Lifting the Veil – An Ethics Professor’s View on the College Admissions Process

Great article from the New York Times called Confessions of an Application Reader.  The author, Ruth A. Starkman taught writing at the University of California, Berkeley from 1992 to 1996 and currently teaches writing and ethics at Stanford.

This article highlights just how subjective the college admissions process is, something that cannot be underestimated.  While Ms. Starkman writes specifically about her experience as a reader at UC Berkeley, what she describes is likely universal at the nation’s top schools.

Ms. Starkman suggests that she felt there were murky ethical dilemmas she faced.  Each college admissions team is charged with task of “making a class.”  High school guidance officers must negotiate a balancing act while placing the students in their care.

Parents and students perceive only their individual interests, while admissions teams and guidance counselors must think in terms of groups.  Often this feels at odds.  Each student needs to focus on being the best he or she can be, and yes, then there is an active dialectic between the individual and the group.  Articles like this one are both provocative and helpful.  Students and parents need to understand that admissions decisions are not made in a vacuum.

Finally, perhaps there is a gem of wisdom in this.  Groucho Marx famously said “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.”  In the case of college admissions, Groucho got it exactly backwards.  The admissions teams know their schools very well, and they design each class for maximum impact.  An invitation to any of their “clubs” is a honor, because the field is so competitive.  But don’t be fooled.  In designing their classes, they haven’t taken the time to consider the individual, but they have extremely difficult decisions to make.  Students need to focus on their strengths, and when decisions come out, know that the school offering you a seat at the table really wants you because they believe you really belong in that community, so embrace being part of a club that has accepted you as a member.

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