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How to Write a Chance Request at College Confidential

A regular part of the conversation at the Williams board on College Confidential is a “chance” request. A high school student wants the community to provide feedback on her chances of being admitted to Williams. Unfortunately, many of these students are uninformed about the reality of elite college admissions so they don’t provide us with the necessary information to “chance” them correctly. (They also generally provide a mass of irrelevant data.) To make the world a better place, here is EphBlog’s Guide to How to Write a Chance Request for Williams. (The same advice applies to most elite colleges. Please read How Admissions Works at Williams.)

First, estimate your Academic Rating and provide the key evidence behind that estimate. (Background information here and here.) Tell us your Math/Reading SAT scores (and/or ACT), your subject test scores and AP scores. Just tell us what you will be submitting to Williams. We don’t care how many times you took these exams or about the details of your Super Scoring efforts.

We also don’t need to know about the details of your academic program. Just provide an honest estimate of your Academic Rating and some background on your high school. (Telling us the name of your high school can be useful, but is not necessary.) We don’t care about your exact GPA. (If you did not take the hardest classes that your high school offers, admit that to us.) The best clue about the quality of your high school record can be found in the quality of schools that similarly ranked students have attended in past years, so tell us that. Even if your high school does not officially rank students, you must have a rough sense of where you stand (#2, top 5, top 10%, whatever). Tell us where the students at about your rank in the previous year’s class went to college.

The Academic Rating is the most important part of the process, so focus your words on that topic.

If all you do is just a big copy/paste of all sorts of blather (recent examples here and here) — the exact same 1,000 words that you might paste into other discussion boards, don’t be surprised if the only feedback you get is generic.

Second, cut out all the other cruft. We don’t care (because Williams doesn’t care) about all your clubs, activities, volunteer work, et cetera. Despite what your high school and/or parents may have told you, such trivia plays a de minimus role in elite college admissions. For example, your sports resume is irrelevant unless you are being recruited by a Williams coach and, if you are, they will tell you what your chances are.

Third, tell us your nationality. Williams has a quota against international applicants.

Fourth, tell us your race, or at least the relevant boxes that you will check on the Common Application. (See here and here for related discussion.) Checking the African-American box gives you a significant advantage in admissions, as does checking Hispanic, but less so. Checking the Asian box hurts your chances at Ivy League schools. There is a debate over whether Williams also discriminates against Asian-American applicants. It is also unclear whether or not checking two boxes or declining to check any box matters. So, for example, if you have one white and one African-American parent, you are much better off checking only the African-American box.

Fifth, tell us about your family income and parents background. Williams, like all elite schools, discriminates in favor of the very poor (family income below $50,000) and very wealthy (able to donate a million dollars). There is some debate over the exact dollar figures at both ends. Might Williams favor applicants whose families make us much as $75,000? Sure! Might Williams be swayed by a donation in the six figures? Maybe! Tell us whatever other details might be relevant. For example, Williams cares about socio-economic status more broadly than just income, so having parents that did not graduate from a 4 year college can be helpful. Among rich families, Williams prefers those who have already donated to Williams and/or have a history of supporting higher education.

The College loves to brag about two categories of students: Pell Grant recipients and “first generation” students, defined as those for whom neither parent has a four year BA and who require financial aid. If you can show the College evidence that you (will) belong in either category, your chances improve.

Summary: Almost all of elite college admissions is driven by Academic Rating, albeit subject to three broad exceptions: athletics, race and income. In order to provide you with an accurate chance, we need the details concerning these areas. Don’t bother us with all the other stuff.

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Asian-American Admissions

From abl, someone I think worked in admissions at Williams 10 years ago:

At least a decade ago, Williams did not have any sort of quotas for Asian-American applicants of which I was aware, nor did Williams actively discriminate against these candidates. I can’t imagine that’s changed. That said, I think there are number of admission biases that, probably unintentionally, favor wealthier white applicants — and, in the process, disfavor other demographic groups, including (but not limited to) Asian-American applicants. These biases are more cultural and are not racial, but I suspect that they account for the disproportionately poor outcomes for Asian American applicants at most elite schools.

Another interesting point along these lines: Williams is somewhat different from most of its peers, in that for a complicated number of reasons (including its location, size, culture, and reputation), Williams’ Asian-American yield relatively lags (or at least it did a decade ago). As such, even if the Williams admission process was not culturally biased, we should not expect to see the explosion of Asian-American matriculants that might present at a place like Harvard.

I have no reason to doubt abl’s testimony. Indeed, my preferred simile is that Asian-American admissions to elite schools today is like Jewish American admissions a century ago: significant quotas at places like Harvard but no discrimination at Williams.

However, just because a story is flattering does not mean that it is true. Does Williams really not discriminate against Asian-Americans today? And, if it doesn’t, how long can that happy state of affairs continue, the math being what it is. If Asian-Americans are 6 times more numerous than African-Americans/Hispanics in the upper reaches of high school academic achievement (and they are), how long before Williams needs to start discriminating to avoid imbalance?

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de facto Spokesperson, 3

Excellent, albeit naive, Record article by Arrington Luck ’22 about Michael Wang‘s ’17 role in the debate over discrimination against Asian-Americans in elite college admissions. Day 3 of 3.

The New Yorker article concludes with:

When [Michael] Wang [’17] and I finished lunch, we returned to his office. We stopped to get bubble tea. As we waited, I asked him about the purple button-up shirt he was wearing—wasn’t that the color of Williams? He smiled, and began rhapsodizing about his time at the college: Thanksgiving dinner with his professors; making Asian food with friends; his twenty-first birthday, when a professor took him out to a bar. He started to talk faster, and the rote stiffness with which he’d recounted his complaint suddenly melted away. “The education I got at Williams was incomparable to what I would get at Harvard,” he said. “I still would have gone to Williams, even if I had gotten into those other schools, now that I’ve been at Williams.”

Good stuff! Record reporter Arrington Luck might get the details behind these stories, especially the professors who had such an impact on Wang. Tell us their names! Interview them about their students, especially those who were rejected by places like Harvard.

EphBlog believes that at least half the students accepted to both Harvard and Williams would be better off at Williams.

The night before Wang’s graduation, he and his friends stayed up late talking about the past few years, cherishing a few more hours together. He had spent all day packing up his room. The next morning, he and his friends listened as the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie delivered the commencement address. “Her message was, you know, when you go out into the world, do things that you won’t regret,” Wang said. “You’ve been given the tools to make an impact and change the world for the better. Go out there and do it.” He thought, Wow, that’s what I want to do. ♦

EphBlog’s advice: Do not go to law school.

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de facto Spokesperson, 2

Excellent, albeit naive, Record article by Arrington Luck ’22 about Michael Wang‘s ’17 role in the debate over discrimination against Asian-Americans in elite college admissions. Day 2 of 3.

Luck described Wang’s high school record as “stellar, boasting a perfect ACT score, a 4.67 GPA . . . ” Business Insider went with:

Wang’s credentials are impressive. Academically, he was ranked second overall in his class and graduated with a 4.67 weighted grade point average. He scored a 2230 on his SAT, placing him in the 99th percentile of students who took the exam. . . . Wang still feels as if he was unfairly rejected from the Ivies.

“I think I deserve better than what I got,” he said.

No, you didn’t.

1) Perfect (i.e., 36) scores on the ACT are common. One of the big problems with the ACT is how “coarse” the grading system is. A 36 corresponds to anywhere from 1520 to 1600 on the SAT (math + verbal).

2) We do not know what the breakdown is on Wang’s SAT. The Writing score was, by far, the least important, which is why it has been discontinued. If we just divided the 2230 total by 3, we get an average score of 743, which equated to 1480 or 1490 on the math+ verbal. Although those scores are above average for Williams, they are nothing more than average at Harvard.

3) Wang went to James Logan, a not very good California school. He may have graduated as the #2 student in his class, but what matters is your ranking at the time of college applications. I believe he was ranked 4th or 5th then. Either way, this case highlights that resume items like GPA and class rank are meaningless without the context of school quality. Being the #4 student at Stuyvesant or Boston Latin or Andover is deeply impressive. Such a ranking, plus good test scores, gets you into Harvard. But being #4 at an average (below average?) high school is little to brag about. Places like Harvard (and Williams) regularly turn down the valedictorians from such schools.

Summary: I waited till after Wang graduated to write about him even though he has been in the news for years because I was embarrassed for him. His high school record would probably result in rejection from Harvard even if he were white.

There are rejected-from-Harvard Asian-Americans, many of them at Williams (several of them Michael’s friends and roommates!), who have a legitimate beef with the current system. They probably would have been accepted at Harvard were they white, and definitely if there were African-American or Hispanic. But Michael Wang ’17 is not one of them, which may help to explain why he is only an “informal” spokesperson for SFFA.

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de facto Spokesperson, 1

Excellent, albeit naive, Record article by Arrington Luck ’22 about Michael Wang‘s ’17 role in the debate over discrimination against Asian-Americans in elite college admissions. Day 1 of 3.

