Vandermause: A More Meaningful Process

by Jon Vandermause | 11/5/14 6:39pm

Dartmouth is an intellectual paradise. It is difficult to get through a day here without rubbing elbows with a leading scholar. We are surrounded by the best labs, the brightest minds and the most cutting-edge work.

Yet only the hallowed few are granted entrance. For nearly 90 percent of Dartmouth applicants, the gates are slammed shut. Concrete reasons never accompany rejection letters.

The reason for this is straightforward: there aren’t any. Admissions committees at elite schools embrace madness without method. They demand not substance but show, herding applicants through a series of meaningless hoops that gauge little more than their income and industry.

Let’s consider a typical college application.

The Common App pulls applicants in a dozen different directions corresponding to the 12 blank slots in the extracurricular section. On top of eight-hour school days, the ideal applicant is expected to jump haphazardly from one thing to the next: jazz band, debate, mock trial, quiz bowl, student government, and on and on. If you want to get into an Ivy League school, you’re expected to do it all. There is no time to settle.

If you’re industrious enough to weave your way through the extracurricular portion of the application, your next task is to reveal what makes you a spectacular person in 650 words. This is the admission committee’s attempt at probing your soul. What better way to access an applicant’s intangibles than by asking him to put pen to paper?

Unfortunately, the essay portion often amounts to an exercise in insincerity. Some applicants spend their summers doing charity work in foreign countries on their parents’ dime, all so that they can recount their splendid deeds to Princeton application readers. If your son or daughter’s writing isn’t up to snuff, don’t fear — just hire an expert to ghostwrite the essay. There are no enforced restrictions on what can show up in the final draft. No effort is made to disentangle fact from fiction.

Next up, the interview, where introverts are penalized and insincerity is rewarded. What do you see yourself doing in 20 years? Wax eloquent about your life dream of advancing the frontiers of human knowledge. Why did you choose to apply to our school? Talk about the extraordinary opportunities that you learned about from Google 20 minutes ago. Not a polished talker? Tough luck -— maybe you should try a state school instead.

We are told that this process is intended to be holistic. It’s about more than test scores, the story goes. Top schools don’t want just brains: they want brains and brawn, leadership and focus and drive. Admissions committees want to peer into the applicant’s soul and see nothing but gold.

Gold on the outside doesn’t hurt, either. More than half of students at Dartmouth do not receive financial aid, and the sons and daughters of Dartmouth alumni receive a boost in the admissions process. The rich are groomed from the cradle to attend an elite college, and top universities welcome them with open arms. Someone has to pay the tuition bills, after all.

In sum, our process prizes performance over substance and falsely equates excellence with excellence on paper. It strives to quantify the content of an applicant’s character, but this grand project is doomed to failure because the measures it relies upon are too flawed.

There is a way out of this mess, but it requires a break from our current practice. Admissions committees should revamp the application process to highlight aptitude and integrity over flashy self-aggrandizing.

Colleges should rewrite the extracurricular portion of the application to prize depth over breadth. Instead of forcing students to spew a laundry list of activities onto the application, they should ask them to highlight one or two at length.

Instead of granting applicants the freedom to conjure up a quality essay by any means, colleges should embrace the strategy of the online learning platform Minerva: make them write an essay on the spot in 40 minutes. This would offer a clearer glimpse into raw talent than our current process allows.

Our current admissions process is a lousy meter stick for the human soul. There are simpler ways of probing aptitude and character. Let’s embrace them.