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David duKor-Jackson

It’s not fair! by David duKor-Jackson

... and why that's OK.

Is among the most overused phrases of petulant children, and virtually anyone trying to make sense of the college admissions process. In either case, it generally doesn’t matter if it’s true, because the situation is probably not going to change.

I can’t speak to the situations for all the children in the world, but I will give you my take on the subject of the college admissions process. The reason the situation is unlikely to change is because the priority is enrolling the desired class, and not fairness. Think about it. When is the last time you heard an admissions officer emphasize how fair the selection process is? Even if fairness was the priority, what would it look like and how would you define it? There is no universal definition. So as it stands, enrollment priorities vary from one institution to the next. The methods employed to achieve those priorities vary just as much.

At one institution, the sole priority is admitting enough students who can be successful. If the admissions staff thinks that you can hack it, you’re in. How can they do that? The application volume is such that there is more capacity for students than the application pool provides.

At another institution the priority is access, and the standards are specified by the state legislature. If you meet those standards, you’re in, and so are thousands of other similarly qualified students.

At yet another institution, the priority is consistency, so that similar decisions are made for similar applicants from the same school, unless there is a recruited athlete, legacy or some other special case for whom inconsistency can be excused.

At a fourth institution, the emphasis is selecting the students who are most likely to enroll, where two-thirds of the class are selected before any regular action candidates are considered.

These are not hypothetical places. I have worked in each one of these admissions offices, and not one of them is MIT. On the topic of MIT admissions, much has been said by me, and others, about our values and priorities. Maybe we share too much, or are trying too hard to help you to understand. Maybe you think the admissions process works like the courtroom, and you can argue your way in. It doesn’t. In fact, the more adversarial you are, the less likely that you are going to be welcomed warmly into a community that admits fewer that 10% of its applicants.

Curiously, it is a byproduct of an extremely selective admission process that makes institutions even more desirable. Even at face value, if an institution is known for selecting only the best and brightest, who among the applicants doesn’t want the cachet that comes along with just being admitted? Beyond that, having the opportunity to spend four years living and learning, collaborating and teaching, working and playing with amazing people doesn’t happen by accident. It is intentional. The faculty and the rest of the university community facilitate that experience, but it all begins with the selection process that students initiate by applying for admission in the hopes that they will be among the select few admitted.

So let’s go back to the concept of fairness, and enrolling the desired class.  Chris cites an example that equates choosing a class to putting together a group to go mountain climbing. This example works for many, but clearly not for all. I grew up in Florida. The state is flat. There are no mountains. So I will try a few different examples.

If one is going to select a basketball team, why bother with tryouts? Why not simply select the tallest players and be done with it?

For a football team, why not choose all the biggest players? Or the fastest?

For a band why would it matter if you had only drummers, or an orchestra made up solely of tubas?

Hopefully, you get the idea. If you don’t, there’s probably nothing else that I can say.

21 responses to “It’s not fair!”

  1. Adarsh says:

    This post removed all doubt in my mind about your admission procedure!

    Thanks for writing it smile

  2. Jayant says:

    As students of MIT told me, MIT’s admission process is a lot different. Thanks for the doubt clearing.

  3. Ashery Mbilinyi says:

    If one is going to select a basketball team, why bother with tryouts? Why not simply select the tallest players and be done with it?I real like that part!

    Maybe, a person from a village background with 3rd world public education will get accepted to join MIT for graduate studies in fall 2014.

  4. Piper '13 says:

    Lydia, I love your drawings. Jus’ sayin’.

  5. Piper '13 says:

    Dude, I really just tabbed over to the wrong entry from Google Reader >.>

    Anyway, what I wanted to say on _this_ entry is that, while I’ve always loved the years-old mountain-climbing metaphor, the others at the bottom really made me laugh. And possibly made it clear why Admissions can’t be run the way so many people say it’s run ^_^

  6. Nasser '17 says:

    David, you really cleared up this admissions debate, your examples hit the nail on its head, Thank you.