1) I no longer trust the Record to maintain an accurate on-line presence so, going forward, I will always save a copy of each story I discuss below the break.

2) Luck begins with:

On Monday, a trial regarding anti-Asian discrimination at Harvard was brought to the United States District Court in Boston. The plaintiffs, along with the Department of Justice (DOJ), allege that Harvard’s admissions practices intentionally discriminate on the basis of race. Filed by the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), the lawsuit is expected to last approximately three weeks and have consequential outcomes potentially impacting affirmative action policies. Michael Wang ’17, a graduate of the College and an informal spokesperson of the SFFA, alleges discrimination by numerous other colleges to which he applied but was rejected.

This is a good summary of where we are at. Glad to see that the Record is attracting reporters with potential, like Luck. But the first warning sign is “informal spokesperson.” Just what does that mean? SFFA is a serious organization, spending millions of dollars over a decade of activity, with plans on spending many millions more. SFFA has an official spokesman. They hardly need an “informal” one as well. And just how does Luck know that Wang has this role? Did he check with anyone at SFFA? Should he?

3) Luck continues with:

Michael Wang ’17 was unsure about what he could’ve done better after rejections from Yale, Princeton and Stanford. His high school resume was stellar, boasting a perfect ACT score, a 4.67 GPA, a founding role in his high school’s math club and a piano performance at President Obama’s inauguration, according to The New Yorker.

Hmmm. He played piano at Obama’s inauguration? That would be impressive! But let’s just cross-check that claim with the New Yorker article.

In 2012, Michael Wang, a senior at James Logan High School, in the Bay Area, was confident that he had done enough to get into one of his dream schools: Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton. He had the kind of G.P.A.—4.67—that looks like a typo to anyone older than thirty-five. He had aced the ACT and placed in the ninety-ninth percentile on the SAT. But Wang didn’t want to be seen merely as a bookworm—he was an accomplished member of the speech-and-debate team, and he had co-founded his school’s math club. He played the piano and performed in a choir that sang with the San Francisco Opera, and at Barack Obama’s first Inauguration.

Now I am confused. Obama’s first inauguration was in 2009. Wang was 13 or 14. And he was good enough to play piano for Obama!? Anyone else starting to smell the embellishment? Or should there really be a comma after piano in the New Yorker article? And just how does one sing “with the San Francisco Opera?”

As best I can tell (disagreements welcome!) what really happened (YouTube here and here (with, perhaps, a shot of the young Wang)) is that Wang was a member of the San Fransisco Boy’s Chorus which, along with the San Fransisco Girl’s Chorus, was invited to sing at the inauguration. Good stuff! But he was just one of 75 children to do so, nothing that Williams (or Harvard) would ever care about in the context of college admissions.

But do you see how far away from the truth Luck is? Wang did not play “a piano performance at President Obama’s inauguration.” Will the Record print a correction?

Read more

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Harvard Admissions Trial, 5

See The Wall Street Journal for background on the Harvard admissions trial which starts this week. Best commentary is from Razib Khan at Gene Expression. Should we provide daily coverage, connecting news from the courtroom to EphBlog’s coverage of admissions issues at Williams over the last 15 years? In the meantime, let’s spend this week reviewing some of aspects of the debate. Day 5.

The Harvard Crimson‘s coverage of the trial has been excellent. My favorite article so far:

Getting into Harvard is hard. But it’s a lot less hard if your family promises to pay for a new building, according to internal emails presented in court on the third day of the Harvard admissions trial.

Same for Williams. You really think that applicants named Hollander or Horn are treated the same as everyone else? Ha! My best guess — and I don’t have good information on this one — is that between 5 and 20 of the students in each Williams class would not have been admitted were it not for their families being major donors, or potential donors. Other estimates? abl?

The handful of emails — most of them sent between administrators and admissions officers — hint at the College’s behind-the-scenes fondness for applicants whose admission yields certain practical perks. Hughes referenced the emails as he quizzed Fitzsimmons on the “Dean’s Interest List,” a special and confidential list of applicants Harvard compiles every admissions cycle.

1) Never put something in an e-mail that you wouldn’t want to be read out loud by your worst enemy in open court.

2) At Williams, the lingo is “development or future fundraising potential,” although, back in the day, folks in the admissions office used to refer to a rich-but-not-very-qualified applicant as a “Morty Special.”

“Once again you have done wonders. I am simply thrilled about the folks you were able to admit,” Ellwood wrote in the email. “[Redacted] and [redacted] are all big wins. [Redacted] has already committed to a building.”

If you don’t think that there are similar e-mails floating around the Williams computer system, you are naive. Helpful advice to new General Counsel Jamie Art: Time for some spring cleaning before Williams gets involved in this sort of litigation.

Yet another email Hughes read aloud Wednesday offered a window into how Harvard courts candidates whose families have deep ties to the University — and even deeper pockets.

After the family of an unidentified applicant donated $1.1 million to the school, former head tennis coach David R. Fish ’72 treated that candidate to a special tour of campus.

Who remembers this fun discussion from EphBlog 13 years ago?

For Sam Dreeben ’06, the July 12 campus tour was already unusual. With a tour group of undercover College dignitaries — President Schapiro and the Schow family — and unsuspecting prospective students, his job as a guide was to make Williams seem an idyllic mountain paradise of academic excellence.

Which, of course, it is. But big donors make the paradise possible, so take care of them we must.

Read the rest of the Crimson‘s coverage for more fun details.

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Harvard Admissions Trial, 4

See The Wall Street Journal for background on the Harvard admissions trial which starts this week. Best commentary is from Razib Khan at Gene Expression. Should we provide daily coverage, connecting news from the courtroom to EphBlog’s coverage of admissions issues at Williams over the last 15 years? In the meantime, let’s spend this week reviewing some of aspects of the debate. Day 4.

Yesterday, I wrote (slight edit):

If admitted students in a category, like legacies, have similar academic qualifications than other students in the class then, almost by definition, they did not received a large advantage in admissions.

This seems obvious to me. Now, a nihilist might disagree, might claim that the “holistic” admissions that Harvard and Williams practice make it impossible to compare categories. The galaxy brain of Admissions Director Sulgi Kim ’06 is a multi-splendored emerald of infinite complexity. Mere mortals can no more discern its inner workings than dogs can interpret the movements of the heavenly spheres. I think this position is nuts — and both sides of the Harvard case disagree with it, hence all the regression modelling and expert testimony — but it is logically consistent.

abl, one of EphBlog’s best writers, disagrees with me about legacies:

That’s not true. If literally every legacy applicant was an AR1 and AR2, and legacies were guaranteed admission, you would simultaneously see (1) that legacies have, on average, higher academic credentials than the average student (because the average student at Williams is not an AR1 / AR2); (2) that legacies received a large boost in admissions (because a 100% acceptance rate would represent a very significant advantage for AR1 and AR2 applicants).

[A]ny proportionate (or disproportionately high) number of legacy high performers in the class does not imply that legacy applicants are given no meaningful advantage in the process.

abl continues:

My point is that, without inside knowledge of the process, or without very good knowledge of the applicant pool and relative admit rates, it’s difficult to look at the class of admitted students and draw these sorts of inferences about the advantage of applying as a legacy student.

This is dangerously close to the Sulgi Kim Inestimable Galaxy Brain view of admissions. I have (almost) no “inside knowledge” of the process and not “very good knowledge” of the applicant pool. Almost all my information comes from public statements by college officials. Are you claiming that I can’t know — without inside knowledge — that Williams provides significant advantages to recruited athletes and African-Americans? And, if you agree that I can make those judgments, just what is stopping me from making a judgment, using the same tools and analysis, about the lack of advantages given to legacy applicants?

abl is certainly correct (and he uses a similar example later in his excellent comment) that weird stuff might be happening behind the scenes. There are 55 legacies in the class of 2021. Perhaps 35 are AR1 geniuses, applicants who were also accepted at HYPS but turned them down to come to Williams. The other 20 are AR4 chuckleheads, who never would have gotten in if it were not for their legacy status. This scenario would create a group (55 legacies) with similar academic credentials to the class as a whole, but it would still be the case that 20 of them received a “meaningful” admissions advantage (and 35 did not).

I agree that this is possible, but it also strikes me as highly unlikely. The world is a continuous place.

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Harvard Admissions Trial, 3

See The Wall Street Journal for background on the Harvard admissions trial which starts this week. Best commentary is from Razib Khan at Gene Expression. Should we provide daily coverage, connecting news from the courtroom to EphBlog’s coverage of admissions issues at Williams over the last 15 years? In the meantime, let’s spend this week reviewing some of aspects of the debate. Day 3.

In the last two days, we have established two key facts about legacy students at places like Williams and (?) Harvard. First, legacies — meaning the children and grandchildren of graduates — are about 10% to 20% of each class. Second, legacies as a whole have more impressive academic credentials — meaning test scores and high school grades — than non-legacies.

