Saturday, August 3, 2013

On Reading Applications. From the NYTimes.

I thought this might be of interest to the readers. As someone who has read a lot of major scholarship/fellowship applications, I too am sick of the "Here's how wonderful I am", "Here's how special I am," "Here's how hard my life has been," "Here's how I have blessed multitudes with my presence" essays. I drop any applications I consider unseemly and excessively boastful, however good the marks.

-Dr. BPD


Confessions of an Application Reader
Lifting the Veil on the Holistic Process at the University of California, Berkeley

A HIGHLY qualified student, with a 3.95 unweighted grade point average and 2300 on the SAT, was not among the top-ranked engineering applicants to the University of California, Berkeley. He had perfect 800s on his subject tests in math and chemistry, a score of 5 on five Advanced Placement exams, musical talent and, in one of two personal statements, had written a loving tribute to his parents, who had emigrated from India.

Now consider a second engineering applicant, a Mexican-American student with a moving, well-written essay but a 3.4 G.P.A. and SATs below 1800. His school offered no A.P. He competed in track when not at his after-school job, working the fields with his parents. His score? 2.5.

Both students were among “typical” applicants used as norms to train application readers like myself. And their different credentials yet remarkably close rankings illustrate the challenges, the ambiguities and the agenda of admissions at a major public research university in a post-affirmative-action world.



  1. One of the commenters said, "Trying to right the balance at the top of the educational ladder is the wrong approach. Only by offering equal education to every student starting with preschool can we truly have a fair admissions process for college applicants."

    If the admissions officers could get into time machines and see today's 18-year-old applicants as they were when they were 5-year-olds--and evaluate them based solely on what they saw in the five-year-old children--I bet they would admit roughly the same incoming class to Cal.

  2. It's byzantine and way too subjective for my taste, and I haven't seen any evidence that in the long run it leads to better decisions than more straightforward selection methods. There's also an implicit arrogance in assuming that an undergraduate going to Cal would have access to a better education than (say) at UCSD or UC Davis. It makes no difference for the typical UG (I'm familiar with all three schools, BTW).

    So here's a fantasy: California, Oregon, Washington and Nevada agree to select students by the Pacific Coast Abitur , a combination of consortium-uniform exams taken in the spring of the senior year and grades on academic subjects over the last two years of high school. Students submit a ranked list of up to 10 choices (major and school) in these states' public systems, and are offered admission based on the number of slots available and their combined Abitur score. Short and sweet and all academic. So everybody learns from an early age what's important.

    1. It would violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Disparate impact is de facto discrimination. Committees will be needed to go through the applicants and balance them demographically, and since they won't be able to use grades or exam scores or anything else that has a disparate impact, they will come up with an opaque, byzantine, subjective process.

      If California did this Berkeley and UCLA would be nearly entirely Asian.

    2. That's why I said it's a fantasy: I did mean moving away from the attempt to balance anything demographically. The schools in question (the three I mentioned earlier, throw in U Washington, UCSB, any you like) are academically equivalent--you can get an excellent UG education at any of them--so it's hard to see how anyone would suffer unduly. So maybe UCB and UCLA would be almost entirely Asian/Jewish. So what? An all-academic selection system would give every student, of any ethnicity (and their families) clear rules to live by starting in elementary school. Any deliberate "demographic equalization" should happen at the K-12 level.


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