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The College Admissions Process and Covid-19–More Subjective Than Ever

subjectivity in college admissions is a matter of comparing apples to oranges

Families continue to ask on a daily basis how Covid-19 will affect the admissions process.  The answers are numerous and complex.  But the bottom line is that it will become even more subjective this year than ever before.

The biggest reason for the increased subjectivity is the near elimination of the most subjective measure that colleges have used to assess student performance:  scores on the standardized tests.

Without those scores, admissions officers will have to rely on other information, most of which is completely subjective.  Let’s have a quick look.

Grades and Rigor of the Curriculum

Anyone who has followed my posts on comparing GPAs across schools, across states, or across the world knows that a 4.0 GPA of a student at a rural high school in Texas is not the same as a 4.0 at the super-selective Stuyvesant High School in NYC which is not the same as a 4.0 at an under-funded public school in a predominantly black neighborhood of Ferguson, Missouri.  While the number is the same, the level of knowledge, preparation, and instruction is vastly different at schools in the same city–much less schools in different states.

The result is that college admissions counselors have to rely on a combination of experience, knowledge, and imprecise eyeballing of GPAs and curricular rigor.  They rate students on some sort of internal scale–which has some descriptive language attached to it–but is ultimately a subjective judgment call by the admissions staff.  There is nothing scientific or determinant about the GPA in the admissions process.  True, higher is always better.  But again, tens of thousands of students with perfect GPAs are rejected by the most selective colleges every year.

Teacher Recommendations

Some students get great letters of recommendations.  Others don’t.  Much depends on the talents of the student, of course.  But much more depends on the communications skills of the writer of those recommendations.  Some teachers are naturally awesome writers.  Others are just plain horrible–with grammar and spelling mistakes that would make my 10th grade writing teacher shrivel up into the fetal position with horror.  Some teachers–mostly at private schools–are coached by the college counseling team on how to write a recommendation that will delight an admissions officer.  But others get no guidance whatsoever.  For example, I am working with a Latinx young man at an urban high school in the Denver area where fully 60% of the teachers every year are first-year teachers.  While many may be well-meaning, capable instructors, they lack the experience to be able to write this student the sort of letter that competitive applicants coming from elite boarding schools or application-only public schools just down the road from him.  Teacher recommendations are hardly an objective measure to compare one applicant against another.

Extracurricular Activities

Gobs of articles about the importance of extracurricular activities in college admissions point to how these involvement can demonstrate qualities like “grit” or “resilience” or “character.” Colleges also say that they are looking for “leadership ability” and other indicators that the applicant will be a “good person.”

Whitney Soule, the Dean of Admissions and Student Aid at Bowdoin College, wrote an article a couple of days ago in which she postulated that character would matter more in admissions this year–which she implied was actually a good thing (referring to the “Making Caring Common” project at Harvard, which provides guidance and research on how to assess character in the college admissions process).

Of course, we want students of “good character” to be admitted to the nation’s “good colleges.”  But how do we define character?  What is the measure of “grit” or “resilience”?

Just as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart had a hard time defining pornography in legal terms, college admissions officers are left only with Justice Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” standard.  In other words, we can’t really come up with a quantifiable, clear measure of “resilience,” but maybe if we read through the student’s record of extra-curricular achievement and social involvements, we can “get a feeling” or “develop a hunch” that a student has a strong, moral character and would be a good person to have on our campus.

These terms like “perseverance” and “character” have some descriptive power, but the standard can be applied only arbitrarily and subjectively by the person reading the application.  We have to trust that the admissions officer will know it when she sees it.


An article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal by Douglas Belkin highlights that colleges this year will be looking for essays that tell a “unique story” (to quote the words of Dickinson College’s Dean of Admission) about the student’s experience with Covid-19.

Lovely.  Doesn’t each one of us have a “unique story”?  Then again, aren’t we all sort of adapting to Covid-19 in the same sorts of ways:  eating too much, absorbing too much social media, learning how to bake bread, and howling into the wind about the sorry state of our world?

Sure, we know that some kids have been better able than others to “cope” with the uncertainties and disruptions of the pandemic.  Here again, however, how can we actually compare the story of the kid who lives in relative comfort and was able to do some sort of online volunteer work even in the midst of the lockdown, the abrupt transition to online learning, and the disorienting end to adolescent social interaction with the story of the kid whose parents lost their jobs, who had to babysit their siblings, and started a cake-baking business at home to make some extra cash (a true story of one of my other pro-bono immigrant students from Morocco). Maybe both are honorable, and maybe some add I-know-it-when-I-see-it “grit” or “character.”  But how the heck do you choose one over the other?

At some point, the admissions officer is going to have to make some difficult, subjective, somewhat arbitrary decisions about who gets accepted and who does not.

What Can You Do?

For at least the past century, the American college application process–especially at the highly selective private universities–has always been opaque, convoluted, and subjective.  Unlike most every other country in the world, we want to believe that we plucking the “best and the brightest” to be educated at our elite universities.

Sometimes this crazy system works.  And sometimes it doesn’t.  (As one Ivy-League admissions dean once said in a presentation I attended, “We do make mistakes, and we see them walking across campus every day.”)

What can you do about it?  Well, you can’t really change the crazy system.  But you can learn more about how this subjectivity is put into practice.  You can learn more about what the subjective indicators are, and how the admissions offices try to turn the subjective into something resembling objectivity.

And you can develop your own, personalized strategy about how to prepare throughout high school to cultivate your own character, to demonstrate some resilience (hint:  you need to take risks), and tell your own “unique” story in an essay.

A 2009 independent study indicated that at the time 26% of high-achieving students worked with a private college admissions consultant. My guess is that percentage is quite a bit higher today, as more and more families in the past 10 years have realized that they need help in playing a game that has no clear, objective rules.

So now, more than ever, the admissions game will be super subjective, now that the standardized tests are taking a Covid break.

If you want to give yourself an advantage in your bid to win this subjective game, you might just need some professional help.  And if you think you need it, I hope you’ll give us a call.


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