Is legacy versus non-legacy an apples-to-apples comparison? Probably not. Legacies are whiter, richer and less athletic than the class as a whole. Since all those things make it harder to gain admissions, we really ought to compare legacy students to a “matched” group of non-legacy students, a group with the same distribution of characteristics like race, family income and athletic ability. That would help us to determine if legacies get an advantage or not.

Note that the argument can also go the other way. Consider the case of “development” admits, students who would not have gotten in if their families were not major donors, or at least potential donors. Such admissions are much more likely to be legacy students. But they aren’t getting accepted because of their legacy status. It is their families wealth that is getting them in. They still would have gotten in, regardless of where their parents went to college. Without the family wealth, however, they would have been rejected.

The expert testimony in the Harvard trial tries to tease apart these effects using a regression analysis. We can dive into the details, if anyone is interested.

For me, the key point is the following: Any category of applicants which receives a meaningful advantage in admissions — recruited athletes, racial minorities, billionaire families — will have lower academic qualifications than the class as a whole. If a category, like legacies, has similar academic qualifications than, almost by definition, they did not received a large advantage in admissions.

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Harvard Admissions Trial, 2

See The Wall Street Journal for background on the Harvard admissions trial which starts this week. Best commentary is from Razib Khan at Gene Expression. Should we provide daily coverage, connecting news from the courtroom to EphBlog’s coverage of admissions issues at Williams over the last 15 years? In the meantime, let’s spend this week reviewing some of aspects of the debate. Day 2.

Yesterday, we confirmed that 10% to 20% of each class at elite colleges like Harvard and Williams are “legacy,” meaning students with a parent (or sometimes just a grandparent) who attended the college. Today, we review how much being a legacy affects one’s chances at admissions.

The brute fact is that the average Williams legacy is more academically impressive — higher SAT/ACT scores, better high school grades, more impressive teacher recommendations, et cetera — than the average non-legacy. Whatever advantages legacies have in the admissions process is de minimus. The same is almost certainly true at places like Harvard. Razib is wrong when he writes:

I think the current lawsuit may win on the merits, but the “Deep Oligarchy” is more powerful than the judiciary or the executive branch. If, on the other hand, Harvard gets rid of legacies and special backdoor admissions, I’ll admit I was wrong, and the chosen have lost control of the system. As long as legacies and backdoor admissions continue, you know that the eyes are on the prize of power and glory.

Harvard and Williams have, already, gotten “rid of legacies” in terms of this being something that matters significantly in admissions. Let’s review the story at Williams.

1) Back in the 1980s and before, legacy was a significant advantage in admissions, partly because there were so few high quality legacy applicants. These were the children of the 50s graduates, an era when lots of not-too-smart men attended Williams.

2) Things began to change in the 90s and 00s. First, the raw number of alumni grew significantly. (Williams doubled in size, mainly as a result of the move to co-education.) The pool of legacies doubled in size as well. Second, the academic quality of the students was much higher in the 60s and 70s, which led to smarter children. Rising numbers and quality of legacy applicants meant that Williams could become more choosy. And so we did. From 2008:

Morty [then-President of Williams] noted that a decade or so ago [or perhaps when he arrived?], the average legacy was a 3.3 on the 1-9 scale of academic ranks while the average non-legacy was 2.3. Morty did not seem to be a huge fan of this gap, or of giving legacies such a preference. He then noted that the latest statistics show that legacy and non-legacy are now equivalent (both at 2.3). Morty confirmed, consistent with all the analysis I have done, that being a legacy is not a meaningful advantage in getting into Williams. Morty noted that the way that some people measure this — by comparing the general admissions rate (16%) with the legacy admission rate (40%?) — was misleading because legacy applicants are often told ahead of time that they have no chance. So, they don’t apply and/or withdraw their applications, thus artificially increasing the legacy acceptance rate. Non-legacies with no chance are not given this inside scoop. They just apply and get rejected.

3) All those trends have continued to this day. From 2017:

I [Director of Communication Mary Detloff] had a conversation with [Director of Admissions] Dick Nesbitt about this, and he says it has long been our policy not to release academic standing information for specific subgroups of students. That said, he also shared that for at least the last 20 years, the legacy students have had equal, if not marginally stronger, SAT scores and Academic Rating when compared to the rest of their classmates.

4) I have had off-the-record conversations which suggest that, for the class of 2021, the 10% of students who are legacy have meaningfully stronger academic credentials than the 90% who are not legacy. This is precisely what the trend over the last 30 years would have led us to expect. Williams classes in the late 1980s were filled with smart people. Although I can’t find fecundity data, I bet that there are at least 500 (or more like 1,000?) 18-year-olds each year who are Eph legacies. Regression to the mean is brutal, but it only occurs on average. It is hardly surprising of 50 to 100 of those children would be as smart (or smarter) than their parents. Williams won’t get all of these, of course, but it will have scores of great applicants to choose from. (And the exact same math applies at Harvard.)

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Harvard Admissions Trial, 1

See The Wall Street Journal for background on the Harvard admissions trial which starts this week. Best commentary is from Razib Khan at Gene Expression. Should we provide daily coverage, connecting news from the courtroom to EphBlog’s coverage of admissions issues at Williams over the last 15 years? In the meantime, let’s spend this week reviewing some of aspects of the debate. Day 1.

How much does being a legacy matter? First, the Harvard Crimson causes confusion with charts like this:

This suggests that more than 1/3 of Harvard students are “legacy” since it implies that everyone not in the first bar belongs in that category. But that is nonsense! Legacy, at places like Williams and Harvard, has a fairly precise meaning: one or both of your parents attended the college. (Admittedly, sometimes having a grandparent (but not a parent) will get you included as well, but no one counts you as a legacy if all you have is an aunt or twin sister at the school.) The Crimson’s chart presentation, which includes double-counting, makes it hard to see the truth. (I also suspect that some (many?) students misunderstand the Crimson’s wording and answer “Yes” if their mom went to Harvard Law School. Having a parent who attended a university’s professional schools does not make you a “legacy” for the purposes of undergraduate admissions.)

Williams admissions (pdf) are 10% — 15% legacy.

Harvard and Yale have a similar percentage of legacies, as The Crimson reported in 2011:

[Harvard Dean of Admisssions William] Fitzsimmons also said that Harvard’s undergraduate population is comprised of approximately 12 to 13 percent legacies, a group he defined as children of Harvard College alumni and Radcliffe College alumnae. . . . [Yale Dean of Admissions] Brenzel reported that Yale legacies comprise less than 10 percent of the class, according to Kahlenberg.

This is, obviously, very consistent with what Williams has been doing for (at least!) 30 years. I can’t find a clear statement of the percentage of legacies in the 6 Harvard classes covered by this trial, but my back-of-the-envelope calculation puts it at around 12%, similar to what the Crimson reported in 2011 and what we know about Williams.

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Guide to Athletic Admissions

The purpose of this post is to provide a guide to athletic admissions at Williams. Read Playing the Game: Inside Athletic Recruiting in the Ivy League by Chris Lincoln for all the messy details. (Despite the title, Lincoln covers NESCAC athletic admissions thoroughly.) See this three part series from the Bowdoin Orient. Williams is no different than other elite schools when it comes to athletic recruiting. Check out EphBlog’s prior coverage. See also last week’s review of Williams admissions as a whole.

1) General athletic ability/accomplishment does not matter. No one cares if you won the high school Judo state championship because Williams does does not compete in Judo. No one cares if you were captain of your high school soccer team if you aren’t good enough to play for Williams.

2) Only the coach’s opinion matters. Even if you play a sport that Williams cares about at an elite level, it won’t matter unless the coach wants you. If the field hockey coach already has 2 great goalies, you could be an amazing goalie, perhaps even better than the current Ephs, and it would not matter for your chances at Williams because you would not be on the coach’s list. (She only has so many spots and wants to use them for positions that need more help.)

3) There are approximately 100 students in each class who would not have been admitted were it not for an Eph coach’s intervention. There are 66 “tips,” students whose academic qualifications are significantly below the average for the class as a whole. There are also 30 or so “protects” — perhaps currently terminology is “ices”? — who also would not have gotten in without coach intervention, but who are only slightly below average for the class as a whole in terms of academic ability. I believe that protects are academic rating 3s, while tips are academic rating 4s and below.

4) The number of tips/protects varies by sport as do the minimum standards. Football gets the most, by far, followed by hockey. Certain sports — crew, golf, squash — receive much less leeway. Football and hockey can let in (some) AR 5s. Other sports can’t go below AR 4 or even AR 3. Coaches have some flexibility in terms of using these spots, taking 4 people this year but 6 next year.

5) The biggest change in athletic admissions in the last 20 years followed the publication of the MacDonald Report, with support from then-president Morty Schapiro. Those changes both decreased the raw number of tips and, perhaps more importantly, raised the academic requirements, especially at the low end. In particular, there are very few athletic admissions below academic rating 4 — top 15% of HS class / A – B record / very demanding academic program / 1310 – 1400 composite SAT I score.

6) Despite coach complaints and predictions of disaster, Williams athletics have been as successful in the last decade as they were in the decade prior to these changes.