  7. Cool post! You are right, there is no universal definition of the word fair! That’s why Merriam-Webster has eleven! hah raspberry
    Even Shakespeare had his own definition of fair… A very dismal one..
    “Faire is foule, and foule is faire.”

  8. Siddhant says:

    ur maybe right but very unfortunately thats not the way the world outside of MIT functions.

  9. yolochka says:

    Dear David,
    I really appreciate your quick reply and explanation. However, I can’t agree fully with the reasoning. This is true that I haven’t read all the blogs on this site. I will try as time permits to read more. I feel I may have insulted someone here, but it wasn’t my intention. Unfortunately, my writing could be misconceived because English is not my first language and I’m often unable to express my thoughts clearly. I apologize for that.
    I do not suggest that every group is admitted at the rate of applications submitted. That wouldn’t make sense of course. But it’s still very odd that 15% of female applicants are admitted vs. 7.5% for male applicants. Is it possible that female applicants are more qualified than male applicants? Let’s simplify by looking at counts, not percentages. Suppose you read 200 random applications. Of them 100 is from females and 100 is from males. You don’t know their gender (we have to make in assumption that it’s possible), and you only judge based on merit. Let’s say at the end you recommended 23 applicants (from 200) for admission. Then you looked up their gender and it turned out that there were 15 females and 8 males. How likely is it? As someone who is familiar with American education, I claim it’s very unlikely. So, this means that you give females a huge boost in your application process. I agree some boost is needed, but I argue against a boost that doubles chances for females. Every time a group gets a preferential treatment, there is another group that suffers. In this case, if you have 2 equally good candidates, a girl has a much higher likelihood to be selected over a boy. I repeat, it’s okay to some degree if the goal is to get more women scientists. But 15% vs. 7.5% that was shocking to me, so I felt compelled to comment. Of course, I understand MIT is a private institution that is free to set its priorities.Thank you for reading and considering my opinion.

  10. David duKor-Jackson says:


    It seems that either you did not read the blog above (and an entire series of blogs by Chris) or you simply do not understand what our message is. You would probably argue that we should admit students in approximately the same proportion that they appear in our applicant pool. It is an understandable argument, but it is irrelevant. I think that many can look at the admission statistics of MIT and other institutions and identify admit rate trends that they find troubling. For example, highly qualified International students are abundant in our applicant pool, yet they are admitted at a rate of 3.7% compared to 11.4% for US citizens and permanent residents. Fair or not, that is simply the way that it is.

    Regardless of your characterization, no one gets turned away from MIT simply because they are are male, and no one gets admitted to MIT simply because they are female. Every student admitted to MIT is judged on their merit. Of course MIT will also judge students on community engagement and impact, alignment with our mission and institutional fit, as well as likelihood to maximize the opportunities that MIT offers.

    This is who we are. We provide this information so that you and your son can make an informed decision about whether this is the kind of educational community that you are interested in. If it is not, there are many other institutions that you can consider.

  11. yolochka says:

    I was troubled today when I calculated from your data that for the applicants in 2010-11, 15% of female applicants were admitted while only 7.5% of male applicants were admitted. As a mother of a son who dreams about MIT I feel this is very unfair. Yes, I expected the girls would be given more advantage in the admission process, but this disparity shocked me. In our times, the girls have the same opportunities as boys to succeed in math and natural sciences. Still MIT turns away potentially talented engineers and scientists just because they are males, while giving disproportionately more girls the opportunity to study at one the leading STEM institution. This is really nearsighted. I don’t understand why it was decided that there should be about the same number of boys and girls at an institution like MIT. I went to a prestigious technical school (growing up in a different country), and there were more boys than girls in my class which didn’t bother anyone. We were judged based on our individual merit, not on gender.

  12. Barry McGuire says:

    I would argue that the likelihood of there being an equal amount of male and female applicants to MIT is very low. While I don’t know the statistic exactly I would assume that a more realistic sample of the application pool would be 300 student. 200 male and 100 female. If the ratio of 15% to 7.5% was applied to this group of applications. There would be 15 of each male and female applicants accepted. It was just the first thing that I thought of when I read your comment and I thought it warranted a comment.

