Admissions – what’s it REALLY about?

Even though I promised I would get to all that advice on essays and recommendations, I had a few questions after the last post about admissions committees. I hear from a lot of people who think the admissions process is unfair because they don’t understand the goals that drive admission. Fair warning – much of this post came from my dissertation research, so it is long, even tedious, and only for those really obsessed with understanding the admissions process.

Most people assume that colleges and universities should just pick the student with the best profile, and I suppose that would be true if that was there only goal. There isn’t a lot of data on this subject, but there are three publications that offer a different view.

In 1990, Jack Blackburn, then the director and now dean of admissions at the University of Virginia suggested that there are goals for class mix beyond academic talent, including gender ratio, international student population, and socio-economic status, in addition to targets for particular majors, athletes, or legacy admits.

Dean Blackburn later (1998 and 1999) chaired meetings of senior admissions officers from across the country. The discussion resulted in, Toward a Taxonomy of the Admissions Decision-Making Process (Perfetto, 1999), which suggested that admissions philosophies can be grouped into three categories: student capacity, student outcome, and student effect.

Student capacity meets most assumptions about admissions – that the goal are students who demonstrate the best ability to succeed in college based on academic success in prior work.

Student outcome is about how higher education will benefit the student, so schools may advantage those that they feel will gain the most. This can support admitting a student who has had fewer opportunities, or one who is a particular talent that the institution has strength in nurturing.

Finally, Perfetto suggested admissions goals may include the effect students can have. This may sound pretty noble, like the idea that colleges and universities should promote the greater good and further the development of society. But it may also be that the admissions process is designed to meet enrollment goals that create a better student experience, or, at the most basic level, that “Higher education is a business, and access must first preserve the institution’s fiscal integrity”(Perfetto, 1999, p. 7).

Similar issues came up in research conducted by the College Board, “Admissions Decision-Making Models: How U.S. Institutions of Higher Education Select Undergraduate Students” (Rigol, 2002). It found that nearly all competitive institutions review application records for evidence of a student’s ability to succeed at, and contribute to, a receiving institution. However, because they will receive far more applications from students who both meet the minimum criteria and who are likely to benefit from and contribute to their institutions, they also use an element of electing the students who have demonstrated prior “success.” Success may be observed in strength of academic profile, other talents and personal characteristics, or the degree to which any of those might meet the yearly enrollment goals of the institution (Rigol, 2002).

So to sum up, colleges first look at who will succeed, but may then view admissions as a reward, as social engineering, or as just plain meeting the needs of the institution. How a college or university weighs admissions criteria, or how they read essays and recommendations, may vary widely depending on which goals have the highest priority in any particular year (or even at some in different times in the year).

Again, these are further reasons that the admissions process is terribly hard to predict. At the same time, it is far less complicated than the many many words above might lead you to believe. In the next few posts (finally!) I’ll go over some simple ways to help yourself with essays and recommendations. Be seeing you.


One Response

  1. Dean,

    I’ve got some reading material for those who seek a longer explanation. “The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College” by Jacques Steinberg is a New York Times Best seller.

    As Newsweek describes it on the front cover, “Compelling…should be required reading for any student or parent who seeks insight into a process hidden ‘behind a cordon of security befitting the selection of a pope.'”

    Here’s a link for your readers:

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