7) My recommendation to President Mandel: Create another committee to revisit this topic. Fewer preferences given to athletes would raise the quality of the student body as a whole. The MacDonald Report made Williams a better college. Do the same again.

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How Admissions Works at Williams

Williams admissions work the same as admissions at most other elite colleges. If you understand the process at Swarthmore or Princeton, then you understand 99% of what happens at Williams. There are a variety of books about admissions at elite colleges, e.g., The Gatekeepers and A is for Admission. They capture 90% of the details. (These books are somewhat dated and may guild the lily a bit when it comes to race.) Williams Magazine published (pdf) an excellent 2005 article, “Recipe for Success,” about admissions. Virtually everything in it is true, but it also leaves out many of the more controversial aspects.

The purpose of this post is to explain how the Williams admissions process works in reality, not how it should work.

First, the most important part of the admissions process is the “academic rating,” often abbreviated as “AR.” From the Recipe article:

The full-time admission staffers, plus a handful of helpers like Phil Smith ’55 (Nesbitt’s predecessor as director), pore over the folders. Two readers examine each folder independently, without seeing each other’s comments, and assess them in three major ways. Each applicant gets an academic rating from 1 to 9 that focuses heavily on his or her high school grades, standardized test scores, the rigor of his or her academic program within the context of the school setting and the strength of teacher recommendations.

Nurnberg ’09 et al (pdf) provide a similar description:

After evaluating the applicant’s SAT scores, high school grades, essays, class rank, high school academic program, support from the high school administration, AP test score — or IB test scores — and teacher recommendations, admissions readers assign the applicant an academic rating from the scale 1 — 9, with 1 being the best.

Amherst, and all other elite colleges, use essentially the same system. The College does not like to reveal the details of these ratings, but we know from Peter Nurnberg’s ’09 thesis that:

While the academic reader ratings are somewhat subjective, they are strongly influenced by the following guidelines.

  • Academic 1: at top or close to top of HS class / A record / exceptional academic program / 1520 – 1600 composite SAT I score;
  • Academic 2: top 5% of HS class / mostly A record / extremely demanding academic program / 1450 – 1520 composite SAT I score;
  • Academic 3: top 10% of HS class / many A grades / very demanding academic program / 1390 – 1450 composite SAT I score;
  • Academic 4: top 15% of HS class / A – B record / very demanding academic program / 1310 – 1400 composite SAT I score;
  • Academic 5: top 20% of HS class / B record / demanding academic program / 1260 – 1320 composite SAT I score;
  • Academic 6: top 20% of HS class / B record / average academic program / 1210 – 1280 composite SAT I score;
  • Academic 7: top 25% of HS class / mostly B record / less than demanding program / 1140 – 1220 composite SAT I score;
  • Academic 8: top 33% of HS class / mostly B record or below / concern about academic program / 1000 – 1180 composite SAT I score;
  • Academic 9: everyone else.

These ratings are high-school-quality adjusted. At an elite school like Boston Latin or Exeter, you can be in the top 5% or even lower and still be an AR 1. At a weaker high school, you need to be the valedictorian. At the weakest high schools (bottom 25%?), even the valedictorian is almost never considered smart enough to go to Williams, at least in the absence of top standardized test scores.

Note that the working paper (pdf) from which these details are taken was co-authored by then-Williams president Morty Schapiro, so one hopes that it is accurate! Nurnberg’s senior thesis included a copy of the “Class of 2009 Folder Reading Guide, Academic Ratings,” which provided these details:

      verbal   math   composite SAT II   ACT    AP
AR 1: 770-800 750-800 1520-1600 750-800 35-36 mostly 5s
AR 2: 730-770 720-750 1450-1520 720-770 33-34 4s and 5s
AR 3: 700-730 690-720 1390-1450 690-730 32-33 4s

Williams, and all other elite schools, use this system because academic rating does a wonderful job of predicting academic performance at Williams and elsewhere.

Perhaps the main reason that this post is necessary is that Williams, when politically convenient, likes to deny the fundamental realities about how it decides who to admit and who to reject. Consider then-President Adam Falk and Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Liz Creighton ’01 writing in the Record:

[T]he very notion that the “quality” of students can be defined on a single linear scale is preposterous

Academic rating is, precisely, a “single linear scale” and it is, by far, the major driver of admissions decisions. This is true both for the process as a whole and within sub-groups. For example, African-American applicants with academic rating 1 to 3 are virtually certain to be admitted while those with academic rating of 9 are almost always rejected. The College may have different standards across sub-categories but, within each subcategory (except athletes and development prospects), the academic rating explains 90% of the variation.

Second, students with an academic rating worse than 2 (i.e., 3 or higher) are summarily rejected unless they have a specific “hook” or attribute.

The Recipe article is explicit:

In general, all applicants with a combined academic rating of 3 or higher are rejected at this point, unless the first and second readers have identified one or more “attributes” that warrant additional consideration.

Details:

The readers also assign any of more than 30 “attributes” that admission uses to identify exceptional traits. Some of these are easily quantified, such as being the child or grand-child of an alumnus, a member of a minority group, an “impact” athlete or a local resident. 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.

From Nurnberg ’09 el al, attributes (in addition to race/ethnicity/gender) include:

alumni grandparent, alumni other, alumni parent, alumni sibling, studio art, development or future fundraising potential, dance, institutional connection,
intellectual vitality, local, music, politically active, religious, research science, economically disadvantaged, social service, theater, top athlete, tier 2 athlete, and tier 3 athlete

The naive reader will assume that all these attributes have a similar effect. Being a great musician or a great athlete will help some AR 4s get into Williams, and that is OK. (And the College wants you to think that.) In fact, some attributes matter much more than others. Recall (from 2004!) Admissions Director Dick Nesbitt ’74:

We are able to admit roughly 120 top rated musicians each year from the top of the academic reader rating scale–what we refer to as academic 1′ and 2’s (broadly defined as 1500+ SAT’s and very top of the class).

For most attributes, the College does not need to dip below AR 1s and 2s. Yes, being a top musician may help you in the competition with other outstanding students, but, if you are AR 3 or below, it won’t. You will be rejected. And the same applies to other attributes. Top students are also, often, deeply involved in social service or theater. In high school, they often excel in research science or political activism. If Williams were to admit only AR 1s/2s, it would have plenty of students in all these categories.

Third, for applicants with AR 3 or below, the attributes that matter most are race, income and athletics.

Does this mean that no other attributes ever matter? No! It is certainly the case that the daughter of a prominent alum could get into Williams as an AR 4 or the son of a Williams professor as an AR 3. But the major categories, the ones that account for the vast majority of AR 3 and below admissions are race, income and athletics.

Don’t want to read all the posts from those links? Here is a brief summary:

1) There are 100 or so admissions decisions which are driven by a Williams coach. You are either on her list or you are not. These “tips” and “protects” are, by definition, only used for students with AR 3 and below. Best single post overview of the topic is here.

2) In the class of 2020, Williams has (pdf) 115 African-American/Hispanic students. Many of these are AR 1 or 2 applicants who would have been accepted at Williams regardless of which racial box they checked. But a majority, probably a vast majority, are AR 3 or below. Recall this discussion of SAT scores:

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Asian-Americans in the 700+ range are at least 6 times more common than African-Americans/Hispanics. So, how can Williams have more African-Americans/Hispanics than Asian-Americans enrolled? (Hint: It isn’t because there aren’t 100+ Asian-Americans among the AR 1/2 applicants who are currently rejected by Williams.) The reason is that Williams admits scores of African-American/Hispanic applicants with AR 3 and below. Williams does this because it wants a class which “mirrors” or “reflects” the US population, at least when it comes to African-Americans and Hispanics. Note that the average African-American student at Amherst has an SAT score consistent with AR 5. It is highly unlikely that Williams does a better job than Amherst at attracting highly rated African-American students.

3) Unlike athletics (which the college is, sometimes, transparent about) and race (on which there is good data), family income and parental education are trickier. The College reports (and is proud of the fact) that about 20% of students are eligible for Pell Grants and that about 20% of students are first generation college students, meaning that they come from families in which neither parent has a 4 year BA. (Of course, there is a big overlap between these two groups, and, to a lesser extent, between these two groups and African-American/Hispanic students.) The problem is that all standardized test results (and, therefore, academic rating) are much lower, on average, for such students. So, in order to get to 20%, Williams must admit scores of such students with AR 3 or below.

About 1/2 of a Williams class is AR 1 or 2. (The median math+verbal SAT score at Williams is 1450, which is the bottom of AR 2.) There are 100 recruited athletes (all of whom, by definition, are AR 3 or below), 100+ African-American/Hispanic students, 100+ first generation and 100+ Pell Grant recipients. That adds up to 400+ in a class of 550! Many students fall into more than one category. Many (outside the athletes) are AR 1 or 2. But, given that we only have 275 spots left beneath AR 1/2, a large majority of the bottom half of the class are members of at least one of these 4 categories. The bottom 100 students in each class (approximately AR 5 and below) is almost completely dominated by these students. And, in the categories outside of athletes, academic rating drives the decisions. Williams is much more likely to accept an African-American and/or a first generation student and/or a future Pell Grant recipient if her academic rating is 1 to 3. Every single AR 9 applicant is rejected, regardless of her other outstanding attributes.

