Last year, I conducted alumni interviews for Yale applicants. It’s an easy gig. You take a smart, ambitious 17-year-old out for hot chocolate, ask him about his life and then report back to the university, “Yup, this is another great kid.”
I recently got an email asking me to reenlist. Was I ready for another admissions season? I checked “No,” mostly because “Never again” wasn’t an option. I hold no grudge. I have no ax to grind. It’s just that the whole process is so spectacularly insane that participating in it — even in such a peripheral role — feels like watching spiders crawl out of my tear ducts.
In the last couple of decades, Yale’s applicant pool has gone from hypercompetitive to a Darwinian dystopia so cutthroat you’d feel guilty even simulating it on a computer, just in case the simulations had emotions.
[The intense process can] make applying to college resemble a lengthy romantic courtship. Rejection feels less like striking out on a first date than getting left at the altar.
I don’t fault the university. For every bed in the freshman dorms, 20 kids are lining up, at least five of whom are high school rock stars. From that murderer’s row, admissions officers face the impossible task of picking just one. There’s no right answer.
Still, it makes me queasy that the admissions game is so random and, simultaneously, so intimate.
With so many qualified students, top colleges don’t — as you might expect — look for the very best. They don’t even operate on a single, well-defined notion of what “best” means. Instead, they go for balance. They’re just trying to fill their campus with a diverse cohort of freshmen. Consistency and fairness — whatever that would mean — have nothing to do with it. It’s like making trail mix. You don’t care whether this particular peanut is more deserving than that particular chocolate chip. You’re just choosing high-quality ingredients that go well together.
Granted, this method might not seem random from the university’s perspective. But it is from the students’. One year favors trumpeters, the next favors bassoonists, and kids have no way of knowing whether their particular skills will be in demand this time around.
But campus tours, information sessions, supplemental essays, test scores, transcripts, letters of recommendation and, last but not least, alumni interviews make applying to college resemble a lengthy romantic courtship. Rejection feels less like striking out on a first date than getting left at the altar.
Just look at the demands of the Common Application. Write a confessional essay. Document your leisure activities in meticulous detail. Muse on a philosophical question. Tell us what you love about our school. Give us testimonials from your teachers.
The application becomes an autobiography, an audit of your whole self: ambitions, achievements, convictions. The process feels customized, personalized, complete. Before they make a decision, universities like Yale insist on peering into your very soul.
Although I see why they want so much information, all this data puts a mask of intimacy on what is inevitably a factory system. No matter how sincere their intentions, the Yale admissions team is beholden to grim statistical reality: 94% of students are getting rejection letters, period.
Long story short, that’s why I won’t reenlist as an interviewer. As much as I loved my college education, I don’t want to be the face of a process that’s unpredictable, opaque and (at least 94% of the time) disappointing.
Maybe the psychologist Barry Schwartz had it right when he said that universities should switch to a pure lottery system. “Every selective school,” he once wrote, “should establish criteria [for admission]…. Then, the names of all applicants who meet these criteria would be put into a hat and the winners would be drawn at random.”
Before dismissing Schwartz’s proposal, remember that we already have a random process, disguised as a deliberative one. Why not take off the mask?
Ben Orlin teaches math in Birmingham, England.