Mashable is running a story today called New Facebook App Tells College Applicants What Their Changes Are. It's created quite a buzz on different social network sites, and been syndicated to CNN among a bunch of other sites.
Here are some excerpts from the article, written by staff Mashable writer Sarah Kessler.
Startup Splash Networks wants to make selecting schools to send an application to easier. On Tuesday, the company is launching a Facebook app called AdmissionSplash that shows prospective college students how likely it is that they will be admitted to each school on their lists.
The app asks students for their basic information: test scores, address, and other factors that affect admissions, like whether they volunteer or play sports. It then uses an algorithm to give users a desirability rating as well as the likelihood, ranging from “very poor” to “very good,” of getting into the schools. Admission Splash currently runs customized equations for about 1,500 schools that it developed using the admission data they release.
Applying to college, especially selective colleges, is really tough. It's hard to know how to gauge your likelihood of acceptance. I'm sure the AdmissionSplash people are only trying to create a helpful tool.*
However, this tool is unhelpful. In fact, it is much worse than unhelpful. It, and tools like it, actively harm the college admissions process.
I spend a lot of time on College Confidential, specifically the MIT forum. Every summer, as students begin the college search process, newbies flood the boards with "chance" threads, in which they post their GPA, SAT/ACT scores, and some extracurriculars, and ask for complete strangers on the Internet to assess their likelihood of admission.
So last summer, I posted a thread on CC entitled Reminder: No one, not even me, can give you an accurate chance at MIT!
What I said then, of CC chance threads, is true now of AdmissionSplash:
No one on this forum, not even me, can give you a meaningful chance at MIT.
- Because the factors of admissions that can be readily apprehended in a forum post (GPA, SAT scores, etc) are in many ways the least important in our process.
- Because listing the school you go to or ECAs you are involved in does not communicate the degree to which you are a vibrant member of the community, does not communicate what your coaches or teachers or mentors will say about you, and those are the things we care about.
- Because it does not include any information about the interview, which is another critical insight into the candidacy of any prospective applicant.
- Because a forums post cannot communicate the complexity of an applicant's life story, circumstances, and so forth; even if they were to replicate all the answers to their essay questions, we still have additional data external to the application that we consider in understanding an applicant's context.
- Because of a billion other reasons along the way.
I understand that chancing may be fun, or a way to blow off steam, or just something to do because we haven't made the app available yet.
However, from my own time on forums for undergraduate and graduate programs, I know that people can take chancing quite seriously, that it can affect where they apply, that it is ripe for mockery (or can itself be used to degrade the self-esteem of others), and so forth.
I don't want anyone who isn't aware of this to be misled into thinking that CC chances are accurate or meaningful in any way (they aren't and could never be!).
Programs like AdmissionSplash are bad because they emphasize the wrong things. Because only the raw numbers can be abstracted from an application and put into a computation, only raw numbers are (meaningfully) considered in AdmissionSplash.
But, as we say here over and over and over again, the numbers are probably the least important part of an application to MIT.
Not that numbers don't matter. If your grades and scores suggest that you are not prepared to do the work at MIT, you will not be admitted, because we don't want to admit people just to have them fail out.
But once students have demonstrated academic preparedness - as the majority of MIT applicants can and do - then the additional returns accrued by marginal increases in academic performance diminish markedly. When comparing two applicants who have scored in the latter band, we're not sitting there saying "well this person has a 750, and this person has a 780", we're saying "both of these applicants are academically qualified for MIT, so which one would contribute more to the community here?"
But programs like AdmissionSplash can't do this. They can't do it for all of the reasons I mentioned in the CC thread. They don't have all the information admissions offices do. They don't have all of the perspective. They can't make sense of the application in its whole.
And to the extent that people think tools like AdmissionSplash are useful, they will begin, subconsciously or consciously, to tailor their applications to focus on things that look good on AdmissionSplash, since that's the only heuristic they have. I'm not a technological determinist by any means. But there is still something to the law of the instrument, or, in its proverbial form, "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."
AdmissionSplash may be more accurate at some schools than at others, depending on their selectivity, competitiveness, and how their admissions process works.
But if you're thinking of applying to selective schools - or, at the very least, if you're thinking of applying to MIT - I beg you: please, please do not pay attention to "chance" threads, sites, applications, voodoo rituals, seances, or anything else. At their best, they cannot help you; at their worst, they do great harm.
* I will note, however, that not only does AdmissionSplash pull quite a bit of data from your Facebook profile, but when filling out the "chance" form it also asks for things like high school and home address. It's not immediately obvious why these are necessary, because the data sets AdmissionSplash says they pull stats from don't break down by high school and home address. In other words, they are getting a lot more private information from you than they themselves say they need. While I have no reason to believe that they are not on the level, it is always best practices on the Internet to be skeptical of anyone asking for this sort of information when they have not demonstrated a clear need for it (and often even when they have). Especially when, as in the case with AdmissionSplash's parent company Splash Networks, you can't find anything else on the Internet about them. Yet another reason to proceed with caution - or better yet, to not proceed at all.