And that is how admissions works at Williams, and at almost all other elite colleges.

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Eagle Scout

How many Eagle Scout’s are there at Williams? At least one!

A local Eagle Scout received quite a surprise this week at a banquet in Marion.

William Johnson was named national Scout of the Year by the national Veterans for Foreign Wars. He was presented a $5,000 scholarship through local VFW Post 12124.

This is the first time that’s ever happened in the state of mississippi. Johnson had to write multiple essays about his time and accomplishments in scouting.

“It’s the largest scholarship I’ve been awarded actually, so it’s really exciting to have earned a scholarship,” said Johnson.

Johnson will be going to Williams College in Masssachusetts.

Congrats to Johnson. One (sleazy?) thing that he and the VFW may not realize is that, if Johnson is on financial aid, Williams will just decrease the amount of his grant dollar-for-dollar to account for this award. In other words, he and his family will be paying Williams the same amount as they would have if he had not won. Whether that is a bug or a feature of the current financial aid system depends on your point of view . . .

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Welcome Dula ’23, Cohn ’23, Altmann ’23 and Lynch ’23

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The Admissions Office was, undoubtedly, impressed by Dula’s essays and teacher recommendations.

Oh, wait! This was posted on July 5th. Dula has not written his application essays nor has he sought any teacher recommendations.

None of which is Dula’s fault. He does not make the rules. He is a subject of a system which expects him to create videos of his athletic performance while his family pays thousands of dollars to participate in various club teams and showcase events. The pay-off comes when Williams tells him, during the summer of his junior year in high school, that he has been admitted.

And I have no particular problem with this system, except with the hypocrisy which comes, not from Dula, but from Williams, from the College’s constant pretending that athletics is just one “attribute” among many, that Admissions treats exceptional violin players the same way we treat exceptional lacrosse players. We don’t.

And Dula is far from the only already-admitted member of the class of 2023. Congratulations, also, to Jacob Cohn ’23.

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Athletic admissions at Williams has very little to do with normal admissions. The vast majority of the 70 tips (and 30 or so protects) are told by a coach, in the summer after their junior year of high school, that they will be admitted to Williams if they apply early decision. No one cares about their personal essays or teacher recommendations.

Other examples of early athletic admissions this year include Nick Altmann and, lest you think this is only about male athletes, Emma Lynch.

The most offensive aspect to this whole process is how much time it takes away from under-paid high school teachers. Even though Lynch has already been admitted to Williams, the College will still require her to submit recommendation letters, so some poor Weymouth math teacher is going to get to spend an October evening writing a letter about her that no one will ever read . . .

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Karabel on the History of Admissions

“Status-Group Struggle, Organizational Interests, and the Limits of Institutional Autonomy: The Transformation of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, 1918-1940” (pdf) provides a useful overview of elite admissions between the world wars. Highly recommended for those too busy to go through his magisterial The Chosen. Williams College mentions include:

K1

K2

K3

K4

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Critical Mass

From abl:

there’s a separate question about creating a Williams environment that supports all of its students. Without a critical mass of students from under-represented groups, Williams will struggle to attract students from these groups, and students from these groups may struggle at Williams. It may therefore be beneficial or even necessary for Williams to admit more students from these groups than it would otherwise so as to build a class that “works” for everyone. This is true, even if you accept both of my above points: there’s a real happiness/satistfaction cost to adopting an admissions policy that leaves Williams looking more like Caltech–student outcomes and student satisfaction for those few URM students at Williams are likely to plummet in an isolating environment of that nature.

“Critical mass” arguments for affirmative action mostly fail:

1) They don’t apply to smaller groups. Williams has (pdf) 2 total students who are “American Indian or Alaska Native, non-Hispanic.” That doesn’t seem like much mass to me!

2) abl has no evidence — because there is no evidence — that “student satisfaction for those few URM students at Williams are likely to plummet” if we practiced less affirmative action. African-American students at Williams are almost certainly less satisfied than other students at Williams, but is the gap any greater at Middlebury, with a much smaller percentage of African-American students? Not that I have heard.

3) abl has no evidence — because there is no evidence — that “students from these groups may struggle at Williams” without a critical mass. Middlebury, and other schools, with fewer URMs don’t see this and Williams itself does not see that effect in relation to Amherst, which has a much higher percentage of African-American students than we do.

Again, the true goal of Williams admissions is to have a class that “reflects” or “mirrors” the US population. The American Indian population is small, so 2 total students is fine. No one really cares whether or not there is a critical mass of such students because critical mass is not the true goal. Proportional representation is the goal. Critical mass is just one of the ex post facto stories used to justify the goal.

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Overlap History

From MIT in 1992:

The unprecedented antitrust case had its origins in an investigation begun in 1989 by the Justice Department. The Antitrust Division of the Justice Department reportedly sent civil investigative demands to some 57 colleges, who were asked to submit thousands of pounds of records over many years. In 1989, the last full year of participation in the agreement, 23 colleges attended the annual spring meeting to discuss the relative need of commonly admitted students.

The case was fought by MIT after the eight Ivy League colleges agreed in May, 1991 – while admitting no culpability – to sign a consent decree barring such cooperation for 10 years, unless Congress passes legislation to authorize it.

The civil suit involved an agreement that MIT and the eight Ivy League colleges entered into in the 1950s. The colleges agreed to admit students solely on the basis of merit and distribute their scholarship money solely on the basis of need.

They also agreed to establish methods of determining what the applicants’ family could afford and – in the case of applicants who had overlapping offers of admission from more than one of the colleges – to discuss significant differences in the colleges’ judgements of the individual students’ financial need.

The biggest beneficiaries to the ending of Overlap were non-rich, highly desirable applicants. On average, middle class African-American students probably benefited more than anyone.

And readers wonder why I am sometimes suspicious of elite colleges . . .

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Why Not Accept These Students?

An example of the sort of AR1 student that Williams currently rejects:

SAT: 1540 (Math 790, Reading 750) Subjects: Math II 800, Chem 720
ACT: 35 (Math 35, Reading 34, English 35, Science 35)
AP: Calc. BC 5/5, Chem 5, Bio 4; Physics I/II, Lit, Lang, and Stats to be taken
~4.2 weighted GPA, top of the class
Honors track, taking all offered AP courses at my school
ECs mostly performance (theatre, speech/debate, band) and community service

I was sort of surprised by the result, but I guess I just don’t fit their class image. It’s ok because I’m in at Princeton, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Carleton, Grinnell, and Macalester.

There are scores (hundreds?) of similar examples. Why reject applicants like this?

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Chicago Drops SAT, 5

The University of Chicago no longer requires the SAT/ACT. More background here, here, here and here. Let’s discuss for a week. Day 5.

What will Williams do?

Robert Schaeffer of FairTest: the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, predicted others would follow Chicago’s decision. He said Chicago’s decision was “potentially a huge ‘ice-breaker’ for ultraselective institutions. Several other schools in this category are re-examining their admissions exam requirements but have been hesitant to go first.”

Schaeffer is a longtime critic of the SAT.

1) Williams is “conservative,” compared to its elite peers, so, if any school follows Chicago’s lead, it won’t be us. We also don’t have a history of chasing PC fads like this one. Might Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Liz Creighton ’01 be cut from different cloth than her predecessors like Dick Nesbitt ’74, Tom Parker ’69 and Phil Smith ’58? Might new President Maud Mandel want to make a splash? Perhaps. But EphBlog bets the other way.

2) Williams should continue to use the SAT/ACT, along with other standardized tests like the SAT subject tests, the APs, the international baccalaureates and so on. They work! They aren’t perfect. But students who score well on these tests do, on average, much better than students who score poorly.

3) Other elite schools are unlikely to follow Chicago’s lead, precisely because they are so committed to admitting weaker students. It’s a paradox, but true!

If you are happy to only take the students with strong high school transcripts, your job is easy. There are thousands of students who go to elite high schools, both public (any high school in a rich town, exam schools like Stuyvesant) or private (Andover, Exeter, Raffles). Just take the ones at the top. The problem, alas, is that such students are much less likely to have the characteristics you also want: elite athlete, poor/uneducated parents and/or black/Hispanic. These students are more likely to be found at weaker high schools, places where the transcript is hard to evaluate. SAT/ACT scores are most valuable for choosing among those students.

You can argue (incorrectly!) that the SAT/ACT is biased against, say, low income applicants relative to high income applicants. (Perhaps it is!) But, once you have made the macro decision to have 20% (or whatever) of you class consistent of such students, you should pick the ones with the highest scores (and best grades). They are much more likely to do better, at either Williams or Chicago.

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Chicago Drops SAT, 4

The University of Chicago no longer requires the SAT/ACT. More background here, here, here and here. Let’s discuss for a week. Day 4.

