If you haven’t yet, I urge you to read Steven Pinker’s brilliant piece in The New Republic about what’s broken with America’s “elite” colleges and how to fix it. The piece starts out as an evisceration of an earlier New Republic article on the same subject by William Deresiewicz. Pinker agrees with Deresiewicz that something is wrong, but finds Deresiewicz’s diagnosis of what to be lacking. The rest of Pinker’s article sets out his own vision, which involves America’s top universities taking the radical step of focusing on academics, and returning extracurricular activities like sports to their rightful place as extras: ways for students to unwind, rather than a university’s primary reason for existing, or a central criterion for undergraduate admissions. Most controversially, this would mean that the admissions process at US universities would become more like that in virtually every other advanced country: a relatively-straightforward matter of academic performance, rather than an exercise in peering into the applicants’ souls to find out whether they have a special je ne sais quoi, and the students (and their parents) desperately gaming the intentionally-opaque system, by paying consultants tens of thousands of dollars to develop souls for them.
(Incidentally, readers who haven’t experienced it firsthand might not be able to understand, or believe, just how strange the undergraduate admissions process in the US has become, although Pinker’s anecdotes give some idea. I imagine anthropologists centuries from now studying American elite university admissions, and the parenting practices that have grown up around them, alongside cannibalism, kamikaze piloting, and other historical extremes of the human condition.)
Pinker points out that a way to assess students’ ability to do college coursework—much more quickly and accurately than by relying on the soul-detecting skills of admissions officers—has existed for a century. It’s called the standardized test. But unlike in the rest of the world (even in ultraliberal Western Europe), standardized tests are politically toxic in the US, seen as instruments of racism, classism, and oppression. Pinker reminds us of the immense irony here: standardized tests were invented as a radical democratizing tool, as a way to give kids from poor and immigrant families the chance to attend colleges that had previously only been open to the children of the elite. They succeeded at that goal—too well for some people’s comfort.
We now know that the Ivies’ current emphasis on sports, “character,” “well-roundedness,” and geographic diversity in undergraduate admissions was consciously designed (read that again) in the 1920s, by the presidents of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, as a tactic to limit the enrollment of Jews. Nowadays, of course, the Ivies’ “holistic” admissions process no longer fulfills that original purpose, in part because American Jews learned to play the “well-roundedness” game as well as anyone, shuttling their teenage kids between sports, band practice, and faux charity work, while hiring professionals to ghostwrite application essays that speak searingly from the heart. Today, a major effect of “holistic” admissions is instead to limit the enrollment of Asian-Americans (especially recent immigrants), who tend disproportionately to have superb SAT scores, but to be deficient in life’s more meaningful dimensions, such as lacrosse, student government, and marching band. More generally—again, pause to wallow in the irony—our “progressive” admissions process works strongly in favor of the upper-middle-class families who know how to navigate it, and against the poor and working-class families who don’t.
Defenders of the status quo have missed this reality on the ground, it seems to me, because they’re obsessed with the notion that standardized tests are “reductive”: that is, that they reduce a human being to a number. Aren’t there geniuses who bomb standardized tests, they ask, as well as unimaginative grinds who ace them? And if you make test scores a major factor in admissions, then won’t students and teachers train for the tests, and won’t that pervert open-ended intellectual curiosity? The answer to both questions, I think, is clearly “yes.” But the status-quo-defenders never seem to take the next step, of examining the alternatives to standardized testing, to see whether they’re even worse.
I’d say the truth is this: spots at the top universities are so coveted, and so much rarer than the demand, that no matter what you use as your admissions criterion, that thing will instantly get fetishized and turned into a commodity by students, parents, and companies eager to profit from their anxiety. If it’s grades, you’ll get a grades fetish; if sports, you’ll get a sports fetish; if community involvement, you’ll get soup kitchens sprouting up for the sole purpose of giving ambitious 17-year-olds something to write about in their application essays. If Harvard and Princeton announced that from now on, they only wanted the most laid-back, unambitious kids, the ones who spent their summers lazily skipping stones in a lake, rather than organizing their whole lives around getting in to Harvard and Princeton, tens of thousands of parents in the New York metropolitan area would immediately enroll their kids in relaxation and stone-skipping prep courses. So, given that reality, why not at least make the fetishized criterion one that’s uniform, explicit, predictively valid, relatively hard to game, and relevant to universities’ core intellectual mission?
(Here, I’m ignoring criticisms specific to the SAT: for example, that it fails to differentiate students at the extreme right end of the bell curve, thereby forcing the top schools to use other criteria. Even if those criticisms are true, they could easily be fixed by switching to other tests.)
I admit that my views on this matter might be colored by my strange (though as I’ve learned, not at all unique) experience, of getting rejected from almost every “top” college in the United States, and then, ten years later, getting recruited for faculty jobs by the very same institutions that had rejected me as a teenager. Once you understand how undergraduate admissions work, the rejections were unsurprising: I was a 15-year-old with perfect SATs and a published research paper, but not only was I young and immature, with spotty grades and a weird academic trajectory, I had no sports, no music, no diverse leadership experiences. I was a narrow, linear, A-to-B thinker who lacked depth and emotional intelligence: the exact opposite of what Harvard and Princeton were looking for in every way. The real miracle is that despite these massive strikes against me, two schools—Cornell and Carnegie Mellon—were nice enough to give me a chance. (I ended up going to Cornell, where I got a great education.)
Some people would say: so then what’s the big deal? If Harvard or MIT reject some students that maybe they should have admitted, those students will simply go elsewhere, where—if they’re really that good—they’ll do every bit as well as they would’ve done at the so-called “top” schools. But to me, that’s uncomfortably close to saying: there are millions of people who go on to succeed in life despite childhoods of neglect and poverty. Indeed, some of those people succeed partly because of their rough childhoods, which served as the crucibles of their character and resolve. Ergo, let’s neglect our own children, so that they too can have the privilege of learning from the school of hard knocks just like we did. The fact that many people turn out fine despite unfairness and adversity doesn’t mean that we should inflict unfairness if we can avoid it.
Let me end with an important clarification. Am I saying that, if I had dictatorial control over a university (ha!), I would base undergraduate admissions solely on standardized test scores? Actually, no. Here’s what I would do: I would admit the majority of students mostly based on test scores. A minority, I would admit because of something special about them that wasn’t captured by test scores, whether that something was musical or artistic talent, volunteer work in Africa, a bestselling smartphone app they’d written, a childhood as an orphaned war refugee, or membership in an underrepresented minority. Crucially, though, the special something would need to be special. What I wouldn’t do is what’s done today: namely, to turn “specialness” and “well-roundedness” into commodities that the great mass of applicants have to manufacture before they can even be considered.
Other than that, I would barely look at high-school grades, regarding them as too variable from one school to another. And, while conceding it might be impossible, I would try hard to keep my university in good enough financial shape that it didn’t need any legacy or development admits at all.
Update (Sep. 14): For those who feel I’m exaggerating the situation, please read the story of commenter Jon, about a homeschooled 15-year-old doing graduate-level work in math who, three years ago, was refused undergraduate admission to both Berkeley and Caltech, with the math faculty powerless to influence the admissions officers. See also my response.