Why College Applications Aren't Fair

College admissions are inherently subjective.

Posted Mar 14, 2016

If you’ve known a student who didn’t get into the college of their first choice, you probably heard the complaint “It’s not fair. My grades were outstanding, I volunteered to help sick children, I was the county chess champ and worked on after school.” Someone else with half their credentials got in instead.

Is this sour grapes or are college admissions rigged? I have done many admissions interviews and readily admit that the process has a large dose of subjectivity.

Here is how most of my interviews went: Even before I met the student, someone else had reviewed the application and decided whether the person was worthy of an interview. I don’t know what screen was used before they got to me, but I do know that my part was influenced by a number of considerations that were far from objective.  As I sat with the student my decision was informed at least in part by whether the applicant appeared sincere or manipulative, upbeat or gloomy, curious or dull, polite or rude, a deep or shallow thinker, of good character or bad. These were impressions, a hazy notion at best.

Psychological studies tell me that many things outside my consciousness influenced my decisions. For example, I was more favorably impressed by students in morning interviews than by those in the afternoon; if my day started off poorly, the student had an extra hurdle to overcome; if the first student I interviewed that day was awful, the chances of my accepting subsequent students increased; if the room was overheated, the student was at a disadvantage. I know from studies of implicit biases that I probably gave the benefit of the doubt to those students who shared a background similar to mine while those who were dissimilar needed to more fully prove themselves.

Other colleagues would evaluate the students differently than I did. We didn’t all like the same people in the same way, our backgrounds and interviewing skills differed, and we each held implicit assumptions that may not have been shared by everyone. What I was doing was deciding whether I thought whether they would fit into campus life. In other words, I was making a prediction based upon subjective data. Even the best expert predictions are shown to be not much better than chance.

Passing through this gauntlet successfully had as much to do with the reviewers’ and interviewers’ predilections, values and biases as it did the applicants’ notion of what they thought their qualifications were worth.

When I applied to college years ago, it was quite different. At CCNY the admissions process was strictly a matter of two metrics: if your high school GPA and SAT scores were above a certain mark, you were accepted without further consideration. There was no essay to write and there was no interview. On the face of it this approach had the advantage of being transparent but was it any fairer?

Not necessarily. It assumed that how students achieved their GPAs and SAT scores was completely a matter of intelligence. The higher the scores the smarter the student. But certainly this isn’t true. The GPA from an elite academy means something very different than the same GPA from a distressed school. That’s why the SATs were introduced. Here was the same test scored the same way. The academic record playing field had been leveled. Or so it seemed.

It turns out that SATs are also problematic. Wealthier parents invest in SAT tutors while poorer students don’t and students from families that value education are better prepared to take the test, thereby skewing the results. SATs don’t measure like against like much better than GPAs do.

Many college also require essays to help distinguish students from one another. So while one student may think that being county chess champ is the admissions ticket, the college may be looking for someone who has plays the tuba. It also turns out that many students avail themselves of essay-writing tutors so there is no good way to judge the quality of the writing. And there is no sure way to sort out a padded resume from an honest one.

Even if you assume that GPAs and SAT scores are more or less objective measures of intelligence and essays count for something, colleges often want a geographically diverse student body. Someone from New Mexico is more likely to get into a New York school than someone from New Jersey, everything else being more or less equal.

If a school is committed to serving all good students, not simply those that can afford it, they may set aside needs-based scholarships at the expense of merit based assistance. This would advantage some students over those from more prosperous homes.

So are college admissions fair? It all depends upon what you think a college should be, how you think learning takes place, what responsibility you think higher education should play in society and upon your definition of fairness. Should colleges consider factors such as geography, gender and extracurricular activities; should admissions be based upon merit alone or should need play a role?

There is no one right way to admit students, no single standard everyone can agree upon. Different colleges weigh factors differently, as does every evaluator. Understood this way the cries of unfairness by students whose hearts are broken, while understandable, they are mainly misplaced. Disappointed they may be but the problem may be how they define fairness.

How colleges should choose an incoming class is as complex as higher education itself.    

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