College admissions is a mysterious process, and admissions offices do their best to keep it that way. To get the real story, we talked to a former admissions officer at Dartmouth College.Our source confirmed much of what we’d already suspected.
Minorities get a significant advantage, but that doesn’t mean you should feel sorry for rich white kids.
“The demographic that gets squeezed is the white middle class,” said our source, “A lot of student come from the top quartile of the income spectrum, which makes it an elite institution not just in academic quality but also in pedigree.”
East Asians can be disadvantaged too as everyone sees them as “dilligent,” but rarely “creative” or “intellectual.”
Legacies get a “bump,” though not as much as recruited athletes.
“I was constantly peeved by athletic admissions. I thought they brought down the quality of the applicant pool,” said our source.
Finally some advice: “It’s much easier to be admitted during Early even though most schools tell you it’s just as competitive, it’s simply not true.”
Also: “Most essays are not very memorable. I think people should be willing to take a larger risk with essays.”
More information from our source is below. Quotes are in quotes, the rest paraphrased:
Each application receives an academic index score, which is based on GPA and standardized tests. A low score is usually a dealbreaker, but still all applications are considered.
Each application will be read by 2-3 readers, who recommend either “admit,” “deny,” or “possible,” sometimes qualified with “strong” or “leaning.” Readers also rate each candidate out of 10 for academic and personal qualities, which take into account things like socio-economic background.
“You expect it to be more numbers driven than it is, but the message we always got was to make sure we consider everything else in the application.”
Reading an application takes 10 to 15 minutes.
“You’re supposed to read 25 to 30 in a day, but that’s tough when starting out, and they encourage you to do quality reads. There’s a high degree of subjectivity, at least in the first read, but that’s what the second and third read are for. The probability that you get 2 people in a bad mood is … lower than the probability that you get one person in a bad mood.”
And don’t believe what they tell you about early admission.
“It’s much easier to be admitted during Early even though most schools tell you it’s just as competitive, it’s simply not true. That’s standard administrative rhetoric, but it is much more difficult to be admitted during regular. We’ve already admitted 30 to 35 per cent of the class Early. When you first start reading apps you might think one is great, but reading the same app later after 600 others then that kid no longer seems as stellar.”
“There’s a big push to admit or deny.”
But some applications end up on the waitlist—and about 10 per cent of these are eventually accepted.
“Some are placed on the waitlist for political reasons, say a legacy will be waitlisted because they don’t want to deny outright.“
“We’re taught to think about diversity openly and look at the needs of the school and also admit kids on that basis. No matter who the person is you’re told to measure academics contextually. If it’s an African American you know the median SAT score for that demographic and you read the application in that context. You’re supposed to do it holistically so race is not the only guiding factor, but can it be significant.”
“As for white kids, there are a lot in the possible category. Most white applicants will be from wealthy suburbs of the Mid-Atlantic or New England, pretty well-off, from strong schools, so even if the kid is a 7 academically that might not mean much in their personal context.”
“You want to find a kid who stands out given what they’ve been given. If you see a black student with extremely high SAT scores, you’re thinking already this kid is doing pretty well relative to his peer group. i can understand why people have a problem with this process. The demographic that gets squeezed is the white middle class, but then you don’t see as many applications from that demographic, period.”
“There weren’t many people I knew at Dartmouth who were white middle class. A lot of student come from the top quartile of the income spectrum, which makes it an elite institution not just in academic quality but also in pedigree.”
East Asians can be at a disadvantage too.
“There was one girl who sued Princeton claiming she was discriminated against for being Asian, so you do find that some Asians can be disadvantaged in the process, and not only because admissions committees think about Asians in a specific way, but because recommenders do too. When reading recommendations you see these words—”diligent,” “hardworking”—because people tend to see East Asians in a certain way. You rarely see “creative” or “strong intellectual bent,” and they are less likely to be seen as “freethinking.” Same with issues of character. A lot of secondary teachers find it difficult to connect culturally with Asian Americans and the type of things they end up doing, so they won’t see as much talk about character. But at Dartmouth there was not much discrimination against Asian Americans, since they were considered a historical minority at the school.”
The dean and director of admissions keep a close eye on demographic numbers.
“I don’t know if they do something at the tail to boost numbers. It just ends up being roughly same numbers every year. It can’t be a complete accident.”
Still the College could be doing more.
“Institutions pay a lot of lip service to diversity, but aren’t really willing to put money where mouth is in terms of recruitment of minority students.”
Athletes and legacies
“Athletics can be a powerful vehicle into an elite institutions.”
These applications are handled by 1-2 people on committee and kept separate from the main pool.
“Coaches submit lists to admissions officers, ranking recruits, saying these are the kids we really want, and as you get to the top of the list you can be more lenient with academic standards.”
“I was constantly peeved by athletic admissions. Even though I didn’t look at them I thought they brought down the quality of the applicant pool. Athletic admissions drags down academic quality as one could argue does minority admissions.“
Legacies get an advantage too, but not as much as.
“Legacies do get a bump. We’re taught to be sensitive of if their father or mother went to Dartmouth. Legacies are admitted at twice the rate of other students—though in part because they tend to be strong academically. Lots of people complain, but i found that people who were legacies were strong academically.”
“The essay is very important. It’s when you get a sense of what the kids about. We’re looking for creativity, self-awareness. The biggest mistake is when they aren’t very self-aware and write standard sports essay where they talk about the big game and that hurts them in the end. Not standing out is a big mistake for kids who are from demographic groups that are historically well represented.“
But even an amazing essay can’t save a bad application.
“It’s difficult to see an app like that because every aspect of the application needs to be pretty strong, especially in the numbers driven game, it’s hard for a kid to stand out if not strong academically even if he writes this amazing essay. It’s a question of the marginal case.”
“Many kids write adversity essays. Some cases are more contrived than others. I remember one essay about a girl who struggled with a broken family in the ghetto, who lacked nuclear family structure at home. It was well-written, not case of pitying herself, but written matter of factly, very powerful.”
“Most essays are not very memorable. I think people should be willing to take a larger risk with essays. There’s a way to do that and still be tasteful. You don’t want to highlight a negative personality trait. Like if you’re a complete narcissist, if that comes across in tone even though the essay is creative creative it will put off admissions officer. I do think kids need to think more about what they want to present.”
“Another type of bad essay is a recitation of somebody’s resume. We have that already.“
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