View achievements within the context of a student’s opportunities. Is it as easy to earn a high class rank at an elite prep school, or to become student body president when your family’s wealth is only 3 generations old? No, it’s not. Each student’s environment imposes unique challenges, so unless you’ve walked a mile in Warren’s shoes, don’t presume to write off his fourth place finish in the Hamptons Beer Pong Championship as “a minor achievement that has no place on a college application.”
Seek diversity. Our conceptions of what a high-achieving student looks like are shaped by who has been deemed successful historically, and clinging to those conceptions will lead to exclusionary admissions. So, don’t look for the standard indicators of strong students, like science fair medals or high school diplomas, and don’t reward following the too-well-tread extracurricular paths of being just another Johnny Football or Stacy Storeclerk. Look for students who show uniqueness and initiative, by, for instance, founding their school’s Ferrari Club or seeking first-hand experience with how the criminal justice system can work differently for the wealthy.
View recommendations within the context of a teacher’s opportunities. Teachers at public schools in low-income communities haven’t been blessed with the advantages of seeing many exceptional students, so they can hardly be blamed if they falsely identify the students they do have as being exceptional. In fact, they can only be expected to do so, and this expectation should guide your reading of their recommendations. On the other hand, a teacher at an elite college preparatory academy has undoubtedly been exposed to an embarrassment of star pupils, and thus may even write off a remarkable student like Warren as being “a delinquent with a persistent dedication to academic dishonesty and arson.” Obviously, such aspersions should be discounted.
Value “we” over “I” in extracurricular activities. As a society, we tend towards an inaccurate view of history that attributes advancements to “lone geniuses,” ignoring the many other people integral to each discovery. Saying that Warren can’t list his 1st Place Individual Speaker debate award merely because it was technically awarded to his teammate in a tournament that Warren technically didn’t compete in because he was technically under house arrest merely perpetuates this sort of exclusionary outlook. Besides, aren’t we always saying we want our students to take pride in their peers’ success?
Realize success depends on circumstances, but determination does not. It is easy for a high schooler to uncover proof of pay-to-play state contract grants, leading to the arrest of the governor, if that student’s parents have the time and resources to help them out. But what if a student’s parents are too busy running an investment bank to drive them and their box of files all the way to the regional FBI office? Is it really fair to penalize Warren for his father’s lack of leisure time? I think not. Instead, focus on what students can control: their own stick-to-itiveness. A student who—given his family’s legacy—has undoubtedly been striving to attend our institution since birth and now, 24-years later, has put in an application upon very nearly completing high school? That’s a student who sees things through.
Stop considering standardized test scores. Standardized tests give an unfair advantage to upper class students, who can afford test prep tutors and enjoy the benefits of elite educations. Fortunately, private tutors and the guidance of college preparatory schools don’t provide any edge in the other components of our application, so our admissions process could only be improved by cutting testing out. If we must consider the SAT, though, we should at least look at it holistically. For instance, Warren’s 420 is proof he didn’t hire someone else to take the test for him. Can we say the same of someone with a perfect score?
Embrace the subjective through interviews with distinguished alumni. One size does not fit all when it comes to admissions. Thus, rather than relying on a standard application, we should allow our most trusted alumni—those who have proved their loyalty to the school through generous contributions—to interview students and decide on their suitability. Of course, these alumni don’t have time to interview every applicant—investment banks don’t run themselves, after all. Instead, they should be granted broad discretion in who they talk with, perhaps saving time by focusing on those applicants they already know well and happen to have sired.
Heed the signs. There are so many different factors that go into admissions decisions that it’s easy to get stuck in your own web of conflicting thoughts. Sometimes, you just need to clear your mind and take a walk. And, if on that walk, you should happen to come across a building bearing the applicant’s last name, heed the sign.