The Myth of Complication


A couple of weeks ago, the ongoing drama at the University of Illinois (motto, “Will trade admissions for appointment to U.S. Senate.”) led me to post a note debunking one of the three great myths of college admissions. In case you’ve forgotten, the three great myths of college admissions are:
1) The college admissions process is fair.
2) The college admissions process is complicated.
3) The college admissions process is easy to predict.

I’ve already covered that the process is unfair, and I’ll cover more of that in the future since the general unfairness of the process is one of my favorite subjects. Today, however, a bit about how very simple admissions can be.

If you were able to get the resumes of the staff members in most admissions offices that review applications, you would find a HUGE number of them that are recent college graduates. I don’t mean, mind you, that they just finished their Nobel Prize-worthy dissertations for their Ph.D.’s and are taking time off from rocket science and quantum physics to read your application. Actually, most admissions file reviewers are the same admissions “officers” you see at college fairs and high school visits. By and large, those individuals recently (as in the past two years) finished their bachelor’s degrees, and this gig in admissions is their first full time job.

Speaking of first full time jobs, a giant SHAMLESS PLUG to one of my favorite George Mason University alumni, Kevin “BDK” McCarthy. Kevin took an internship with one of our local D.C. area radio stations as a student. He accepted HEAPS of abuse in return for opportunities at the microphone and has managed in just a couple of years to parlay that into being one of the hottest up and coming film critics in the country. Apart from creating a job/career for himself, he has also managed to make me INSANELY jealous by getting to sit down with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Check out his movie review site so you can share in my envy.

Before I get heaps of complaints from colleagues (or whining from my staff) I need clarify that I am NOT saying that admissions people aren’t every bit as smart and hard working as Kevin. Many are quite (ahem) brilliant. There is, however, no standardized test to become an admissions officer, and there are no sources (of which I am aware) for checking what scores those staff members received back when THEY were applying to college, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that there are some smart people working in this field. However, and I say this implying no ill will toward any of my colleagues at any institution anywhere, there are a fair share of knuckleheads who occupy desks in admissions offices across the country.

In other words, one does not need brilliance to perform the task of reviewing applications and selecting students for admissions. It also doesn’t take all that much training. I’ve experimented with this by taking a sample of applications, taking out all the names and personal information, and showing them to groups of teachers, guidance counselors, students, and parents, giving only about fifteen minutes of instruction each time. Amazingly, they will all pretty much make the same decisions. In fact, they will even make the same decisions my “experienced” and “highly trained” admissions staff made.

Why is it so easy? In another post I explained that the vast majority of decisions are decided on academic record more than anything else. Even at the most competitive institutions, there is enough difference in scores, grades, essays, and the rest to be able to sort students fairly well. Most admissions officers that I’ve met in my career tell me that reading applications is the least interesting part of their job, and usually by the second year in admissions I have staff members begging me for more of almost any other assignment.

Considering how very simple process this process can be and how decisions are very consistent no matter who is doing the reviewing, you may think that the outcomes are VERY predictable. WRONG. You’ve fallen prey to the third myth, but that’s a tale for another day. Be seeing you.”

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2 Responses

  1. We visited Universities in Canada this summer. Their process is so refreshing…they only care about the grades. They have this weird idea that grades reflect effort on the part of student who seriously want to get an education and do something with their lives. And even weirder, they reward that — students’ grades determine automatic scholarship awards with the most money going to the students whose marks reflect the most attention to their studies. AND they know what to do with IB Diplomas (they give those kids big bucks)…they don’t care about (athletics, outside activities, recommendations, what non-profit you started in high school, etc.) They don’t even care much about the SAT! And they certainly don’t care what family heritage you bring to the table. Oh Canada!

  2. […] The Myth of Complication […]

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