  13. David duKor-Jackson says:


    First, a few reading suggestions…

    Diversity or Merit?
    In Praise of Holistic Admissions
    The Difficulty With Data

    Second, you are making a lot of assumptions. Admissions decisions are not made in a vacuum. Every applicant evaluation is done holistically, taking into account literally everything that we learn about them through submission of the application, supporting documents and interview.

    A couple of things to keep in mind.

    An applicant’s gender is a dimension of one’s “diversity.”

    An applicant’s interest in an institution does not necessarily correlate with the desirability of that applicant to the institution.

    One need not graduate from MIT in order to become a scientist.

  14. yolochka says:

    Barry, you are correct. I was trying to make it easy because a lot of people have a problem with percentages. So I just created an artificial situation when David is given 100 female applications and 100 male applications randomly chosen from their respective pools (approximately 5,000 females and 10,000 males).
    Let’s do something else. Assume male and female applicants are equally likely to be prepared and have the qualities the MIT is looking for (including diversity). Assume, the freshman class size is set to be 1,500. So, out of 15,000 applicants we select 10% most fitting. Assume we don’t care for gender at this point, so we end up with approximately 500 girls and 1000 boys. Then some authority comes and says that we should have the same numbers for boys and girls. This means that 250 boys must go off the list so that 250 girls can be added. As a result, we’ll have 750 boys and 750 girls. Now we can be proud that MIT admits as many girls as boys! Well… obviously those 250 boys who would be admitted if they were judged only based on their merit become losers. And 250 girls who were less qualified than those boys can now be trained to become future scientists. As a female I should be happy for them.

  15. David duKor-Jackson says:


    I know that you are just trying to make sense of this admission process. There are some things that you will simply not be able to reconcile. For example, given the volume of competitive applicants and the subjective nature of our admission selection process, even if your son was “the most qualified applicant” there is not anything “that would surely get him admission.” I think that lack of certainty is probably the most difficult thing for students and parents to deal with.

    Other items…

    Are proportionally more women admitted than men? Yes, and that trend will continue as long as female applicants are proportionally more interesting to the admissions committee than male applicants.

    Our graduates lead and change the world, through service. While the specifics of our admission policies evolve over time, the basic underlying philosophy remains solidly rooted in our institutional mission and values. While some of what our graduates go on to achieve can be attributed to qualities that made them competitive candidates for admissions, some is also due in no small part to the exceptional experiences that they have as members of this community.

    As for falling behind, if the energy and productivity that I see on this campus everyday is falling behind, I guess I’m just going to have to live with that.

  16. Conerned observer says:


    Perfect SAT scores, being a leader in community volunteering projects, gold medals in Maths Olympiads, captain of the school football team etc do not by itself guarantee any child a place in MIT or at any of the top colleges in the US. There is always an element that is not within the child’s control.

    You said that “But my son has a dream, and it’s MIT.” MIT is not the only place to get a high quality education. There are many fine universities in the US. The most important thing is that the child is happy and finds himself in an environment that both nurtures and challenges him.

    All attachments, even if healthy, if unfulfilled will only lead to disappointment. It is unhealthy to have such an obsession over one college. If he wishes to aspire to be a Nobel Laureate, then according to the data from your blog, he would have a better chance at U of Cambridge than MIT.

  17. yolochka says:

    Thank you, David. I do appreciate your replies, especially given the crunch time. I’ve read the blogs at the links and want to clarify that I’m not speaking against holistic admission. I agree holistic approach is better than just looking at test scores. And the fact is, based on what I read so far, my son has a very good chance to be admitted to MIT and other top universities. You may have noticed my only complain has been the gender bias. My son can be the most qualified applicant, but the only thing that would surely get him admission (given his merit) would be a sex change surgery, which I don’t think he would go for smile Although it would be interesting to find out what you would do if you got an applicant who would want to be an MIT student so badly that he would change his sex smile.

