Unrigging the Admissions System

The path to getting into an elite school has long been shrouded in mystery. It’s up to us, the admissions officers, to lift the veil.

College student filling out an application.
Students get more help than ever on their college applications. Should this be acknowledged in the process?

Photo by Pattie Steib/iStockphoto/Thinkstock

With the new school year comes the frenzy of another admissions season, as students rabidly compete to get into the nation’s top schools. As the admissions dean at Yale Law School, I love getting the dirt on how much money people spend to game the system. Lacy Crawford, a longtime “admissions tutor” whose new novel is based on her experiences helping the children of the wealthiest families get into college, charged $7,500 for help writing the college essay, a modest fee compared to the $40,000 parents pay to Michelle Hernandez, “America’s premier college consultant,” for guiding a child from ninth grade to Ivy League admission. I’m not sure what’s more shocking: the price tag for these services or the fact that they’re in demand. But while it’s tempting to heap blame on these admissions consultants or the tiger parents who hire them, some of the responsibility for creating such an atmosphere lies with the admissions officers themselves.

The admissions process at elite schools has long been shrouded in mystery. Before the electronic age, the admissions black hole made sense—admissions officers had no real way of communicating with students, apart from generic paper application materials. But in an age of instantaneous information, the black box is anachronistic and counterproductive. Students know immediately, through Facebook and online discussion forums, when and where their peers have been accepted. They share essays at the click of a mouse and two minutes later feel that their own versions fall short. They believe everyone else is on an inside track that they don’t know about, or has some critical piece of confidential information that they need. It’s no surprise that so-called admissions consultants—who often have no actual knowledge of the admissions process at any school and whose only “credential” is that they happened to attend an elite school themselves—are willing to fill this void and make a buck doing it.

Admissions officers can provide real insider tips and level the playing field for the people who most need it. First, we can require students to disclose whether they received any assistance in preparing their applications. You might think that students would just lie, but applicants’ neuroses about jeopardizing their chances of admissions are as effective as sodium pentothal: In the six years I’ve been asking this question on my school’s application, I’ve received confessionals detailing everything from proofreading help from Uncle Bob to writing assistance provided by fellow students, college counselors, and consultants. And if they do lie? Well, I don’t want to give away my methods and sources, but the Internet is quite helpful when it comes to verifying applicant information. (It helps that I’m also a former FBI agent.)

Getting outside help isn’t automatic grounds for rejection (unless the student lies about it), just as not getting help isn’t an automatic in. But knowing the kind of assistance an applicant received provides an additional data point about that person and context for weighing other parts of an application, like a recommender’s assessment of the applicant’s writing ability, or how well the student performed in writing-intensive courses. (Fortunately for me, the LSAT includes a timed writing sample, so in cases of serious doubt I can compare the essay to the writing sample.) In the end, asking students to be candid about what went into their application lets me compare apples to apples, which in my job is the only way to accurately pick the best students.

Next thing admissions officers can do: With so many free and public interactive platforms, like blogs and Twitter, we should offer a peek into what we’re really looking for. Most admissions officials would scoff at this idea, saying that admissions is so holistic that there’s no specific advice to give applicants other than to just “be themselves.” I sympathize with not being able to offer detailed advice, since admissions at elite schools is typically highly subjective and case-specific. But even if most of us can’t give applicants a checklist on what to do, we surely have advice on what not to do. As I tell applicants on my admissions blog, the admissions process is a lot like playing blackjack: There’s plenty of luck involved, and the odds are on the house, but there are a few rules you can follow to increase your chances.

For example, make sure your application is entirely, 100 percent free of typos, grammatical errors, and incorrect punctuation. (You think this is obvious? Then you haven’t spent much time reading personal essays.) Remember that “standing out” is admissions code for “crazy”: Don’t write your essay on cringe-worthy topics like naked yoga (true story), or in “clever” formats like rap and iambic pentameter. And don’t stalk me or the admissions office; don’t send food, gifts, or money. That’s the basic stuff, but I’ve offered more specific guidance on my blog based on my experience reading almost 25,000 admissions files. For instance, “I Love to Argue” is not a particularly sophisticated (or original) theme for an essay to law school. Also, you should know the difference between an obstacle (like being a political refugee, or having faced a serious illness) and a disappointment (like not making a sports team)—and you might be better off not writing about either. Other essay topics to avoid include comparisons between Yale and Star Trek, imaginary conversations with Socrates, and pickup lines addressed to the reader, which leave me wondering whether I should reject the applicant or call my Title IX coordinator.

I’ve found that providing candid advice in my own voice goes a very long way in reassuring students and their parents that there is an actual and mostly reasonable human being on the other side of the admissions black hole. It democratizes the process by making sure that everyone has access to equal information and encourages students who otherwise might not have bothered to apply to throw their hats in the ring. Most importantly, it provides students who don’t have connections—like first-generation college students—with some confidence that they know what’s going on, they’re on the right track, and they’ll be given a fair shake.

Admissions at elite schools is widely believed to be rigged in favor of the privileged and wealthy, and to a certain extent, it is. By closing themselves off behind a wall of secrecy, admissions officers are complicit in creating a market that allows students who are already ahead of the game to get an even greater competitive edge in the process. Without transparency going both ways, the admissions process won’t truly be fair. Admissions officers should lift the veil, give a real voice to the process, and make admissions what it should be: a meritocracy.