What colleges want in an applicant (everything)

The admissions process is out of whack. Just ask the heartbroken applicant, rejected by her dream school. Ask high-school counsellors, who complain that colleges do not reward promising students for their creativity, determination or service to others.

Even gatekeepers at some famous institutions acknowledge, quietly, that the selection system is broken. Ask five people how to fix it, though, and they will give five different answers.

The debate about who gets into United States' competitive colleges, and why, keeps boiling over. The Justice Department is looking into a 2015 complaint from 64 Asian-American associations charging discrimination against high-achieving Asian-American applicants.

Also, students for Fair Admissions, which opposes affirmative-action policies, have filed discrimination lawsuits against Harvard, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Texas at Austin.

Although the Supreme Court affirmed last year that admissions officers may consider an applicant's race among other factors, polls show that a majority of Americans disagree with that decision.

Whatever happens, age-old questions about fairness in admissions will surely endure. For one thing, the nation cannot come to terms with a tricky five-letter word: merit.

British sociologist Michael Young coined the pejorative term "meritocracy" over a half-century ago to describe a future in which standardised intelligence tests would crown a new elite. Yet, as Dr Rebecca Zwick explains in her new book Who Gets In, the meaning has shifted. The word "merit", she writes, has come to mean "academic excellence, narrowly defined" as grades and test scores.

Mr Justin Aubin was then a high-school senior hoping to attend Yale. The following prompt caught his eye: "A community to which you belong and the footprint you have left." He submitted a short video documenting his Eagle Scout project, for which he oversaw the construction of a monument honouring veterans... The video impressed Yale's admissions committee. "People sat up in their chairs," said Mr Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid at Yale. "You could see how he handled his leadership role, and we felt like we got a good sense of him in a way that we didn't get from recommendations."

Mr Aubin is now a freshman at Yale. Did the video tip the scales? "That was a difference-maker," Mr Quinlan said.

Dr Zwick, professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, disputes the notion that testing prowess - or any other attribute, for that matter - entitles a student to a spot at his chosen college. "There is, in fact, no absolute definition of merit," she writes.

That brings us to you, the anxious applicant, the frazzled parent, the confused citizen, all wondering what colleges want. It is worth noting that only 13 per cent of four-year colleges accept fewer than half of their applicants. That said, colleges where seats are scarce stir up the nation's emotions. Each year, the world-famous institutions reject thousands and thousands of students who could thrive there.

Yes, rejection stings. But, like it or not, colleges are not looking to reel in the greatest number of straight-A students. A rejection is not really about you. It is about a maddening mishmash of competing objectives.

Just as parents give teenagers a set of chores, colleges hand admissions leaders a list of things to accomplish. When they fail, they often get fired.

"We don't live in a cloud - the reality is, there's a bottom line," said Dr Angel Perez, vice-president for enrolment and student success at Trinity College, in Hartford, Connecticut. "We're an institution, but we're also a business."

A report by the National Association for College Admission Counselling found that about half of the institutions said an applicant's "ability to pay" was of at least "some importance" in admissions decisions.

Among other targets is geographic diversity. (Some presidents have been known to gripe if the freshman class does not represent all 50 US states.) A campus might also need a particular number of engineering majors or goalies.

Generally, nothing carries more weight in admissions than grades (plus strength of the high-school curriculum) and ACT or SAT scores. With limited time and resources, those metrics offer a relatively quick way to predict who will succeed. But the measures have drawbacks. Grade inflation has complicated the task of evaluating achievements, and so has the variance in high-school grading policies.

Standardised test scores correlate with family income; white and Asian-American students fare better than black and Hispanic students do.

And so, many colleges rely on "holistic" evaluations, allowing colleges to contextualise applicants' academic records and to identify disadvantaged students who might lack the sparkling credentials of their affluent peers. Did they attend low-performing high schools or well-resourced ones? Did they join extracurricular activities? Do they have leadership experience?

What colleges look for sends a powerful message about what matters, not just to admissions officers but in life, and students often respond accordingly.

Dr Perez, a first-generation college student who grew up in a low-income family, recently revamped Trinity's process to better identify promising students, particularly the disadvantaged. Its admissions officers now look for evidence of 13 characteristics - including curiosity, empathy, openness to change and ability to overcome adversity - that researchers associate with successful students.

They must note where they saw evidence of each quality in the application. "It can't be just a hint," Dr Perez said. "We're trying to give students more credit for these characteristics, especially those who've had some challenges."

