Our discussion about essays and Williams brought to mind this paragraph from the admissions department’s tell-too-much article in the Alumni Review.

Meanwhile, on paper, Jennifer Johnson’s* credentials meet or exceed Arun’s. She scored a perfect 1600 on the SAT and had another perfect score on one of her four achievement tests. But while she won regional honors for her school’s swim team, her extracurricular record is otherwise a little thin, and her essay leaves many of the reviewers cold. Most important, as the admission team weighs her application, one member offers this assessment: Despite her high grades and test scores, “I can’t discern any real intellectual spark.” The verdict: wait-list.

Brutal! Comments and screed below.

1) I would bet that Jennifer’s last name is something like Lee. I large percentage of the highest SAT scorers who are rejected from places like Williams are Asian (or Jewish).

2) “many” reviewers? Later in the article, we learn that only two admissions officers read each applicant’s full folder. It is highly unlikely that “many” reviewers read Johnson’s.

3) If we learned anything from Jen Doleac’s thesis it is that essays should not be a major part of the admissions process. She demonstrates, fairly convincingly that “the two indicators of writing ability — the writing attribute and the SAT II: Writing — should be largely disregarded.”

4) “real intellectual spark”?!? What gibberish! Is there any evidence that the admissions staff at Williams (or anywhere) can truly distinguish who has and who does not have a “real intellectual spark” without having even met the 17 year-old in question? No! Once we restrict ourselves to the Academic Rank 1 applicants, how could the Admissions Office possibly determine who has this spark? I guess that, theoretically, we might try to measure this spark-seeing ability. We could have each admissions officer identify 10 admitted students who had this spark and then see, 4 years later, which if any of those students demonstrated such a spark. (Although how one might determine, even after four years at Williams, who had the spark and who did not is an interesting question. See below.) But I am fairly certain that the Admissions Office does nothing like this, especially since not all of the staff have more than a few years experience at Williams.

5) Why did the admissions officer make this claim? Well, I would guess that Jennifer’s recommendation letters were, perhaps, not as effusive as others. I bet that she was a quiet student in class. Perhaps she didn’t speak up much. Perhaps she went to a public high school with larger class sizes. Jennifer’s essay was, presumably, not overly interesting. But is this a rational way of selecting a class? It is certainly a procedure which puts a great deal of power and discretion into the hands of individual admissions officers.

6) I (and most others) are very skeptical of the worth of College councilors. But if Williams is going to conclude that my daughter lacks intellectual spark because someone on the admissions committee doesn’t like her essay, well, I might be forced to spend a few bucks to have someone provide us with advice on that essay. Perhaps it is the case that the wait-listed Jennifer worked on her essay by herself. Perhaps another applicant, with no more of a “spark,” had some help with her essay (either family or professional) and now appears more sparkling to the admissions office. I could imagine that an experienced councilor might have a very good idea about what sort of essay would lead Williams to see such a spark in my daughter.

I don’t expect the Admissions Office to devote the time and resources to accurately determine who has and who does not have a “real intellectual spark.” That is hard, perhaps impossible, to do and would require, at a minimum, personal interviews. But, having made that cost benefit analysis, the Admissions Office has no business looking through an essay darkly to try and discern such a spark. Recommendation letters from expensive private schools will almost always do a better job of providing evidence of sparkiness than those from public high schools.

But, in this case, it is an empirical question! Although I do not think that the judgments of individual admissions officers are recorded, the dark discernments of the Admissions Office as a whole are available.

Other more subjective “tags” draw attention (usually but not always favorably) to something special about a candidate, like a powerful passion or aptitude for scientific research or an interest in getting a non-science Ph.D. Among the most significant of these is the “intellectual vitality” or “IVIT” code, which marks a candidate as having “extraordinary academic depth/talent” or being a “classroom catalyst who would have a significant impact in labs or class discussions,” according to the office’s written guidelines. With so many applicants with comparably impressive academic records, the attributes are often the tipping point.

It would be good to find out if this tipping point is being wisely used. There is a great senior thesis to be written here. Randomly select 50 professors and ask them for the names of any student in the class of 2005 “having ‘extraordinary academic depth/talent’ or being a ‘classroom catalyst who would have a significant impact in labs or class discussions.'” Create a matched sample of students with similar SAT scores, high school grades and Academic Ranks. If the Admissions Office is adding value on this dimension, we should see a higher percentage of the IVIT students in the professor-named sample than in the matched one.

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