Harvard Student Calls for Randomized Admissions

Here’s some food for thought, at least until many of us dig in to real food tomorrow: should college admissions be reexamined, even moreso than in recent controversy and administrative panels? A Harvard junior argues so, in a Harvard Crimson editorial piece titled “The Lottery: The only fair way to admit people to Harvard is to randomize admissions.” Dylan R. Matthews ’12 argues that the current admissions system used by Harvard and other private universities across the country works against the goals it sets out to achieve:

William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, Harvard’s long-time dean of admissions and financial aid, has said that 80 to 90 percent of Harvard applicants are qualified to be here. Harvard should identify that 80 to 90 percent, and then randomly accept 1600-1700 of them.

Some will no doubt object that this will undermine the “excellence” of Harvard’s student body. It will, and that’s exactly the point. For one thing, “excellence” in the Harvard admissions process—and at Harvard—has a lot less to do with virtuous character traits than with an ability to game the system. By placing a premium on students who go above and beyond in extracurricular realms, Harvard has attracted a number of truly incredible people but has also encouraged a high school arms race wherein kids cram their schedules with activities in an attempt to attract admissions officers.

By selecting for this kind of behavior, the admissions process doesn’t encourage real excellence, but, to use the novelist Walter Kirn’s term from his hilarious book and essay “Lost in the Meritocracy,” “aptitude for showing aptitude.” This may well be of use in students’ careers after college, but it is orthogonal if not antithetical to the goals of a liberal arts education.

The post is already alive with discussion, which are viewable with the full text of the article at the Harvard Crimson’s website. Where do you stand on the proposal? Does this seem fully applicable to Wesleyan’s admissions policy? Would this be a change in the right direction, or is change even necessary at all here? Share your thoughts in the comments, before your post-colonial guilt seeps into the flavor of the systematically butchered turkey and poisons the already genocide-tinged taste of your gluten-free stuffing.

[Article via anonymous Shoutbox tip.]

11 thoughts on “Harvard Student Calls for Randomized Admissions

  1. Activist/Oboist

    The biggest problem, and one everyone has overlooked: how do you define who is qualified to attend a school BEFORE you start making judgements vis a vis extracurricular activities and other selling points? Would it just be an aggregate data set made up of SAT scores and GPA’s? Because that would be a real tragedy. Obviously, Harvard is larger than a small LAC and doesn’t need to worry so much about its “oboe quota,” to use the analogy of someone below me, but the problem of defining excellence as something distinct from specific achievements and interests is a thorny one.

    Also, “orthogonal if not antithetical” is a tight turn of phrase, but don’t sell Wes students short by implying that they couldn’t coin something like that.

  2. Wizard

    are you kidding? wesleyan has no need of randomized admissions because wesleyan isn’t 1/100 as selective as harvard.

    “people at wesleyan are just as smart as people at harvard, they’re just less douchey”
    whatever makes you feel better.

    as for the idea, foolish, but a step in the right direction. true merit needs to be encouraged in the college admissions process, as do the goals of a liberal arts education (real learning, as opposed to pre-professionalism). being virtuous or accomplished ‘on paper’ as opposed to ‘in real life’ is something college admissions is way too weighted toward at the moment. this idea isn’t on the money, but it certainly raises important issues.

  3. hmm

    i support the idea of randomizing qualified applicants, because it would take away much of the fake “prestige” that goes along with schools such as Harvard. If students understood that the admissions process wasn’t entirely partial, they wouldn’t kill themselves over not being accepted to the “right school” and frankly would care less about which school they actually got into

  4. nervous arotstein

    I just posted on Harvard’s blog in reference to this. Do you think I’m smart enough to do that? what if they find a typo in my comment. eeeeeee nervous!

    1. Anon

      People at Wesleyan are just as smart as people at Harvard… they just as less douchey… I wouldn’t be nervous

  5. recent alum

    I think the article is less relevant for the small elite liberal arts colleges… emphasis on “small” – schools like Amherst, Bowdoin, Middlebury, Swarthmore, Wesleyan, Williams, and the like. Yes, there is the same issue, but randomizing doesn’t solve the problem when you’re trying to shape a class of 700, not 3,000. Admissions wants to ensure every class has its oboe players, its community organizers etc, and with a smaller pool being selected at LACs than Ivy League-type schools, you may wind up with some unbalanced classes in terms of interest. An interesting idea though…

    1. Current student

      Yeah, but one could make the argument that what we get aren’t community organizers but people who are capable of representing themselves as community organizers. I remember applying to college, when looking at my various high school “accomplishments”, realizing that the best narrative I could sell about myself was that I was passionate about theater. But I wasn’t and I’m still not. Nevertheless, I wrote my essay about my love of theater, got in, and haven’t set foot in a theater once since I’ve been here. I’m having a great time, excelling, etc. But my admissions “pitch” was an extremely cynical effort to sell myself as something I’m not; something which happens just as much at small colleges than at large ones.

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