The new approach, along with the college's recent decision to stop requiring ACT or SAT scores, has helped it diversify its classes. Low-income and first-generation students represent 15 per cent of this autumn's freshman class, up from 8 per cent three years ago.

Dr Perez added: "As the country becomes more diverse, as we learn more about the correlation between standardised test scores and wealth, we have to be a lot more creative in predicting for success in college."

What most colleges ask for from applicants does not reveal much about the many skills and talents a student might possess. But what if colleges asked for more?

The admissions process at Olin College of Engineering includes a live audition. After completing a traditional application, selected students visit the campus, in Needham, Massachusetts, for an intense two-day tryout. In addition to interviews, they work in small groups to complete a tabletop design challenge, such as building a tower that can hold a specific weight. On the second day, they get another task, like designing a campus building. Evaluators observe each student, noting how well they communicate with others and adapt on the fly.

The process is meant to help prospective students understand Olin's collaborative culture, while giving the college a better glimpse of each applicant. "It's hard to nail down a student's mindset from the traditional application," said Ms Emily Roper-Doten, the dean of admission and financial aid. "This allows us to see them in motion, in an educational moment."

Most colleges are considering more incremental ways to enhance evaluations. The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, with more than 130 prominent campuses as members, recently established an application platform with a feature called a virtual college locker, a private space where students can upload materials, such as videos and written work, that they could later add to their applications. Among its stated goals: to make admissions more personal.

So far, most of its members are not asking applicants to send anything different than before. But a handful of colleges are planning experiments using alternative ways to measure student potential.

One hopes to enable applicants to show their "emotional intelligence", or EQ. Another seeks a way for prospective students to display their "fire" for learning.

"We want better inputs," said Mr Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid at Yale. "The inputs we have predict success academically. Now, we have the ability to get to know a student better."

Like many deans, Mr Quinlan has grown wary of polished personal essays in which applicants describe their achievements. "They feel like they have to show off because we're so selective, and it's completely understandable."

Technology, he believes, can help colleges get to know the student beneath the surface of a resume, to gain a better sense of their passions, the kind of community member the applicant might be.

Last year, Yale allowed students to submit a document, image, audio file or video in response to a prompt (they also had to reflect, in 250 words or less, on their submission).

When Mr Justin Aubin heard about it last autumn, he thought: "Cool!"

Mr Aubin was then a high-school senior hoping to attend Yale. The following prompt caught his eye: "A community to which you belong and the footprint you have left." He submitted a short video documenting his Eagle Scout project, for which he oversaw the construction of a monument honouring veterans. Even a well-written essay, he figured, could not capture his experience as well as four minutes of footage, shot by his older brother.

The video impressed Yale's admissions committee. "People sat up in their chairs," Mr Quinlan said. "You could see how he handled his leadership role, and we felt like we got a good sense of him in a way that we didn't get from recommendations." Mr Aubin is now a freshman at Yale.

Did the video tip the scales? "That was a difference-maker," Mr Quinlan said.

Generally, colleges are risk-averse. Rocking the boat with a newfangled admissions process could hurt their reputations. Asking students to do more could scare off would-be applicants.

However the admissions process might evolve, it surely will continue to serve the interests of colleges first and foremost. Even if someone invents a better, more equitable way to gauge applicants' potential, a college's many wants and needs would not change.

Deans would still seek to balance classes by enrolling a diverse mix of majors from many states and countries. Colleges would still need enough oboe players and theatre-arts majors.

"What compels institutions to change is deep discontent," said Ms Marie Bigham, director of college counselling at Isidore Newman School, in New Orleans.

"If they're only making changes on the margins, it indicates that they're mostly content with the way things are."

That leads to a big question in an age of widening social inequality. How unhappy are the wealthiest colleges, really, with the status quo?

Some of the nation's most selective institutions enrol more students from the top 1 per cent of the income ladder than from the bottom 60 per cent. Is that simply because of flaws within the selection process? Or is it evidence of a systemic lack of will to change those numbers?

Mr Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice-president for enrolment management and marketing at DePaul University, said that it is the high-profile colleges that have the power to redefine the admissions process.

"Unless and until something changes at the top, nothing else is going to change," he said. "That's because, at a lot of colleges, people will go to their graves trying to imitate the Ivy League."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2017, with the headline 'What colleges want in an applicant (everything)'. Print Edition | Subscribe