Qu: Check This Box

Decency is not enough to warrant an acceptance letter.

by Dorothy Qu | 4/13/17 12:40am

Last week, a former Dartmouth admissions director, Rebecca Sabky, published an editorial in The New York Times. Its cute, clickbait title, “Check This Box if You’re a Good Person,” caught my eye even before I recognized her connection to this school. With Dartmouth so rarely mentioned in mainstream news recently, I eagerly scanned the article. Imagine my face falling comically as I reached the end. 

I want to make this clear: being a good person should be considered as important as, if not more important than, academic and extracurricular prowess, hard work and talent. However, Sabky’s definition of what a good person entails is extremely flawed and shows Dartmouth’s preference for a certain type of person over others.

I would first like to address the polarized reactions people have had to this article. On one side of the spectrum, people applaud Sabky’s “brave” step in the right direction. Others — myself included — are alarmed by her loose interpretation of kindness. In her article, Sabky states that a letter of recommendation from a custodian “caught her eye,” because the applicant “knew the names of every member of the janitorial staff … and tidied up after his peers.” He was the first student in her 15 years as an admissions counselor to use a recommendation from a custodian — and he was admitted by unanimous vote of the admissions counsel.

Yet, human decency, which he demonstrated, is not kindness, and the kindest people are the least likely to ask someone for a recommendation letter commending their kind acts. Indeed, to ask for such a recommendation, one would have to be at least somewhat self-important. This isn’t to say that self-importance and kindness are mutually exclusive — they are not. However, from my meager 20 years of silently observing my peers, there is a strong correlation between kindness and humility. The kindest acts are often left unseen, and it is unjust to praise those who are confident enough to flaunt their kindness, while leaving others who are equally kind but less upfront about it in the dust.  

Similarly, I am not confident in the link Sabky makes between decency and compassion. I know many students who have been taught to act respectfully by socially adept and generally upperclass parents but fail to truly care for peers, the less fortunate, minorities and the environment, for example. There is much more to goodness than just cleaning up after your classmates or thanking the people who do so. As an analogy, you may know the names of the entire Collis staff, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you would be willing to substantially help them if they’re overworked. The student Sabky mentions may actually be an outstanding and truly kind student, but many others who show a similar level of decency may not have any compassion beyond that. Even worse, many students who are truly compassionate to others may not even believe that decency to a custodian is enough to warrant a letter of recommendation — and may be looked over as a result.

With these musings in mind, I’ve come to believe that Sabky was attracted to this student not because of his kindness but because of his originality. I can scarcely imagine that other recommendations detailing heart-wrenching stories of perseverance by those who have conquered disease, discrimination and other hardships, while less original, are less impressive in showing kindness and character. Selective colleges such as Dartmouth are flooded with applicants touting their competence, determination and benevolence; it is laughable to see such impressive students trumped by those with “better” — or simply more unique — connections and resources.

According to a recent New York Times study, Dartmouth hails more students from the top one percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent, with such students making up 20.7 and 14.4 percent of the student body respectively. Sabky’s low bar for kindness may promote this favoritism by giving admissions a more agreeable reason to admit privileged students. Readers who agree with Sabky’s notion of goodness may fall under this trap and allow themselves to be swayed that Dartmouth is truly prizing kindness. Instead, admissions uses the term “kindness” to reward originality as well as, it seems, affluence.

While I appreciate Sabky’s sentiment that her son should value compassion as much as a full resume, it may be more self-driven — she states, “I’m happy to start that trend” — than supportive of actual progress in admitting higher-quality people. The peer recommendation that Dartmouth heavily encourages is a great step in the right direction (though they let me sneak in here without one, so that’s strike one), but it is not enough. 

I love Dartmouth, and I believe that we are improving exponentially in understanding and appreciating the adversities of many disadvantaged and “indistinguishable” gifted students, as Sabky describes. But do not dare fault hardworking and talented prospective students for not being “kind” enough — or if you’re being honest, eye-catching enough — for an acceptance. Before telling students to look elsewhere for recommendations, flaunt their kindness more visibly or stuff their applications with soon-to-be clichés about appreciating their custodial staff, Dartmouth’s admissions department should admit their preference for a certain type of student — likely one with jingly pockets — over others.