Monday, March 28, 2011

Admissions on NPR

I was half awake this morning and heard this report on NPR about the admissions process at Amherst.

Did you hear it?

I couldn't help wondering about FERPA. Did they read real admissions letters? (If not, it's more like a movie of the week than a journalistic report.) (Maybe FERPA only covers enrolled students?)

Imagine being the student who said he was uninterested in anything except music. Now imagine hearing the response of the faculty to what he thought was a decent letter (surely he thought he was sounding different from the pack). Ugh.

I've heard (but only heard) that there are people out there who sell their services to help students write their essays and such. Then I imagined what a disadvantage it would have been to be the music guy who would never have written that letter with coaching.

And then I thought, ooo, what if his admissions coach (I just heard them use the word in the report) told him that would work for sure. Ouch.

This seems to me like more commentary that adds to the worries and stresses of the (mostly) very privileged few who even bother to apply to a place like Amherst. Those same students would get in immediately at a place like mine. They wouldn't get the hand-holding that I was required to give students when I worked at an SLAC, but they'd be here, and they'd probably do great and get a great education. (Face it, students who excelled in their high schools and had this sort of privilege will do fine wherever they go. They won't make the same Wall St connections here that they would at an east coast SLAC, but they'd get a good edudation.)

I wonder what sort of chilling effect these reports have on our sorts of students, who hear these sorts of reports (or not? maybe the NPR audience doesn't include many of our prospective students or their parents?). I wonder if the student with a perfectly respectable ACT/SAT score, with some good school activities in a regular school (where there just aren't three clubs for people with interests in different religions or AP courses for HS freshmen) hears these and despairs.

If you were the admissions folks at Amherst, why would you agree to give NPR access to that meeting? Are they going with "any publicity is good publicity"? Are they playing the "we're so selective!" game that everyone plays?

I guess it's time to be done with spring break and back to the office!


  1. Anonymous5:14 PM

    Not directly related, but I did not apply to Amherst because their essay prompt made me throw up a little.

    Let's see if I can remember it...

    Sartre said, "Hell is other people," but Barbara Streisand sang that, "People who need people are the luckiest people in the world." Which do you agree with and why?

  2. I heard the piece. It wasn't as interesting as the series that the NYT ran a few years ago about Wesleyan (but then, that was a multi-part newspaper story, not a 5-minute NPR story). I'm sure Amherst's lawyers were on top of any privacy laws involved; the students whose work was quoted weren't identified in any way.

    I think the benefit of stories like this is that they demystify the process by showing what it looks like from the other side, and where the applicant's control over the process ends. I like to think that might make it easier to take rejection, and it might make those who were accepted a little humbler. But then I'm temperamentally an optimist.

    I'm sure the student who was only interested in music got in somewhere; if he or she heard the piece, s/he might have squirmed, but that's not necessarily bad for her/him in the long run. I think it's also salutary for applicants to learn that there's an irreducible element of chance in the process.

  3. I happened to have a meeting with our Enrollment Management person today. He asked if I'd heard the story (I hadn't) and was clearly amazed at the care with which the elite privates review applications. But this is the elite privates, and anyone applying to our institution gets a much more cursory review, and even if your application is read by multiple people, there's no meeting where every applicant is scrutinized.

    The problem with stories like this is that they suggest that this is normal. Which, for most students, it's not.

  4. Anonymous6:20 AM

    I didn't hear the piece, but I'm going to go to the website to listen. On the FERPA question, the legal bigwigs at my university told me that until a student is admitted and enrolled, FERPA does not apply (the question came up for us in the context of whether or not it was OK for a grad student office assistant to have access to application materials to enter data into a spreadsheet).

  5. well, the piece also mentioned that students facing larger challenges have a bit of an advantage over students with similar records who didn't....

    everyone knows that competition for the more elite colleges and universities is fierce, and there aren't guarantees. i've heard of very well-qualified applicants being turned away from UCBerkeley [but accepted at another UC school] because of that competition.

    i applied to 3 colleges -- one a guaranteed in, one a stretch [where i was rejected], and the one i attended [just right]. but i hear of HS seniors now applying to 10 or more places. these are privileged kids who can afford to do that, but the push to more and more applications seems to stem from that competitiveness on the upper end.

    i hope that kid who loves music especially got into someplace like oberlin. or, anyplace where that passion would be valued.

    in the larger scheme -- my state is predicting that 10,000 students will be turned away from our public community colleges next year, due to budget cuts. that is horrifying.

  6. @NicoleandMaggie, Wow, now there's a horrifying prompt. Bleargh!

    @Brian, Good point, thanks. I'm not sure that they really de-mystify the process so much as make it feel less manageable? It seems at odds that the more elite schools really try to make it sound in most cases like their students are extra special super students compared to others, and that there there because it's a meritocratous system, and then the admissions folks seem to have to back-pedal on that.

    @Susan, Yep, I think our folks work the same way. If a student makes certain cutoffs, s/he is offered a place. If a student isn't qualified, s/he is turned down. And the ones who are qualified but not exceptional get serious discussions.

    @Anon, Thanks, that does clarify things.

    @Kathy a., I think things have changed a lot since I went to college. But I knew folks who were offered places at other UC schools with guaranteed transfers in Junior year if they had decent grades. I don't know if it works at all like it did then. (When I applied, you applied to a specific UC campus, but applied to the Cal State system as a whole, with a preferred campus.)

    Thanks for the discussion, all.