The Great Myths of College Admissions

One of the reasons I started writing about admissions (the other, of course, is the chance to brag about Mason) is that so much of the information about how students get selected is confusing, and the majority of it is just plain wrong. This has led me to identify “The Three Great Myths of College Admissions”:
1) Admissions is fair
2) Admissions is complicated
3) Admissions is easy to predict

I’ll take each of these on in future musings, but the fairness issue has been getting so much coverage in the media that it has been looming large in my mind. For those of you not paying attention, or too preoccupied with the Michael Jackson funeral, the University of Illinois has been dragged through the mud. This appears to have started with the investigation of the former governor of Illinois, which seems to have led investigators to find that members of his administration had influenced admission to the University of Illinois.

Pardon me for failing to be shocked. No doubt, the blatant nature of the case is largely to blame for the uproar. The heavy handed intervention for a law school candidate, documented through email even after the Dean of the law school argued that the candidate was unqualified, demonstrated, if nothing else, a surprising lack of awareness of the public relation implications. That being said, advocacy for constituents seeking admission by politicians who control our budgets is nothing new. It’s just one small example of the overall unfairness of the admissions process, which reflects society, which, let’s be honest, pretty much reflects life.

Speaking of the general unfairness of life, I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, which helps to illustrate how life is often unfair even without the Governor of Illinois intervening. Gladwell, in examining incredibly successful people, suggests that luck and connections, basically opportunity, have A LOT more to do with success than anything else. For instance, he highlights that most professional hockey players in Canada were born in the first quarter of the year; he claims that being born in those months gave them a significant edge in early play, leading to opportunities that those poor souls born in November couldn’t get. He looks at Bill Gates (among other tech giants) and the exceptional access to computers he and his few peers were able to get at an early age. He also looks at the richest people in history, noting that the American members of that list all group in the same decade, being born at a time that offered an unusual, and so far distinctive, opportunity to garner massive wealth. That’s all in the first half of the book (which is how far I’ve gotten in the audio tape I listen to in the car on my very short commute).

I have one word for Mr. Gladwell – duh.

He admits that each of the individuals – professional hockey players, tech moguls, and capitalist icons – all had to be brilliant, talented, and incredibly hardworking; however, they also received unusual opportunities that other people didn’t. And there, my good friends, is a great description of the inherent unfairness of the college admissions process as well.

Many students get access to better schools and/or grow up in environments where getting a college degree is assumed from birth. Some students know enough to request influence from university supporters, and what university won’t at least listen to a major supporter, be they donor or holding the government purse strings? Test preparation programs, some argue, clearly tilt the balance to those who can afford them. Tutoring and help with essays are also within reach of the affluent, along with hundreds of other boosts you can get if you can afford them. Gladwell might even include your birth date as a factor for academic success, since the time of year you were born (the first three months are best) is likely to have a large impact on whether you have a chance to be tracked into gifted and talented programs (since you are one of the oldest members of your class and more often ahead of others in your grade).

So yes, life is unfair. Also, this just in, two plus two still equals four. Sarcasm aside, there are right and wrong ways that this fairness gets applied, and right and wrong ways to try to level that playing field, both on the admissions side and as an applicant. More on that when I have time, after I return a call from…well, never mind who. Be seeing you.


7 Responses

  1. […] The Great Myths of College Admissions […]

  2. […] The Great Myths of College Admissions […]

  3. Do you consider major discrepencies between SAT subjects. My son has a Math score of 490 and a reading score of 750. Is this discrepency taken into account when considering the major that studemt intends to pursue?

    • Colleges do often take that into account, particularly as you describe related to major. At some schools however, a low score on either side will be a warning that there maybe some deficiency. I would, for instance, take a close look at your son’s math courses and grades. If the courses and or grades in math courses were not strong, it would be a concern for me for admission. Two things he can do to help – retake the test and really focus on the math (since we’ll use the highest scores from any sitting) and really focus on his math grades first quarter and semester of his senior year.

  4. The other constant ‘myth’ I hear about college admissions is race. How much of a disadvantage is it to be white? Or is it still an advantage?

  5. This is where submitting a personal statement along with an application comes in. Including a personal statement with your college application can make the difference between getting accepted or not getting in to the college of your dreams. It’s an exercise that is worth the time and effort you need to put into it. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your GPA and extracurricular activities will speak for themselves.

  6. […] Posts College application essays: can funny get you an admission?The Great Myths of College AdmissionsEssay advice from a high profile guestThe Role of the Guidance Counselor RecommendationWhen is the […]

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