James G. Nondorf is either a knave or a fool.

In addition, the university announced a new program in which it will invite students to submit a two-minute video introduction of themselves. And the university will allow self-submission of transcripts to minimize the need for students to pay fees.

“Today, many underresourced and underrepresented students, families and school advisers perceive top-ranked colleges as inaccessible if students do not have the means to help them stand out in the application process,” said James G. Nondorf, vice president and dean of admissions at Chicago. He added that UChicago Empower, as the initiatives are collectively being called, “levels the playing field, allowing first-generation and low-income students to use technology and other resources to present themselves as well as any other college applicant. We want students to understand the application does not define you — you define the application.”

“You define the application”?!? What sort of gibberish is that?

Nondorf strikes me as a hustling self-promoter, using the resources of Chicago to promote his own brand. Or he’s just stupid:

Many colleges have found that students’ transcripts — their high-school grades and rigor of courses — are the most-valuable predictors of future performance. “The transcript tells such a powerful story for us,” Nondorf said. “We went from department to department to see who the stars were. Does testing tell us who’s going to be the best art historian? The answer is No.”

Restricted range, anyone? Consider height in basketball. Being tall is (obviously!) a huge advantage in basketball, at every level of the game. But, within each level, height is poorly correlated with success because everyone at that level is tall. In the NBA, for example, there is very little (any?) correlation between height and salary. The range of height in the NBA is too narrow to fully see the importance of height to success.

The same applies to the importance of SAT/ACT scores at Chicago. If 25% of Chicago students score above 1550, then SAT scores will not be a good predictor of the best student in each department, just like height is a bad predictor of who is the best player on each NBA team.

Going forward, I predict that students who did not submit their scores to Chicago when applying will almost never “be the best art historian.”

But the most annoying aspect of Nondorf’s changes is the option — which many students will consider to be a requirement — for submitting a two minute video.

1) As if the college application process is not stressful enough already!

2) As if college consultants — and the college counselors at elite high schools — will not quickly game this process, helping their clients/students produce amazing videos, especially ones that appear to be done solely by the student.

3) As if a video is a useful admissions tool. There is a reason why the vast majority of elite colleges no longer use interviews, either at all (like Williams) or as any part of their decision-making (Harvard). Interviews don’t work!

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Chicago Drops SAT, 3

The University of Chicago no longer requires the SAT/ACT. More background here, here, here and here. Let’s discuss for a week. Day 3.

Jeff Rubel ’18 tweets:

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Rubel is an EphBlog favorite and (normally!) sophisticated observer. How can he be so naive to think that this is all about “increasing accessibility?”

1) Chicago could just put much less weight on the SAT/ACT, going so far as to accept dozens of students with very low scores. Its current reasoning is similar to the tripe from Harvard/Princeton a decade ago about how early admissions provided an unfair advantage to rich kids. It may have, but the only reason for that was Harvard/Princeton’s own policies! They could have kept early admissions and just raised the standards. A simple way to tell if policy X is pointless virtue-signaling is to see if there was an easy way to accomplish the same thing without the fancy press release.

2) Chicago could just stop accepting the SAT/ACT.

Chicago officials analyzed plenty of internal data, Nondorf explained. “You spend a lot of time looking at students who don’t do well,” he said. What parts of their applications might have indicated early on that they would struggle? “It certainly wasn’t testing,” Nondorf said.

So why are you even accepting SAT/ACT scores at all? If scores have no power in predicting who will do well at Chicago, if they are no more valid than horoscopes, then you should not accept them in the first place.

That Chicago still accepts (and uses!) SAT/ACT scores for admissions tells me that, in fact, they are predictive (which we already know) of college performance.

3) Rubel could defend Chicago by claiming that, by not requiring the SAT/ACT, they allow students who have not taken them to apply. But that is nonsense since such students, if they want to attend an elite school, will (almost) have to take the SAT/ACT since they can’t only apply to Chicago. They might (likely will!) get rejected. Chicago will get virtually no applications from students who haven’t taken the SAT/ACT.

4) Rubel most likely means to argue that, by allowing some students to not submit scores, Chicago is “increasing accessibility” because it will end up admitting a different class than it would have under its previous policy. And that is true! But it did not need to stop accepting the SAT/ACT to achieve that goal. It could have just put less weight on it, even zero weight for certain types of students.

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Chicago Drops SAT, 2

The University of Chicago no longer requires the SAT/ACT. More background here, here, here and here. Let’s discuss for a week. Day 1.

Several experts predicted that other top universities might now reconsider testing requirements.

1) I doubt it!

2) Reporter Scott Jaschik does a nice job, but the “experts” he tends to rely on are not nearly cynical/skeptical enough for my tastes.

3) Look at history of virtue-signally by elite colleges. The most relevant example was Harvard’s decision in 2006 to end early admissions. We noted that this was PC nonsense and we predicted, at the time, that Harvard would reverse the decision as soon as it became obvious how harmful it was to recruiting the best students. And, sure enough, that was what Harvard did.

When push comes to shove, elite colleges won’t allow PC gestures to meaningfully impact their student quality.

Prediction: The University of Chicago is treating us all to a real world example of the power of adverse selection. As long as other schools use SAT/ACT scores, they will know to reject the student with a tough-to-evaluate high school transcript but low scores. Chicago won’t have that option (assuming it really implements the policy). Such students will, on average, not send in their scores. Chicago will be more likely to admit them and, perhaps even worse, yield them once they are accepted (since they won’t be accepted at any other elite school).

4) How long with the experiment last? Tough to say. Harvard/Princeton could quickly see that a lack of early decision was causing them to lose lots of highly desirable applicants to their competitors. Chicago will not get such quick feedback. Indeed, it will be hard to see the drop in student quality quickly. In fact, the professors in the tougher majors — the ones most likely (?) to complain about a drop in student quality — are the least likely to notice it because weaker students will gravitate toward easier courses/majors.

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Chicago Drops SAT, 1

The University of Chicago no longer requires the SAT/ACT. More background here, here, here and here. Let’s discuss for a week. Day 1.

The University of Chicago on Thursday morning announced that it was dropping the requirement that all undergraduate applicants submit SAT or ACT scores.

Hundreds of colleges — including elite liberal arts colleges — have stopped requiring the SAT or ACT. But Chicago’s move is the first by one of the very top research universities in the country. And the move is striking coming from an institution, known for its academic rigor, that has had no difficulty attracting top applicants.

For the class that enrolled in September 2017, the university received 27,694 applicants and admitted 2,419. The middle 50 percent of the range of SAT scores of admitted applicants was 1460 to 1550.

1) Surprising news! Elite schools almost always require the SAT/ACT because standardized test scores are a useful — albeit not perfect — tool for forecasting performance in college. This is all the more true when considering applicants from below-average high schools. An applicant being valedictorian in his 50 student senior class in Nowhere, Iowa tells you little. Such an applicant with a 1,600 SAT (math + verbal) tells you a lot.

2) The news is all the more surprising coming from Chicago. If you told me that a top college/university had dropped the SAT/ACT and asked me to predict which one, Chicago would have been about my last guess.

First, it is famously “conservative,” at least in the context of elite education, and (in)famous for mocking the politically correct pieties of its peers: safe spaces, trigger warnings, etc. Although the use of standardized testing is not exactly a political issue, I definitely associate it with more liberal/progressive schools. If forced to guess, I would have gone with Brown or Swarthmore.

Second, Chicago makes many fewer concessions to non-academic criteria than other elite schools, especially when it comes to athletic recruitment. Schools like Williams already concede that the SAT/ACT are not that important, which is why the bottom 1/4 of the class is allowed to have such low scores. The middle 50% range of SAT scores at Williams is (pdf) 1400 to 1570 (approximately). The top of the Williams distribution is higher but we are willing to go much lower in order to get students we want.

3) This decision is similar to how Williams, and many other elite schools, dropped the SAT subject test requirements a few years ago. I was indifferent to that change because, if you already know a student’s high school transcript and SAT/ACT scores and AP scores, it is plausible that the marginal information you gain from knowing the SAT II scores is close to zero.

This case is trickier because, without any standardized test scores, it is very hard to determine the quality of applicants from non-feeder high schools.

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Choose Williams Over Harvard

In celebration of previews, reasons why you should choose Williams.

There are several hundred high school seniors¹ who have been admitted to both Williams and Harvard (and Yale and Princeton and Stanford and . . .). Fewer than 10% of them will choose Williams over these more famous schools. Some of them are making the right choice. They will be better off at Harvard, for various reasons. But at least half of them are making the wrong choice. They (you?) would be better off at Williams. Why?

1) Your professors would know your name. The average Harvard undergraduate is known by name to only a few faculty members. Many students graduate unknown to any faculty. The typical professor at Harvard is primarily concerned with making important contributions to her field. The typical professor at Williams is primarily concerned with educating the undergraduates in her classes. Consider this post by Harvard professor Greg Mankiw, who teaches EC 10a/10b, the equivalent of Williams ECON 110/120, to over 750 students each year.

