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Posted at 01:35 PM ET, 04/04/2012

Why getting into Harvard is no longer an honor


Malik Ahmad Jalal, of Rawalpindi, Pakistan, below right, celebrates with other Harvard University School of Government graduates during Harvard's 360th commencement exercises, on the school's campus, in Cambridge, Mass., Thursday, May 26, 2011. (Steven Senne - AP)
You may have seen that Harvard just set a record for low undergraduate admission rate. Only 5.9 percent of applicants for the class of 2016 were accepted. I was going to do one of my many rants on why we should wake up and see that being admitted to the Ivies and certain other schools is no more a sign of depth and brilliance than winning the Mega Millions lottery. I was going to point out that Harvard could admit a full class of its rejects that would be just as good as the students it accepted. But I already wrote a book about that, "Harvard Schmarvard." And yesterday I got an e-mail that says it better than I ever did.

So I offer this as a theme for this week's discussion. The writer declined to be identified other than as "Concerned Student." I usually don't print anonymous contributions, but I am making an exception in this case since he speaks well for his college age group. Tell us what you think.

By “Concerned Student”

It's a deeply rooted idea in today's academic culture that more qualifications equate with better chances. After all, who doesn't perceive the selection process as a judgment panel that deems one applicant, for want of a better word, superior to another? Call it a myth, a misconception, or whatever you like, but this belief is positively unshakable.

Perhaps a different approach is in order. It’s high time the public understands and embraces the notion that college admissions decisions aren’t based on better academic or extracurricular specifications any longer, if ever in the first place. Just as neither perfect SAT scores nor Nobel prizes guarantee a spot in the branches of the Ivies, it’s apparent that what we identify as top colleges seek attributes that are intangible, elusive, and quite plainly put, mysterious.

Take a friend of mine, for example. Despite the 14 Advanced Placement tests (11 top scores) and two consecutive placings in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair under his belt, he found no welcome at any of the eight Ivy League schools, and neither did his co-founded company aid him in clinching even a position on the wait-lists of several of their peers. His great weakness? He’s an Asian applying for financial aid. It’s easy to argue that one case alone does not justify a loss in faith in the college admissions process, but open the question up for discussion and there’s no doubt the resounding response will taste of misgivings flavored with skepticism. Taking a glance at the qualifications of despondent rejects is enough to convince anyone that surely not all who were accepted into eminent institutes performed better either in terms of academics or extracurriculars, or, for that matter, had more passion.

So, instead of rationalizing that the admissions decision is an objective verdict that evaluates one’s educational caliber and is not an assessment of character, and hence should not be taken personally, it would be more accurate to recognize that the admissions decision does no such thing. They’re not looking for the finest scholars or greatest leaders, and being the best won’t get you into the “best” universities. What they’re looking for is, well, whatever they’re looking for, and with over 4,000 colleges in the U.S. alone, it’s good to remember that we have almost as much bargaining power as they do.

By  |  01:35 PM ET, 04/04/2012

Categories:  Admissions 101 | Tags:  higher education, admissions 101

 
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