Jay Matthews is gearing up for the college admissions process with five tips on surviving the April crunch. His first is how to handle happy, grieving friends. His recommendation:
The college admissions system, at least for our most selective schools, has become as rational as who wins bingo night at church. Nobody, including the college admissions officers, has a clear idea why certain students are admitted and others are not. Some rejected applicants are just as good as the accepted. Through no fault of their own, some of your closest friends will get into their first-choice college and some will not. You should put aside your own worries for a moment and practice two short speeches. To those who win this lottery, you should say: “That’s terrific. You worked so hard. You earned it. You are going to have a wonderful time.” To the losers you should say: “Of course you realize this is totally random. It has nothing to do with you. You will have a great time at East Pecos State. You will be running the place, and as you know, the research shows the name of your college has no effect on your success in life. All you need is great character and drive, and you have that.”
Besides being entirely rational and sound advice, Jay uses one word that hits the issue more than any other: lottery.
I have a friend who’s worked for two college admissions departments. One was a traditional liberal arts college in the Northeast, and the other a highly competitive college in the greater DC area. At the former, she says it was a mostly sane process where they more or less knew the high schools of students, had time to read the student’s personal statements, and truly thought about whether the student would be a good fit for this particular institution. Here in DC, at the competitive school, it was totally different. Mainly because of the sheer size of the applicant pool, they had to rely much more heavily on the all-important numbers–high school GPA and SAT score–rather than thinking holistically about the student. The admissions office, even after setting a relatively high standard, had thousands of applicants to choose from, and very little time to do so. During admissions season, each officer was given 50 applications per day. At eight hours a day and 60 minutes an hour, not counting breaks and meetings, the admissions officer had 10 minutes to make a decision about an applicant. Ten minutes (unless, as my friend points out, they’re athletes or legacies).
What this becomes, more or less, is a lottery. And if it’s a lottery, and everyone treats it that way except the students who invest their time, money, and emotions, maybe we should just start treating it that way. No more pretending it’s about student activities, their essay, recommendations, or their devotion to the school. We’ve all heard about the perfect 4.0 student with excellent extracurriculars who gets rejected from their dream school. Instead, let’s just institute a lottery. Schools set their baseline, kids submit their numbers, and then we run a giant lottery for the spots. Poof, like magic. Such a system operates in other fields that we’re perfectly comfortable with–medical residency programs or coveted charter schools, for example–so maybe it’s time to give it a shot for college applicants.
Update: I had my numbers slightly wrong, and I’ve updated them in the text. My friend reviewed 50 applications per day, not 500 per week, as I had written. That’s where I got the 10 minutes/ applicant figure: 8 hours per day times 60 minutes per hour, divided by 50 applicants equals 9.6 minutes/ applicant.