(This is in response to David’s post: The Parable of the Privilege Pill.) tl;dr: holistic admissions are necessary to admit the students most likely to academically succeed at Williams.

Imagine that there are two applicants from comparable schools with 3.8 GPAs and 1500 SATs. The question you’ll have to answer, at the end of this post, is whether you think that they are likely to perform similarly academically at Williams (a limited version of what it might mean for a student to be ‘successful’).

Applicant A.

Applicant A has parents who sit with her every night and make sure she does her homework.  Applicant A’s parents don’t ever discuss her homework with her or help her; they just make sure that she does the work.  The several occasions that Applicant B’s parents leave town, Applicant B does none of her work (but her teachers still make a one-time exception and allow her to complete the work late with no penalty).  As a consequence, Applicant A turns in 100% of her assignments, averaging 90%, which results in her getting mostly As but a handful of Bs.

When Applicant A took the SAT, she first took a practice test a year before, scoring 1200.  Her parents paid for her to have an SAT tutor, who, like many SAT tutors, spent the year teaching exclusively test-taking strategies.  By the end of the year, Applicant A didn’t know any more math or reading, but she was much better at taking the SAT — and scored a 1500.

Applicant B.

Applicant B’s parents each work two jobs, so they are not around most nights (or are exhausted when they are home).  Moreover, Applicant B has to work on and off through high school to help her family make their bills.  As a consequence, Applicant B sometimes misses assignments; she forgets, is tired, or simply doesn’t have the time.  Throughout high school, Applicant B turns in 90% of her work — but her work is always perfect, averaging 100%.  This results in her getting mostly As but also a handful of Bs.

When Applicant B took the SAT, it was the second time she had ever seen any part of the test (her 11th Grade English teacher spent a 50-minute class giving and discussing one reading comprehension section earlier in the year).  Applicant B doesn’t really know that people study for the test; most people in her high school and community don’t go to elite colleges, so there isn’t much discussion of it among her friends and family — and what little she hears is about how this is an aptitude test.  Taking the test effectively ‘blind,’ Applicant B fails to budget her time well, and leaves the last five questions on a math section blank despite being an excellent math student.  Nevertheless, she scores 1500.

The Question:

Who would you admit?

This isn’t a trick question and the answer isn’t particularly difficult: Applicant B clearly has more aptitude — and there’s little indication that she has any less work ethic (and some reasons to believe that she could have a great deal more).  These two applicants look identical based on their numbers, but Applicant A’s privilege renders her numbers misrepresentative vis-a-vis Applicant B, and to a fairly significant degree.

The More Difficult Question:

The more difficult question comes when considering Applicant A versus an Applicant C, who has a similar story to Applicant B but ends up with a 3.6 GPA and 1350 SATs (maybe because Applicant C’s 90% homework completion rate is distributed in such a way that she’s averaging 80% or 100% — and maybe also because she misbudgets her SAT time more badly, spending time triple-checking answers she knows).  The apparent SAT difference between Applicant A and Applicant C — 150 points — is large.  But Applicant A’s raw SAT aptitude is 1200 whereas Applicant C’s is 1350, implying that Applicant C may actually have significantly (150 points!) more SAT-measured aptitude.  Moreover, the apparent GPA difference between Applicant A and Applicant C — 0.2 — is large for these purposes.  But Applicant C actually performs significantly better (100% vs 90%) on each of her assignments.  And their difference in homework completion rate (90% vs. 100%) appears due far more to their respective home situations than it is to any sort of work ethic.  There is little reason to believe that, in the cushy environment of Williams (outside the reach of constant parental influence), Applicant C won’t turn in as much or more of her homework.  And there is good reason to believe that Applicant C will do better on what work she turns in, despite her significantly lower GPA and SAT.

The Real World:

Note: Applicant A is not wildly privileged.  There are many, many applicants to Williams who look roughly like Applicant A.  There are also many, many applicants to Williams who benefit far more from privilege than Applicant A does (many will get tutors, for example, who often just do the student’s homework for them).

Also note: Applicants B and C are not particularly underprivileged.  There are many applicants to Williams who look roughly like Applicants B and C.  There are also many applicants to Williams who have to overcome a lot more.

The simple point I’m trying to make here is that privilege is real, and that privilege regularly has a significant impact on GPAs and SAT scores in ways that have no bearing on a student’s aptitude (/ likelihood of academic success while at Williams).  For Williams to admit the class with the most academic aptitude–a goal that David espouses but I am not necessarily endorsing–Williams cannot simply look to the GPAs and SATs of its applicants.

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