The battleground of Ivy League admissions is in the news again, with Students for Fair Admissions filing a lawsuit against Harvard for discriminating against Asian Americans like Austin Jia.
As someone who has sat in on admission committee discussions about applicants at three Ivy League schools, I can tell you that the conversations are not what you might expect. By the time I was invited, the non-starters had been filtered out. These meetings focused on the tough decisions. All of the applicants had high grades, great standardized test scores, multiple impressive extra-curriculars, fantastic recommendations, and compelling essays. Now came the hard work of winnowing down all of those super-well-qualified, deserving high school seniors. The fact is that each and every one of them had what it takes to succeed at the top-notch schools. That’s why they were still in the pile. Of the thousands of applications still sitting in the queue, the schools could have created several equally great classes.
So, where do they turn to make those final cuts? In the end, it is the responsibility of the admissions team to bring a well-rounded, interesting group of newcomers into the college to form a learning community that will inspire one another, benefit from each other’s talents and interests, and contribute to the university in both expected and unexpected ways. That is one of the things that makes admissions work so exciting. Welcoming a new cohort of energetic, wildly talented students and watching them grow up and graduate brings tears to every admissions officer’s eyes. It can be extremely gratifying work though the hours are long and the pay is usually terrible.
In the back of every admissions officer’s mind are the college’s priorities. Is there a presidential initiative to increase the arts, sciences, engineering, math, humanities? (It’s never the social sciences – economics and political science departments are stuffed to the gills.) Within each of those areas, there could be more specific needs as well. Perhaps they need to recruit more dancers, jazz or classical musicians, or aspiring dramatic actors. You get the idea. So, maybe Austin Jia’s application wasn’t as compelling as it could have been because he didn’t meet any of the university priorities at that time.
The next important question is: What can each given applicant contribute to the community? I was gobsmacked when that became the focus of so many admissions conversations. It seemed so wholesome and far-sighted, which is the last thing I expected to see here. I assumed, like many, that these were cold, calculating, and cut-throat decision-making battles. Instead, everyone was working collaboratively toward the same thing – to ensure a well-rounded community of diverse perspectives. So, maybe Austin Jia’s application didn’t make it clear that he would contribute in an important way to the community.
It’s also helpful to keep in mind that admissions readers are expert at assessing character. You can’t read thousands of applications without getting a sense of what a student’s personality and qualities are. When you have so many choices, why would you admit mean, anti-social, dishonest, selfish, arrogant, greedy or otherwise unpleasant people? So, maybe all of the committees espied something untoward in Austin Jia’s personality?
Finally, the leaders of the Ivies know one another and have a refined sense of the students each school will admit. Maybe everyone assumed someone else would admit Austin Jia, so they didn’t want to waste a seat on him.
I’m not saying it’s not about race, and it might end up being the case. But what I am saying is that the decision whether or not to admit a student is complex and is not always simply about SAT’s, grades, and extra-curriculars. It’s a far more nuanced process than that, especially at the best schools in the world where there is excruciating pressure to keep bringing in classes of students who will add to the community, succeed there, and be great alumni.
For many years, as a dean at three Ivy League colleges and now as an AVP at a university with an extraordinary mission, I have had a front row seat to the obstacles to success that college students and their parents confront every year. Even at so-called elite, highly selective colleges such as Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia, where I spent some of my career, students struggle on a daily basis to remain healthy, happy, grounded, and to stay in school. I am dedicated to helping them.