way of choosing between two equally qualified individuals, besides looking at “a lot of little things”? Unfortunately, I think the only answer is that they do not. These schools need some basis by which to differentiate between students with near identical academic records, and in doing so, they may need to consider seemingly menial factors over which students have little control. It would be great if every prestigious school could accept all qualified applicants, but they simply do not have the space or the resources, and thus must make a decision based on the information students provide them. It may seem unfair, but if a school has to pick between a kid whose parents wanted him home all summer, and one who spent his summers volunteering in Haiti, or between a kid who took a couple years of Spanish in high school, and one who grew up speaking five languages in the house, the school has to pick the latter.

Now this is certainly a hard pill to swallow for the smart, hardworking high school kid who gets rejected by his top few schools, but I think it is a necessary lesson, an important introduction to the real world. For one, it removes this student from the classic American high school notion that he or she is somehow more special than anyone else: for one of the first times, not everyone gets a trophy. It is a sobering reminder that, in the real world, there is always someone smarter, harder-working, or more interesting than you. For many, it may be their initiation to humility.

The admissions process also introduces students to the idea that, in the real world, not everyone gets what they deserve. Real world standards for achievements, like getting a job or a promotion, are not nearly as concrete as the objective requirements for making National Honors Society or becoming a National Merit scholar. After high school, you can do everything right, have all the qualifications, but still not achieve your goal. In a way, the admissions process prepares students for reality by weaning them off the notion that success always comes to those who deserve it.

However, to the brilliant high school student who just got rejected, these life lessons are certainly little solace. Assuming the kid did get into school somewhere (as most brilliant students do), he or she is likely facing a mélange of complex emotions: disappointment at not getting into the school of choice, but at the same time guilt for feeling disappointed, knowing how lucky he or she is to be able to go to college anywhere. To this person I would say it is perfectly acceptable and natural to be disappointed, just as in the working world it is disappointing to not get a promotion, even though you may still be lucky enough to have a job. However, you shouldn’t harp on the disappointment: don’t let it affect your last experiences of high school, and certainly don’t carry it with you to college. Because at the end of the day, you are really lucky to be able to continue your education, and, like most things, college is what you make of it. With an open mind and positive outlook, you can have just as valuable an experience at a slightly less prestigious school as you would at Yale, Harvard, or Princeton.


[1] “What Yale Looks For,” Yale College Undergraduate Admissions, http://admissions.yale.edu/what-yale-looks-for

[2] “What Yale Looks For,” Yale College Undergraduate Admissions, http://admissions.yale.edu/what-yale-looks-for

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