Monday, April 2, 2012

Satisfy(c)ing the College Application Process: A Simple Way to Ease the Pressure Cooker That No Admissions Department Will Accept (But Should!)

Fortunately, the whole college admissions process is still a ways down the road for us. But I fear it will come far too quickly. One of the things that came up during and after Barry Schwartz’s talk at Villanova on the Paradox of Choice was the problem that excess choice creates for students, parents, and admissions directors when it comes to college. The problem: tons of people applying for few spots at good and top colleges. A complicating factor: the people applying are, for the most part, ‘qualified’ in the usual sense. That is, many (even most) of them may have the SAT scores; the AP credits; the range of extracurricular activities-- in short, the academic promise the institutions are looking for.  But there are simply too many of them. In general, colleges have addressed this by having (generally secret) ways of determining who the best are among the many qualified candidate. But it’s too hard, and the increasingly elaborate and private process ups the ante for students in a big way. A large number of the students are really good, so (Schwartz argues, and I tend to agree) college admissions officers come up with complex and elaborate ways to try to narrow the list. But there is more margin of error in their methods of analysis than there are differences amongst the candidates they are assessing. Schwartz’s solution? Choose a set of criteria—very high criteria are fine—to limit the pool to people deemed acceptable. And then, from that reduced pool, choose at random. The disadvantages: moving away from the current ‘maximizing’ strategy towards a high standards ‘satisficing’ one seems less precise, less elite.  The advantages? Huge! In particular, simplifying the admissions process and thereby reducing the pressure cooker that high school has become for students look to go to top notch colleges. If kids don’t feel compelled to cover every imaginable base in order to get into the school of their choice, students  might stop pursuing extracurriculars they have no interest in, doing community service for people they don’t want to care for, and start focusing on their real interests. The admissions process would not feel as overwhelming for people on either end. Plus, students might learn to stop yearning after schools they didn’t get into and actually get the most out of the place they *do* get into. It’s a win-win. But it’s a leap to make that kind of change, and so far, no one’s biting. More’s the pity. 


  1. I don't think batching qualified students together and choosing at random would work.

    One aspect of my job that I enjoy is interviewing potential new hires. I get many canned responses, and I have reviewed hundreds of resumes. I can't imagine how much my company would suffer if I "chose randomly" and only took kids fresh out of Princeton, Penn and 'Nova (I'll throw us in there for a smile).

    As hard as it is for me to admit, many of the strongest applicants have come from Temple (TCC) and St. Joe's. I believe this holds true for any career (or university), there are applicants who genuinely want the job/education -- and those who are simpy "qualified". I want the guy who's heart is in it on my team -- not the brainiac who can solve a rubik's cube in two minutes.

  2. I'm not sure why you *couldn't* both batch and then choose at random, though I admit it may be psychologically challenging. I hear you what you're saying and agree in many ways--but of course, your interviews are quite different in important ways since a college application is quite unlike a job application in key respects (i.e., the criteria for being able to perform is quite different, and those assessing the latter are usually people who often *do* the job--not the case for college applications exactly)...And I'm not sure that upper tier colleges are really looking to be more inclusive and allow greater opportunities for those who ordinarily wouldn't meet their criteria as much as they are seeking reduce the pile of qualified applicants, with little concern that candidates whose SATS and GPAs are below everyone else's could still be great students. But maybe I'm wrong and, clearly, there's a lot of room for further discussion here.