Oct 20, 2011
In Praise Of Holistic Admissions
Posted in: Process & Statistics
In last week's blog entry Diversity or Merit? I included the following quote:
One of the most important things about college is its role as a socializing institution. College is a place where you meet all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds and you learn from each other. It is, properly constituted, an environment which fosters intellectual, ideological, and social cross-pollination. You need diversity - broadly defined - for college to matter.
I hope that this quote is somewhat self-evident. When I said college was a "socializing institution", I didn't mean that it's a place to idly chat with people (although it is that). I mean it is an environment within which one undergoes socialization. And so we have to take a great deal of care in constituting the class, because whom it is composed of will greatly affect your experience within it.
This leads me to another point I'd like to discuss, which is the importance of the idea of "holistic admissions." We have a holistic admissions process here at MIT, and we talk about it a lot. But what does it mean? Why do we have it? And what does it do for our class?
When we say that we have a holistic admissions process it essentially means that our admissions process takes into account many different factors, and that we understand that it is the interaction of these myriad factors which constitutes the applicant. We deploy "holistic" to differentiate against admissions systems which only consider so-called "objective academic data" (and I am air-quoting so hard I might sprain a knuckle) in their admissions process.
Sometimes, holistic academic processes are criticized as being misguided. "Academic merit", it is suggested, should be the sole dispositive factor controlling the admissions process.
Suppose, for a moment, we didn't have a holistic process. Suppose that we wanted to build an application system around "merit", defined, as it always seems to be, by test scores and grades. (I'd certainly contest this definition, but will concede it here for the sake of argument).
We could build a working admissions system around this premise. A very simple version might look something like this: create an index by multiplying SAT score and GPA. Rank-order the list by the highest product of the two, admit the top 1,000 students automatically and deny the rest.
Would this really be a better admissions process? Well, I guess I could go home pretty early to get a full night's rest after turning on the Admissions Machine the day after applications are due. Then again, I'd probably not sleep very well if this is all I did. And the students we admitted wouldn't feel as home here. Because what we try to do is build a community, and an admissions machine cannot produce a community. It can only produce a bunch of test scores and GPAs crammed into classrooms.
Even worse, such a system would produce a very thin slice of the population, because the segment of students perched atop the SATs are a comparatively homogenous bunch. SAT scores are strongly correlated with parent income, and parent income is strongly correlated with their parent's income. Now obviously there are many factors at play here, but the trend is clear: the (multigenerationally) wealthier you are, the higher you score. All of this is to say that, if scores were all we cared about, our campus would be overwhelmingly socioeconomically similar.
That's limiting. It's limiting because of the scope of issues and problems which people have experienced, and it's limiting because of the solutions which are likely to come to the minds of people. In short, it lends itself to group think and experential echo chambers. At that point, it's not a college as a socializing institution: it's a Great Gatsby garden party.
I think that most people intuitively understand this. I think that most people intuitively agree with the idea that the best function of an admissions office is to constitute a class of sufficiently prepared individuals who have a diversity of skills, experiences, knowledge, background, who can all learn from each other. That there is something important about considering things besides test scores and grades - things like teacher letters, essays, and backgrounds - in a holistic process.
Now, in a holistic - and fundamentally subjective process - not everyone is going to agree with every decision we make. Some people would strike a slightly different balance in terms of class composition. Students who were admitted tend to think the schools that admitted them made the right decision; students who were not admitted quite understandably disagree.
Point is: when people bring up hypothetical comparison cases, saying "well this person got in, and this person didn't, and that's not a good decision", it's really just arguing over the margins. Folks aren't really disagreeing with the overall model of holistic admissions. They just don't like the marginal output that any particular iteration of the process might produce. But they all agree in principle. Because selective college admissions is about finding the right mix of students who will, as a collective, form the best class that can be admitted to that particular university at that particular time.
In fact, in a certain sense you could say that our job, as an admissions office, is emphatically not to admit the "best students" to MIT, but rather to admit those applicants who will become the best MIT students. We are selecting the right mix of ingredients from which MIT graduates will be produced. This is why, incidentally, David put so much emphasis on making the most of your opportunities. Because we don't care about what you've done so far as much as we care about what you're going to do at MIT.
As Booker T. Washington wrote:
"Success is to be measured not so much by the positions that one has reached in life, as by the obstacles one has overcome trying to succeed."
The idea is best understood with a metaphor drawn from my favorite sport of football:
MIT isn't the end zone.
It's where you get the ball when you start the next drive.