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Listening to these conversations, I had to wonder exactly how elite institutions define leadership.I was supposed to find this major criterion holistically in the application. Most often, it was demonstrated in extracurricular activities.
The torrent of woe could make a reader numb: not another student suffering from parents’ divorce, a learning difference, a rare disease, even dandruff!
As I developed the hard eye of a slush pile reader at a popular-fiction agency, I asked my lead readers whether some of these stressors might even be credible.
Why did I hear so many times from the assistant director? Some things can’t be spelled out, but they have to be known.
Application readers must simply pick it up by osmosis, so that the process of detecting objective factors of disadvantage becomes tricky.
In my application pile, many students from immigrant households had excellent grades and test scores but few activities. Many essays lucidly expressed a sense of self and character — no small task in a sea of applicants.
I commented in my notes: “Good student, but not many interests or activities? Less happily, many betrayed the handiwork of pricey application packagers, whose cloying, pompous style was instantly detectable, as were canny attempts to catch some sympathy with a personal story of generalized misery.In a second e-mail, I was told I needed more 1’s and referrals.A referral is a flag that a student’s grades and scores do not make the cut but the application merits a special read because of “stressors” — socioeconomic disadvantages that admissions offices can use to increase diversity.I received an e-mail from the assistant director suggesting I was not with the program: “You’ve got 15 outlier, which is quite a lot.Mainly you gave 4’s and the final scores were 2’s and 2.5’s.” As I continued reading, I should keep an eye on the “percentile report on the e-viewer” and adjust my rankings accordingly.Why was he not top-ranked by the “world’s premier public university,” as Berkeley calls itself? There, we practiced ranking under the supervision of lead readers and admissions officers to ensure our decisions conformed to the criteria outlined by the admissions office, with the intent of giving applicants as close to equal treatment as possible. In principle, a broader examination of candidates is a great idea; some might say it is an ethical imperative to look at the “bigger picture” of an applicant’s life, as our mission was described. Apparently, our Indian-American student needed more extracurricular activities and engineering awards to be ranked a 1. An applicant scoring a 4 or 5 was probably going to be disappointed; a 3 might be deferred to a January entry; students with a 1, 2 or 2.5 went to the top of the pile, but that didn’t mean they were in.Considering the bigger picture has aided Berkeley’s pursuit of diversity after Proposition 209, which in 1996 amended California’s constitution to prohibit consideration of race, ethnicity or gender in admissions to public institutions. the University of Texas, the Supreme Court, too, endorsed race-neutral processes aimed at promoting educational diversity and, on throwing the case back to lower courts, challenged public institutions to justify race as a factor in the holistic process.In practice, holistic admissions raises many questions about who gets selected, how and why.I could see the fundamental unevenness in this process both in the norming Webinars and when alone in a dark room at home with my Berkeley-issued netbook, reading assigned applications away from enormously curious family members.First and foremost, the process is confusingly subjective, despite all the objective criteria I was trained to examine. Could it be because he was a nonresident and had wealthy parents? A.’s, or a lot of applicants whose bigger picture would fail to advance them, or a lot of Jewish and Asian applicants (Berkeley is 43 percent Asian, 11 percent Latino and 3 percent black)?