    I’m just curious how these decisions are made. Someone has decided that MIT should admit the same numbers of boys and girls, and that’s it. This year, someone decides that too many Asian students are admitted, and you’ll have different percentages to balance. I know you are doing your job the best you can.

    I agree with you on “One need not graduate from MIT in order to become a scientist”. That’s very true. But my son has a dream, and it’s MIT. That’s why I’m here trying to make sense.

    I looked at MIT’s mission. Here it is:
    “The mission of MIT is to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century.

    The Institute is committed to generating, disseminating, and preserving knowledge, and to working with others to bring this knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges. MIT is dedicated to providing its students with an education that combines rigorous academic study and the excitement of discovery with the support and intellectual stimulation of a diverse campus community. We seek to develop in each member of the MIT community the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind.”

    This is a great mission. Among other things, it’s to “educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship” and to provide “its students with an education that combines rigorous academic study and the excitement of discovery with the support and intellectual stimulation of a diverse campus community.” What I hoped to find was something about preparing new leaders in “science, technology, and other areas of scholarship”, not just people who will “serve the nation and the world” and “work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind”. So your admission policies are in line with this mission. I was wrong in my thinking that an institution like MIT would have as one of its goals preparing new leaders in science and technology, people who would change the world, not just serve it. I was just naive.

    I understand the number of Nobel prize laureates is just one measure of an institution’s success in developing such leaders. But that’s easy to google, so here are the numbers of graduates who have become Nobel prize laureates: U of Cambridge (65), Harvard (55), U of Columbia (38), U of Chicago (30), UC Berkeley (29), MIT (27). MIT fairs okay. I wonder if the new admission policies may results in MIT falling behind. But again, it’s probably not a big concern for those who make decisions about percentages.
    Anyways those are philosophical questions. Thank you for hearing my opinion.

  18. yolochka says:

    David, you gave me a very intelligent reply, thank you! It leaves no room for arguing because our opinions couldn’t, and don’t have to, be reconciled. That’s fine. I want you to know that i appreciate our conversation.

    I’m pretty sure my son will be admitted to at least one of the top colleges and he’ll become what he wants to become. Personally, I would like him to study close to home and then apply to a grad school at MIT or similar place, but I’m going to support his decision. He’s applying next year, so there is time.

    Conerned observer, anyone is entitled to a dream. It’s not an obsession. I agree with you, there are many good schools. Thank you for your opinion.

  19. Chester Claff says:

    I have an M.I.T. B.S. degree (1950), M.I.T. Ph.D. degree (1953), and two years of postdoctoral study at M.I.T.
    Five years ago my grandson, with exemplary credentials in my opinion, applied for admission to M.I.T. I was deeply disappointed that he was not accepted, but now I am very grateful to the biased, since-discredited admissions officer at that time for turning down his application.
    He now has dual Bachelor’s degrees (Civil Engineering and Music) from NCSU and is enrolled in a full 3-year scholarship for his Ph.D. at Oxford University in England.
    M.I.T. no longer stands for merit as it did in the 40s and 50s. Karl Compton would be rolling over in his grave if he knew.

  20. yolochka says:

    Dear Dr. Claff, I’m almost speechless! Wow! I looked it up, and learned that “Ms. Jones deserves much of the credit for diversifying the undergraduate class. During his (sic) tenure, the proportion of women rose from 28 to 42 percent” (Truth and Admissions, The Chronicle of Higher Education). The woman who cheated to get a job, and kept cheating for 28 years, was in charge of admission to MIT! It’s unbelievable! I guess not having a cable TV in our house is to blame for me being clueless. And she is still giving advice on admission and some people consider her respectable. Wow. Thank you Dr. Claff.

  21. Chester Claff says:

    Dear “yolochka”:
    The process continues. The present (female) President of M.I.T. recognizes the Institute’s “progress” in politically correct student enrollment. Her chief objective now is to carry that politically correct bias over to faculty. The Institute is very open in this regard, and if you will read their advertisements for professorships (for example in Chemical and Engineering News), you will see between the lines that white males need not apply.

    Thank you for your kind words about my opinions.