Why being smart won't necessarily get you into Harvard

If you'd like to believe that merit governs Ivy League admission policies, don't read this book

We're at a point where the frenzy to be admitted to a top college doesn't seem as if it could get any more desperate. No wonder. Near the end of his weighty (711 pages) history of admission - and exclusion - at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, Jerome Karabel concludes: "It is no exaggeration to say that the current regime in elite college admissions has been far more successful in democratizing anxiety than opportunity."

In this climate, his tome actually comes as something of a relief.

First, it is not a "How to" guide. There are far too many of those already. The Chosen offers no promise of unlocking a secret formula for entry - though the skeleton key against a black background on the cover is an ominous reminder of how impenetrable the iron gates of these ivory towers have been to so many for so long.

Instead, Karabel, a Berkeley sociologist (and Harvard graduate), confirms that the decisions made at these elite universities as to who they will accept and who they reject, are, in fact, as inscrutable as they seem - and have been since the 1920s.

It was then that the current system was devised in order to restrict the number of Jewish students on campus - to give these schools, as Karabel writes, "the latitude to admit the dull sons of major donors and to exclude the brilliant but unpolished children of immigrants." Admissions criteria were purposefully designed to be opaque, allowing the schools to shape incoming classes as they saw fit.

And one of the book's more surprising revelations is how little has changed in the intervening years. Call it tradition.

Though the intended outcome has evolved - from admitting fewer Jews to achieving greater diversity - the underlying system has not, much.

The movement from objective exam-based criteria to a subjective personalized approach began in the '20s - when letters of recommendation and personal interviews were first used to size-up ineffable qualities of "character." They're with us today, as are the personal essay, bubbles to mark demographics, and details of extracurriculars, also introduced at the time.

Rather than admitting students according to an academic definition of "merit" - as the schools had done in the past with subject tests, and as elite universities in countries like Japan and France continue to do - the "Big Three," as they were called then, developed a character-based construction of merit.

While the traits these schools deemed meritorious have shifted with the times, their base in "character" has held steady.

Princeton, in 1921, valued some of those qualities Cecil Rhodes looked for in his vaunted Rhodes Scholars, including "manhood" and "brutality" (assets that graduates of private prep schools like Andover and Groton were credited with possessing in abundance, while Jews, public school students, and, of course, women - admitted by Princeton only in 1969 - were not).

In a broader turn, Karabel uses admissions policies as a lens to examine privilege and access in the last century. Within his story of admissions at these influential schools, he shows how a slippery definition of merit has conformed to changing cultural and social values.

Xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and the eugenics movement, which marked the '20s, bled into the Ivy League in the form of discrimination against Jews. A push for a version of merit that hewed more closely to intellect coincided with a fear of falling behind the Soviet Union. The Civil Rights movement formed the backdrop against which black and other minority students and women were finally granted entrance.

It should come as no surprise that racism long girded much of the discussion behind admissions-office doors at these bastions of white, Protestant wealth. But somehow reading archival excerpts from alumni letters and remarks by university presidents is still shocking.

In 1922, to ensure no Jews slipped in, Harvard asked applicants: "What change, if any, has been made since birth in your own name or that of your father? (Explain fully.)" As added insurance, photos were required. Meanwhile, Yale's student paper proposed its school request photos of applicants' fathers as well.

Some six decades later, in 1988, a US Department of Education investigation into alleged discrimination by Harvard against Asian-Americans turned up these notations in applicants' files: "short with big ears," "seems a tad frothy."

Those who work in the field today talk about perpetual political vying: There's the generous alum with a college-aged daughter. The band leader who needs a tuba player. A faltering football team searching for a quarterback. A drop in the yield of Latino students.

In the end, no one but the admissions officers forming a given class can truly know what makes someone Harvard or Yale or Princeton material in any year.

In Karabel's estimation, the perception that these elite schools have achieved a meritocracy is an illusion. Whether that's the ideal is almost another discussion.

The point is, as much as it defies dearly held beliefs about opportunity in this country, that sort of system doesn't exist, and hasn't for a very long time.

Teresa Méndez is on the Monitor's staff.

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