Being an ec 10 section leader is one of the best teaching jobs at Harvard. You can revisit the principles of economics, mentor some of the world’s best undergraduates, and hone your speaking skills. In your section, you might even have the next Andrei Shleifer or Ben Bernanke (two well-known ec 10 alums). And believe it or not, we even pay you for this!

If you are a graduate student at Harvard or another Boston-area university and have a strong background in economics, I hope you will consider becoming a section leader in ec 10 next year. Applications are encouraged from PhD students, law students, and master’s students in business and public policy.

Take a year of Economics at Harvard, and not a single professor will know your name. Instead, you will be taught and graded by (poorly paid) graduate students, many with no more than a BA, often not even in economics! But, don’t worry, you will be doing a good deed by providing these students with a chance to “hone” their “speaking skills.”

2) You will get feedback on your work from faculty at Williams, not from inexperienced graduate students. More than 90% of the written comments (as well as the grades) on undergraduate papers at Harvard are produced by people other than tenured (or tenure track) faculty. The same is true in science labs and math classes. EC 10 is a particularly egregious example, but the vast majority of classes taken by undergraduates are similar in structure. Harvard professors are too busy to read and comment on undergraduate prose.

3) You would have the chance to do many things at Williams. At Harvard it is extremely difficult to do more than one thing in a serious fashion. If you play a sport or write for The Crimson or sing in an a capella group at Harvard, you won’t be able to do too much of anything else. At Williams, it is common — even expected — that students will have a variety of non-academic interests that they pursue passionately. At Harvard, the goal is a well-rounded class, with each student being top notch in something. At Williams, the ideal is a class full of well-rounded people.

4) You would have a single room for three years at Williams. The housing situation at Harvard is horrible, at least if you care about privacy. Most sophomores and the majority of juniors do not have a single room for the entire year. Only at Harvard will you learn the joys of a “walk-through single” — a room which is theoretically a single but which another student must walk through to get to her room.

5) You would have the opportunity to be a Junior Advisor at Williams and to serve on the JA Selection Committee and to serve on the Honor Committee. No undergraduate student serves in these roles at Harvard because Harvard does not allow undergraduates to run their own affairs. Harvard does not trust its students. Williams does.

6) The President of Williams, Tiku Majumder, cares about your education specifically, not just about the education of Williams undergraduates in general. The President of Harvard, Drew Faust, has bigger fish to fry. Don’t believe me? Just e-mail both of them. Tell them about your situation and concerns. See who responds and see what they say.

Of course, there are costs to turning down Harvard. Your friends and family won’t be nearly as impressed. Your Aunt Tillie will always think that you actually go to “Williams and Mary.” You’ll be far away from a city for four years. But, all in all, a majority of the students who choose Harvard over Williams would have been better off if they had chosen otherwise.

Choose wisely.

¹The first post in this series was 14 years ago, inspired by a newspaper story about 18 year-old Julia Sendor, who was admitted to both Harvard and Williams. Julia ended up choosing Williams (at least partly “because of the snowy mountains and maple syrup”), becoming a member of the class of 2008, winning a Udall Foundation Scholarship in Environmental Studies. Best part of that post is the congratulations from her proud JA.

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Williams a Target in Early Admissions Probe, 3

This Wall Street Journal article, “Williams, Wesleyan, Middlebury Among Targets of Federal Early-Admissions Probe,” and associated news reports (here, here and here) merit a few days of discussion. Day 3 and last day.

Some college counselors said they are pleased to see the early-decision practice investigated because it puts too much pressure on young adults and the penalties for being caught breaking an early-decision agreement are too stiff.

“I don’t think it is developmentally appropriate to ask a 17-year-old to front-load a decision like this, and when colleges are taking a half or more of their class early, it demands that some kids do this,” said Brennan Barnard, director of college counseling at the Derryfield School in Manchester, N.H.

Brennan Barnard is an idiot.

1) Students, especially students who don’t know their first choice school, can easily apply to one of the hundreds of colleges that use early action. You don’t have to apply early decision if you don’t want to.

2) Students love early action/decision! Barnard should ask some of the seniors at Derryfield if they would rather live in a world in which no one finds out their status until April. No way! Students, overwhelmingly, like the early process. (And even the ones who don’t (and/or don’t participate) don’t begrudge their friends the option of applying early.)

3) Yes, the college admissions process is stressful, but the more spread out it is, the more that stress is dissipated over time. Early decision helps with this dispersal, as do athletic admissions (often occurring the summer after junior year at places like Williams and even earlier for the Ivy League) and early writes in February.

4) Williams ought to take advantage of the desire of many students to relieve the stress by doing, sotto voce, even more, and more earlier, admissions. Instead of using the summer science and social science programs for accepted students, we should offer those 50 (?) slots to the most talented (and most desirable) applicants in the country. Find the smartest African-American/Hispanic/Low-Income juniors in high school, bring them to the College for 6 weeks in the summer, show them how magical Williams is, and then tell them — or at least the 90% who don’t mess up somehow — that, if they apply early decision, they will be accepted. This is probably the single (reasonably priced) thing that Williams could do to increase the quality of its poor/URM students.

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Williams a Target in Early Admissions Probe, 2

This Wall Street Journal article, “Williams, Wesleyan, Middlebury Among Targets of Federal Early-Admissions Probe,” and associated news reports (here, here and here) merit a few days of discussion. Day 2.

The investigation has perplexed some in elite-college admissions circles, who say that sharing the information serves only to ensure that schools aren’t being misled about an applicant’s intentions, given their commitments elsewhere.

The admissions dean of a New England liberal-arts college that received the Justice Department letter said that the school swaps with about 20 other institutions the application-identification number, name and home state of students admitted early decision.

That dean said it is rare to find someone who violated the binding early-decision agreement by applying to more than one institution early.

Occasionally, the person said, they come across a student who was admitted early-decision at one school and still applied elsewhere during the regular application cycle. In those cases, the second school would withdraw the application because the candidate already committed elsewhere.

The dean said the schools don’t share information about regular-decision candidates, so an offer from one school wouldn’t affect outcomes elsewhere.

1) Any chance the unnamed dean is either Dick Nesbitt ’74 or Liz Creighton ’01? Note that reporter Melissa Korn and Williams Communications Chief Jim Reische served as co-chairs at a conference for media relations professionals. If Jim did arrange this, then kudos to him! The more that Eph administrators appear in the prestige press, the better.

2) Sure would be interesting to know the exact list of schools involved in this swap and the mechanism by which it occurs. Any “elite” school left out of this circle must feel like the kid sitting by himself in the high school cafeteria. Not that EphBlog would know anything about that . . .

3) Was this phrasing — “the second school would withdraw the application” — vetted by a lawyer? It would be one thing if Williams were to reject a student it had already accepted if that student applied elsewhere. That student has broken a promise she made to Williams, so Williams can take action. But for Harvard to reject — whoops, I mean “withdraw the application [of]” — a student just because Williams had accepted her in December seems more problematic, anti-trust-wise . . .

4) What about early action candidates? That is a much trickier issue. Does Harvard let Williams know if it has admitted a student early action? And, if so, does that fact play into the Williams admissions process? Of course, Williams knows that almost every high quality regular decision applicant (other than its own deferrals) applied somewhere else early. And you can be certain that we can (and should!) take account of that fact in making decisions. (That is, if you really love Williams so much, as you now claim, why didn’t you apply early?) But I would be shocked if schools traded early action information explicitly . . . But I have been shocked before!

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Williams a Target in Early Admissions Probe, I

This Wall Street Journal article, “Williams, Wesleyan, Middlebury Among Targets of Federal Early-Admissions Probe,” and associated news reports (here, here and here) merit a few days of discussion. Day 1.

The targets of a new federal probe into possible antitrust violations related to early-decision college admissions include Wesleyan University, Middlebury College and Pomona College, as well as at least four other highly selective liberal-arts schools.

The Justice Department sent letters late last week notifying the schools of the investigation and asking them to preserve emails and other messages detailing arrangements they may have with other schools about swapping names of admitted students, and how they might use that information.

1) Did Williams play a role in helping reporter Melissa Korn? (Note that Williams appears in the title and is pictured in the accompanying photo.) I hope we did! The more that folks like Liz Creighton ’01 schmooze with major media, the easier it is to get our message/brand out.

2) Wasn’t this story originally broken at Inside Higher Ed? If so, does Korn have an obligation to mention this even if she got a copy of the letter independently? Inside Higher Ed provides this relevant background:

For years, some elite colleges — members of what was then called the Overlap Group — shared financial information on admitted applicants, seeking to agree upon common aid offers. But in 1991, Ivy League institutions agreed to stop sharing such information. The agreement followed a Justice Department investigation into the practice, which the universities said promoted fairness but that the department said was an antitrust violation.

Generally, college leaders have said the Overlap Group investigation discouraged them from sharing any information about applicants.

We have covered the Overlap scandal before. (There is a great senior thesis waiting to be written about that, either in history or economics.)

