College Admissions Hunger Games

Today the NY Times published an Upshot op-ed called “For Accomplished Students, Reaching a Good College Isn’t as Hard as It Seems“.  It’s one of those article that seems to say more than it does.  It doesn’t actually support the conclusion it asserts.  Saying that roughly the same percentage of “top students” still get admission to elite schools is almost self-evidently circular, and does nothing to dispute the notion that “college admissions has become a Hunger Games-like tournament”.  In the Hunger Games, the same number of winners happened each year — but the competition wasn’t always the same.  And what constitutes a “top student” could (and does!) vary from year to year without creating more of them.

Annie and I were discussing this and I mentioned that, way back when, a top student could reach an elite college without having cured a disease or built their own business.  And she commented that, while she’d be surprised to hear one of our students had cured a disease, she can easily believe a handful have begun their own businesses.  This simply wasn’t the case when I started teaching.  We didn’t expect entrepreneurs, or kids who played NFL-level football, or kids with 1000 hours of community service helping bring vision care to developing nations.

The only way to really prove the article’s thesis would be to take applications from the 1980s (or whenever) of people who were admitted to the elite colleges and submit them, blind, to the same colleges.  I rather expect that valedictorians of Exeter circa 1980 would have a hard time competing with the valedictorians of today — or even with students not quite the top.

I don’t disagree with one point the article raises, which is that the explosion of applications has made it look like college admissions is tougher.  We have kids who apply to 10, 12, even 20 colleges; when I applied, you were considered eccentric to apply to more than 6 or 7.  But even that has ramped up the competition.  The top kids are applying to all schools, not just the elites, and even though they’re unlikely to attend a Tier II, they force the kids applying to those schools to up their games.  Why?  Because they will take a slot at the Tier II, pushing a well-suited student to the wait list, hoping the top kid opts to go to a Tier I.

Seen from my side of it, it’s all an insane rat race fed by unrealistic expectations and raw naked fear.  But it has certainly seemed to demand more and more of the students, and I feel this article is too blithe about the costs being exacted.

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