Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

04.01.13

The Absurd Lies of College Admissions

Why do we force prospective college students to engage in exorbitant exaggeration?

A high school student has penned an open letter to the colleges that rejected her, published in the Wall Street Journal. 

I also probably should have started a fake charity. Providing veterinary services for homeless people's pets. Collecting donations for the underprivileged chimpanzees of the Congo. Raising awareness for Chapped-Lips-in-the-Winter Syndrome. Fun-runs, dance-a-thons, bake sales—as long as you're using someone else's misfortunes to try to propel yourself into the Ivy League, you're golden.

Having a tiger mom helps, too. As the youngest of four daughters, I noticed long ago that my parents gave up on parenting me. It has been great in certain ways: Instead of "Be home by 11," it's "Don't wake us up when you come through the door, we're trying to sleep." But my parents also left me with a dearth of hobbies that make admissions committees salivate. I've never sat down at a piano, never plucked a violin. Karate lasted about a week and the swim team didn't last past the first lap. Why couldn't Amy Chua have adopted me as one of her cubs?

Then there was summer camp. I should've done what I knew was best—go to Africa, scoop up some suffering child, take a few pictures, and write my essays about how spending that afternoon with Kinto changed my life. Because everyone knows that if you don't have anything difficult going on in your own life, you should just hop on a plane so you're able to talk about what other people have to deal with.

Or at least hop to an internship. Get a precocious-sounding title to put on your resume. "Assistant Director of Mail Services." "Chairwoman of Coffee Logistics." I could have been a gopher in the office of someone I was related to. Work experience!

Hear hear.

All right, children: it's time for Aunty Megan to bore you with how things were In Her Day.  Way back in 1989, when I was applying to college, there was a certain amount of creativity applied to college applications.  The particular school I attended was structured to make you look good on college applications: athletics were practically mandatory, extracurriculars were strongly encouraged. The essay seemed to require an epiphany, whether or not you'd actually had one, so we did our best to emulate personal insight.  

But the things that we achieved were basically within reach of a normal human being who was going about the business of growing up: playing a sport, perhaps badly; taking classes; occasionally volunteering as a candy striper.  Most of us took the SAT without the benefit of test prep services, and the "test prep" we got in class consisted of--learning vocabulary and algebra.  People like me, who were painfully unathletic and had hashed some early high school classes still had a shot at an Ivy League School

These days, a nearly-perfect GPA is the barest requisite for an elite institution. You're also supposed to be a top notch athlete and/or musician, the master of multiple extracurriculars.  Summers should preferably be spent doing charitable work, hopefully in a foreign country, or failing that, at least attending some sort of advanced academic or athletic program.  

Naturally, this selects for kids who are extremely affluent, with extremely motivated parents who will steer them through the process of "founding a charity" and other artificial activities.  Kids who have to spend their summer doing some boring menial labor in order to buy clothes have a hard time amassing that kind of enrichment experience.  

The irony is that even admissions officers seem to be put off by this dynamic; presumably that's why I'm told that kids now have to have fake epiphanies about the suffering of other, less privileged people instead of just having fake epiphanies about themselves.  This proves that they are really caring human beings who want to do more for the world than just make money so that they, too will, in their time, be able to get their children into Harvard.

This entire thing is absurd.  I understand why kids engage in this ridiculous arms race.  What I don't understand is why admissions officers, who have presumably met some teenagers, and used to be one, actually reward it.  Why not give kids a bonus for showing up to a routine job during high school, like real people, instead of for having wealthy parents who can help you tap their affluent social network for charitable donations?  Why have we conflated "excellence" with affluence, driven parents, and a relentless will to conform on the part of the kids? 

Elite colleges would be better off with more kids like Suzy Lee Weiss and fewer kids like Blair Hornstine.  Unfortunately, the admissions system seems to be primarily geared towards fake sincerity and ersatz enrichment.