Back to the WSJ:

All the schools targeted offer prospective students the option to apply under binding early-decision agreements, which often have significantly higher acceptance rates than do regular-decision pools. If the applicant is offered admission, he or she must commit to attending and withdraw applications to other schools or risk having the admission offer rescinded.

Higher-education experts say it seems the Justice Department investigation is focusing on whether the schools are violating antitrust regulations by sharing the names of admitted students to enforce the rules of the programs.

Two options:

1) This is stupid and goes nowhere. Why can’t Williams tell the world who it has accepted early decision? Is there any law that would prevent it from just posting that list on the web, in the same way it records every graduate in the course catalog? Lawyer comments welcome! And, if it can post that list, why can’t it send an e-mail to Harvard admissions with the same information?

2) This is stupid and goes somewhere. Even if colleges stopped sharing these lists tomorrow, nothing would change. The number of students who try to game the system is trivial. But, since the colleges were so absurdly sleazy in their conduct during Overlap, I would not begrudge the Justice Department forcing them to stop all communications. Recall Adam Smith:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

Entire article is below the break, for those without WSJ access.

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Dick Nesbitt ’74 Retiring?

How else to explain this job posting for a new Director of Admissions?

Our vote for his successor goes to Sulgi Lim ’06, always a fan of EphBlog!

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Welcome to the Class of 2022

College news release:

Williams College has extended offers of admission to 1,163 applicants for the Class of 2022. They were selected from a total applicant pool of 9,559.

Welcome to all our new Ephs. The release includes lots of data. I went through last year’s version in detail. Worth another visit?

A total of 505 identify as men, 578 as women, seven identify as trans or transgender, two as non-binary, one as two spirit, one as genderqueer, and one as another identity. Sixty-eight did not respond to an optional question about gender identity (but did answer a required binary question that appears on the application).

If you had asked me 15 years ago whether or not concepts like “spirit” or “genderqueer” would ever appear in a Williams news release, I would have forecast (incorrectly!) No. What words/concepts will appear in 2033 that will be a big surprise to future me?

By the way, the class of 2022 is the 20th (!) Williams class that has had the opportunity to interact with EphBlog. (We first appeared for the senior spring of the class of 2003.) What is the over/under on how much longer we will last?

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The Parable of the Privilege Pill

This comment from abl leads to the Parable of the Privilege Pill.

Imagine a family with twin sons, just entering 9th grade. The boys are average, both in their natural abilities and in their academic inclinations. Son 1 goes through high school with average grades and average test scores. According to Williams Admissions, he has an Academic Rating of 9. If he applies, he is rejected, as are all AR 9s. Note that Williams is not punishing him for bad performance in high school. The purpose of admissions is neither to punish nor reward. Williams rejects Son 1 because AR 9 high school students, on average, do very poorly at elite colleges.

Imagine that Son 2, on the other hand, takes a magic Privilege Pill on the first day of 9th grade, a pill which dramatically increases his academic performance for four years. He will receive excellent grades in high school and do very well on the SAT. Williams Admissions will rate him an AR 1 and, probably, admit him if he applies.

Williams would not (and should not) admit Son 2 if it knew about the Privilege Pill. By assumption, the pill only lasts for four years. After that, Son 2 becomes identical to Son 1, an AR 9, highly unlikely to perform well in an elite classroom. Admission to Williams is not a reward for strong performance in high school; it is a forecast of academic success in college.

The same reasoning applies to the Anti-Privilege Pill. Imagine a different family with twin daughters blessed with academic talent. Daughter 1 does very well in high school, is rated AR 1 by Williams and (probably) admitted. Daughter 2, unfortunately, takes an Anti-Privilege Pill at the start of high school and does much worse in terms of grades/scores than she would have done if she had not taken the pill.

Williams would (and should) admit Daughter 2 if it knew about the Anti-Privilege Pill. Recall that the pill, by definition, only lasts 4 years. Daughter 2 is, in truth, an AR 1 student whose underlying abilities have been masked in high school. We expect her to do as well at Williams as Daughter 1. Rejection from Williams is not a punishment for poor performance in high school; it is a forecast of academic struggles in college.

Things are different, however, in the case of a Privilege Pill (or Anti-Privilege Pill) which is permanent in its effects rather than temporary.

Consider a car accident in 9th grade which, tragically, leaves Daughter 2 with permanent neurological damage. Through no fault of her own, she will do only average in high school and will be scored as an AR 9 by Williams admissions. She will be rejected because, on average, high school students with AR 9, regardless of how they came to have an AR 9, do poorly at elite colleges. Even though she would have been an AR 1 (like her twin sister) were it not for the car accident, that sad fact does not influence Williams admissions.

The same reasoning applies to a Privilege Pill whose effect is permanent. If the Pill turns an average 9th grader into an AR 1, then Williams should admit her because she will, we expect, do as well as all the other AR 1s. The source of student ability — genetics, parenting, schooling, luck, wealth, special tutoring, magic pills — does not matter. Admissions to Williams is not a value judgment on the source, or justness, of student achievement in high school; it is a forecast of success in a Williams classroom.

With this framework, we can evaluate abl’s question:

If there are two students alike in every material respect (1450 SATs / 3.8 GPAs at the same school with comparable resumes), and you know that one student achieved her SAT scores after working with a private tutor with a long history of success stories while the other student did not have that opportunity — who would you accept?

The student without the tutor, obviously! In this scenario, the tutored-student has taken a Privilege Pill which, by assumption, is only temporary. She isn’t truly an AR 2. She would have scored 1300 without the tutor. She is really an AR 4 (or whatever). She is likely to do as well as other AR 4s at Williams. So, we should reject her (unless she is an AR 4 that we really want).

I honestly don’t see how any rational, clear-minded person can say that they aren’t going to accept the student who achieved her score on her own. That’s not because we are prejudiced against the student who got help: it’s that we don’t (or, at the very least, we shouldn’t) believe that her 1450 represents the same level of accomplishment and potential as the 1450 of the student who took the test cold.

Exactly how do you propose that Williams admissions determines “the student who achieved her score on her own?” While I am happy to answer your hypothetical question, the sad truth is that Williams has no (reasonable) way of determining which students achieved on their own and which did not. High quality SAT tutoring is available for free at Khan Academy, for example. How could you possibly know if a given applicant “took the test cold?” Answer: You can’t.

There strikes me as being a reasonable debate to be had about how and whether admissions officers should take these sorts of advantages into account in the admissions process. There is no reasonable debate to be had about whether or not privilege plays a role in student achievement as measured by SAT scores and by GPAs.

Perhaps. But the key question becomes: Are the advantages of privilege temporary or permanent? Does the Privilege Pill last through 4 years at Williams? If it does, then we can ignore it. Admissions to Williams is not a value judgment on the source, or justness, of student achievement in high school; it is a forecast of success in a Williams classroom.

Fortunately, this is an empirical question! Define “privilege” however you like, while using data available to Williams Admissions. I would suggest: A privileged applicant is one who attends a high quality high school (top decile?), will not need financial aid at Williams, and comes from a family in which both parents attended an elite college. (Feel free to suggest a different definition.) We can then divide all AR 1 Williams students into two groups: privileged and non-privileged. If you are correct that privileged students benefit from things like high quality SAT tutoring which makes them look temporarily better than they actually are, we would expect the privileged AR 1 students to perform worse at Williams than the non-privileged AR 1s. The same would apply to privileged versus non-privileged AR 2s, AR 3s and so on. Director of Institutional Research Courtney Wade could answer this question in an hour.

But don’t expect that analysis to be made public anytime soon. Courtney, and the people who do institutional research at Williams and places like it, are smart. They have already looked at this question. And the reason that they don’t publish the results is because of the not-very-welcome findings. Privileged AR 1s do at least as well at Williams as non-privileged AR 1s, and so on down the AR scale. The effects of the Privilege Pill are permanent. If anything, the results probably come out the other way because the AR scheme underestimates the benefit of going to a fancy high school like Andover or Stuyvesant. But let’s ignore that subtlety for now.

The last defense of the opponents of privilege is to focus on junior/senior year. Yes, the poor/URM AR 3s and 4s that Williams currently accepts don’t do as well as the AR 1s and 2s in their overall GPA. But that is precisely because of their lack of privilege, or so the argument goes. After a couple of years, Williams has helped them to catch up, has made up for their childhood difficulties and obstacles.

Alas, that hopeful story isn’t true either. AR 3s/4s do worse than AR 1s/2s even after two years of wonderful Williams.

Summary: Admissions to Williams is not a value judgment on the source, or justness, of student achievement in high school; it is a forecast of success in a Williams classroom. It does not matter why you are an AR 1: intelligent parents who value education, luck in your assignment to a charismatic 8th grade teacher, wealth used to pay for special tutoring, genetics, whatever. All that matters is that your status as an AR 1 provides an unbiased forecast of how you will do at Williams. The Parable of the Privilege Pill highlights why the source of academic ability is irrelevant.

If Williams wants better students — students who write better essays, solve more difficult math problems, complete more complex science experiments — it should admit better applicants.

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