Why College Admissions Isn’t Perfect

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

Female student sitting on a podium

College admissions isn’t perfect. There are a lot of flaws when it comes to college admissions, in particular the somewhat vague and mystical standards of admission at the Ivy League and other comparable universities. As a high school student, you’re placed into a system where you have to go above and beyond what is considered the standard requirements for admissions to gain acceptance.

At Oxford, Cambridge, and top universities in Asia, this is less so. You take a national exam (or series of exams), and if you fall within a certain score, then you will more or less get into a particular school based on a sliding scale. Admissions is clear cut, highly objective, and standardized. But in the US, that’s not the case – in fact, far from it.

A woman is smiling while wearing headphones and watching on her laptop.

The way admissions in America works is deeply flawed and does not rely 100% on merit. If that were the case, then create a very difficult exam that could separate the best from the bright from the average. Instead, there is an exam called the SAT where competitive high school students are all getting above 1500+ and it’s very difficult to differentiate one high school student from another.

So you’re forced to take advantage of all these outside opportunities and competitions that aren’t standard barometers for admission. We think this is unfair for high school students who have never heard of these competitions or programs, but it is the way it is.

Getting top SAT scores, GPA, and AP exams by no means guarantees or promises anything – and in fact, sometimes you’re expected to go above and beyond to have a shot at the very top universities.

The standardized methods of admission – SAT, AP Exams, and SAT Subject Tests – are in theory supposed to be normalized barometers of admission. However, given the current state of the art, we’ve found that these exams are simply too easy when tens of thousands of students are getting perfect scores on these exams such that it is impossible to differentiate one student from another.

The next tier of exams then comes to competing in academic competitions and extracurriculars outside of the classroom, such as Math/Science Olympiads, national speech and debate competitions, and research competitions  to showcase your sense of academic prowess. But this isn’t standardized because it’s not required by the students – and also the students would need to go out of their way to find out about these competitions.

But how do you expect a high school student who’s approaching this for the first time to be aware of all these opportunities if they’re not stated explicitly as requirements or standards of admission? Granted, the lucky few who are aware of these outside opportunities (such as math/science Olympiads, competitive research programs, extracurricular activities, etc.) start preparing as early as middle school. But those from a less fortunate and lower socioeconomic background aren’t aware of these opportunities, but they’re still (more or less) held to similar standards for admission.

So what the US needs to do is standardize the requirements for admission so that everyone has an equal opportunity. The SAT, SAT Subject Tests, and AP Exams more or less accomplish this, but not if so many students are getting perfect scores to such extent where the value of these exams become almost meaningless when it comes to admission to the top universities like HYPSM.

Perhaps we should have a second battery of exams for the very top students and make those standardized or required so that the standards for admission more objective. What we suggest is perhaps make the SAT/AP/SAT Subject Tests more difficult, or perhaps create a new set of exams so that we could separate the best from the very brightest.

Two women talking while laughing.

India’s IIT exams work better for this because very few students actually ace that exam, and rather, they are a better standardized method of differentiating students across all levels. Add to this the importance of the personal statement when it comes to getting in – you could have the top grades and awards but if you don’t reflect your personality through the essay you are still equally at a disadvantage. So it’s important to leverage all these factors to maximize your odds of acceptance.

What we end up with, however, is a system where assuming you have the top test scores, grades, and extracurriculars, your ultimate admission depends on the application and personal statement you package together.

So admissions to the Ivy League becomes a borderline essay writing contest where the top students are accepted based on the quality of their personal experiences expressed through the essays. Ideally, there should be a meritocratic system where the process of admission is transparent and fair. As in, different ways to judge an applicant (including tests and scores), but also a more justified system to determine one’s “personality attributes.”

Because it isn’t quite clear what exactly that means, and the incredible amount of bias that takes place behind the psyche of the admissions officer who is determining the fate of the students.

A big point of contention was Harvard’s determination of the personality score for many Asian American students. What on earth does that mean? We have an idea: it means writing a personal statement that reflects Western values. But at the same time it isn’t fair for students who don’t work with a college admissions consultant like myself to perfect their application.

There are many people who aren’t “intelligent” and who are admitted to top institutions, such as the Ivy League or MIT.

This happens because of the holistic process of admissions – the USA doesn’t place emphasis merely on academic attributes, but also extracurricular involvement and especially the application and the essays. And I’m perfectly fine with that methodology with the exception that it isn’t entirely meritocratic. In fact, far from it.

The problem with the admissions process it that it is fundamentally flawed. There isn’t a clear cut reason why an applicant was admitted or rejected, and especially not based on merit.

A personal statement or essay that showcases enough personality, often Western attributes and characteristics portrayed by the media, has a higher shot at getting in than one that doesn’t. And we can certainly attest to this because we’ve helped an extraordinary number of students get into the Ivy League by playing these cards.

A candidate that looks “too Asian,” “another math/science geek,” or “zero personality” is going to get shut down in the admissions process. And who’s to say some of these kids have zero personality? Yet some of these applicants whom we’ve worked with and know quite well have leadership abilities to contribute to society. Who’s to say that Harvard can rate an applicant lower on the personality score simply because the applicant isn’t Western enough?

This process espouses a process that isn’t fair, caters toward Western culture and ideology, while at the same these universities preach they aspire diversity. The process is flawed, and needs to be fixed. So if your friend was admitted and isn’t as intelligent as you thought, blame the current admissions process.

There needs to be a transparent, quantitative as well as qualitative, and more rigorous process for why a candidate is admitted or not. Because the fact that there are simply a limited number of spots while incredibly qualified candidates get rejected year after year (while we can certainly tell you less qualified candidates were admitted) simply doesn’t make sense.

And on the flipside, there are students who have weaker scores and grades who get in every year. At any top 10 or so school, roughly 50% of the class has 4.0’s or higher, 30% with 3.7-3.99, and 20% with GPA’s significantly lower than 3.7. So how do the students with GPA’s lower than 3.7 get in? Certainly, athletes, URM’s, and legacies definitely play a factor, but 20% is still a significant portion of the student body.

Again, it comes down to the personal “unique” experiences and qualities expressed through the essays. It’s not a perfect process, and certainly not a fair one. It’s as if the admissions committee were to judge your character and personality through a 650 word typed personal statement and supplemental essays – a far from a perfect process – without truly getting to know who you are. But ultimately, you have to play the hand you’re dealt.  


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