In most countries, college admissions is a simple procedure. You fill out a form, check the colleges you’re applying to, take a standardized test, and have your high school send your grades to the college board. If your grades and test scores are good enough, you’re in, even at the best colleges. Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker describes the origin of the comparatively arcane and subjective admissions process used by elite American colleges.

In 1905, Harvard College adopted the College Entrance Examination Board tests as the principal basis for admission, which meant that virtually any academically gifted high-school senior who could afford a private college had a straightforward shot at attending…

The enrollment of Jews began to rise dramatically. By 1922, they made up more than a fifth of Harvard’s freshman class. The administration and alumni were up in arms. Jews were thought to be sickly and grasping, grade-grubbing and insular. They displaced the sons of wealthy Wasp alumni, which did not bode well for fund-raising. A. Lawrence Lowell, Harvard’s president in the nineteen-twenties, stated flatly that too many Jews would destroy the school: “The summer hotel that is ruined by admitting Jews meets its fate … because they drive away the Gentiles, and then after the Gentiles have left, they leave also.”

The solution? Emphasize personality, appearance, and social acceptability over merit. Replace the simple entrance test with a confusing mix of subjective evaluations including “leadership”, “character,” “religious preference,” “race,” and “birthplace of father”. As Gladwell describes, particularly great importance was given to prep-school graduates (“There was one docket for Exeter and Andover, another for the eight Rocky Mountain states”), recruited athletes, and children of alumni.

These groups were most socially acceptable, and also most likely to maintain loyalty to the college, become rich, and donate generously after graduation. This snotty country-club selection process remains in place at all of the top US colleges, including our own.

Read the whole thing to find out more about Yale measuring the height of the incoming freshmen and noting with pride the proportion of the class at six feet or more, Harvard’s efforts to “detect homosexual tendencies and serious psychiatric problems”, and this question on the application form: “What change, if any, has been made since birth in your own name or that of your father? (Explain fully).” Gladwell’s last paragraph:

In the nineteen-eighties, when Harvard was accused of enforcing a secret quota on Asian admissions, its defense was that once you adjusted for the preferences given to the children of alumni and for the preferences given to athletes, Asians really weren’t being discriminated against. But you could sense Harvard’s exasperation that the issue was being raised at all. If Harvard had too many Asians, it wouldn’t be Harvard, just as Harvard wouldn’t be Harvard with too many Jews or pansies or parlor pinks or shy types or short people with big ears.

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