College admissions: What matters most -- SAT scores, grades, or just luck?
College admissions is more subjective than you might think. It wasn't that long ago that Ivy League schools tried to keep out Jewish applicants.
Steven got nearly perfect SAT scores, but he didn’t get into Princeton. Suzanne has straight A’s, but Brown rejected her. And Samantha – Samantha! – got into both schools, even though her scores and grades are pretty mediocre.Skip to next paragraph
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Can you believe it?
Welcome to an average school day in April, the cruelest month of the calendar for America’s upper-middle-class teens. If you live in a leafy American suburb, as I do, you simply can’t escape the drudgery and the drama of the College admissions sweepstakes. Everywhere you go, the conversation is the same: who got in where, and why. Kids like to talk, of course. But in the old days, it took a little while for the word to get around. Now, it’s just a mouse-click away. And that just makes things worse.
Worst of all, though, most of our children seem to think that the college admissions process is a meritocracy: The “best” students get into the “best” schools. That’s precisely why they express such surprise – and, often, outrage – when an apparently ordinary student gets into a top-rated college. She’s not that smart! No fair!
Let’s leave aside the question of what “smart” means, or whether SAT scores and grades provide a useful measure of it. Colleges don’t want classes composed solely of kids with perfect grades and scores. They also want “diversity” – of enthusiasms, experiences, and, yes, ethnicities.
The kids know all of that, too, but they still say it’s a numbers game. And for a brief moment, about a century ago, it was. Fearful that its classes were filled with mediocre young men from prep schools, Harvard College adopted the College Entrance Examination Board as the major basis for admission in 1905.
Other leading universities quickly followed suit. So for a few years anyone with a high enough score – and a big enough bank account – could get in. But the result, to the chagrin of America’s WASP gentry, was a steep spike in Jewish students.
By 1908, the fraction of Jewish students in Harvard’s freshman class had jumped from almost nil to 7 percent; a decade later, it rose to 20 percent. At Yale, meanwhile, an admissions officer complained that the roster of new students “might easily be mistaken for a recent roll call at the Wailing Wall.”
To elite university officials, this development threatened nothing less than the destruction of the elite university itself. “The summer hotel that is ruined by admitting Jews meets its fate because they drive away the Gentiles,” Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell warned, “and then after the Gentiles have left, they leave also.”