College admissions is more subjective than you might think. It
wasn't that long ago that Ivy League schools tried to keep out
Steven got nearly perfect SAT scores, but he didn't get into
Princeton. Suzanne has straight A's, but Brown rejected her. And
Samantha - Samantha! - got into both schools, even though her scores
and grades are pretty mediocre.
Can you believe it?
Welcome to an average school day in April, the cruelest month of
the calendar for America's upper-middle-class teens. If you live in
a leafy American suburb, as I do, you simply can't escape the
drudgery and the drama of the College admissions sweepstakes.
Everywhere you go, the conversation is the same: who got in where,
and why. Kids like to talk, of course. But in the old days, it took
a little while for the word to get around. Now, it's just a mouse-
click away. And that just makes things worse.
Worst of all, though, most of our children seem to think that the
college admissions process is a meritocracy: The "best" students get
into the "best" schools. That's precisely why they express such
surprise - and, often, outrage - when an apparently ordinary student
gets into a top-rated college. She's not that smart! No fair!
Let's leave aside the question of what "smart" means, or whether
SAT scores and grades provide a useful measure of it. Colleges don't
want classes composed solely of kids with perfect grades and scores.
They also want "diversity" - of enthusiasms, experiences, and, yes,
The kids know all of that, too, but they still say it's a numbers
game. And for a brief moment, about a century ago, it was. Fearful
that its classes were filled with mediocre young men from prep
schools, Harvard College adopted the College Entrance Examination
Board as the major basis for admission in 1905.
Other leading universities quickly followed suit. So for a few
years anyone with a high enough score - and a big enough bank
account - could get in. But the result, to the chagrin of America's
WASP gentry, was a steep spike in Jewish students.
By 1908, the fraction of Jewish students in Harvard's freshman
class had jumped from almost nil to 7 percent; a decade later, it
rose to 20 percent. At Yale, meanwhile, an admissions officer
complained that the roster of new students "might easily be mistaken
for a recent roll call at the Wailing Wall."
To elite university officials, this development threatened
nothing less than the destruction of the elite university itself.
"The summer hotel that is ruined by admitting Jews meets its fate
because they drive away the Gentiles," Harvard president A. Lawrence
Lowell warned, "and then after the Gentiles have left, they leave