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How can admissions turn the tide?

Last month, the big news in the education world was a report on the future of college admissions, with the aim of turning college stress into meaningful educational experience. If you missed the news, it’s probably because, ironically, you were too stressed over finals. But this report, "Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions," has ambitions to change that. Already, a group of schools calling themselves the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success (including the Ivies and more than 80 others) plan on replacing the now-standard Common Application with a new, more holistic application.

While educators were pondering a grandiose future for college admissions, I was granted a small window into its present. Through an oft-overlooked but recently popular clause of FERPA, I was given an hour to look through my original Princeton admissions file, including the notes that admissions readers and my alumnus interviewer took. I found plenty of evidence that admissions need reform, but I worry that "Turning the Tide" and the Coalition could fail to increase access to diverse applicants and would actually make the process more opaque.


The aspects of my application that most impressed my teachers and peers were probably those which least distinguished it from the thousands of other applications. The admissions readers hardly mentioned my laundry list of perfect AP and SAT scores, 4.0+ semesters and extracurriculars and doubtless rolled their eyes at my favorite website (Wikipedia), my role model (Einstein) and my Common App essay (about my tenure as debate captain).

Looking back, those aren’t the aspects of the application I’m proudest of, and if the authors of "Turning the Tide" have their way, they won’t be what students, parents and guidance counselors emphasize either. The report, part of a Harvard Graduate School of Education initiative called “Making Caring Common,” challenges admissions officers to recognize their role in creating “escalating achievement pressure” — essentially, students with the opportunity are overworked and overstressed (too often sacrificing their mental health) as they try to accumulate a list of AP scores and extracurriculars and fill application slots, while other students, often of lower socioeconomic status and ethnic minorities who lack the opportunity, are locked out of the process entirely.

The thinking goes that if college applications instead emphasized passion and community engagement, students would be encouraged to be more caring and less stressed, thus improving mental health, encouraging greater involvement in their communities and creating a more diverse, compassionate cohort of students. So the Coalition is promising to add more questions about applicants’ contributions to their families, communities or societies, and fewer slots for resume-padding.

Holistic applications, looking for curiosity and strength of character over quantifiable achievement, are a wonderful ideal, but have a spotty history. They were born out of 1920’s anti-Semitism and are still criticized as a screen for racial quotas, now against Asian-Americans. And any system can be gamed: anyone can buy “lovely” personal statements for a few hundred dollars from an essay mill, and it’s fairly trivial for a well-off family to buy “life-changing” services or travel experiences for their scions. Justifiably, the Coalition for Access and Affordability has already drawn criticism for threatening to increase economic barriers to admission by making an already opaque process even more byzantine.

Even a perfectly conceived tide-turning, though, would require a vast reconsideration of what colleges look for. Each member of Princeton’s army of alumni interviewers holds a different idea of what makes the ideal Princetonian, and if the admissions process was to become more holistic, those ideals and biases will inevitably play a stronger role in determining who gets in.

This makes it disconcerting, then, that every mention of my “opinionated” or “non-conformist” nature in my admissions file seemed to call out for qualification, most memorably when one reader summarized my interviewer’s remarks by saying he “acknowledges [my] opinionated personality but admits [I would] thrive at Princeton.”


It’s hard to read much into a few words jotted by busy officers, but any conscious or unconscious acknowledgement by the alumni and professional gatekeepers that conformity is an important part of Princeton is worrying. If my benign political non-conformity is discomfiting, imagine the potential for unconscious bias against black or Asian names (already well-documented in other contexts) or more passionate activism.

For those of us lucky enough to be admitted to Princeton, it’s tempting to think the system is functional and fair, but without continued close examination, including both reformist efforts such as "Turning the Tide" and acknowledgement of the role of opacity and bias toward conformity, the admissions system will not, now or ever, work as advertised.

Bennett McIntosh is achemistry major from Littleton, Colo. He can be reached at

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