In college admissions, what matters most: SAT scores, grades, or just luck?

    Steven got nearly perfect SAT scores, but he didn’t get into Princeton. Suzanne has straight A’s, but Brown rejected her. And Samantha — Samantha! — got into both schools, even though her scores and grades are pretty mediocre.

    Can you believe it?

    Welcome to an average school day in April, the cruelest month of the calendar for America’s upper-middle-class teens. If you live in a leafy American suburb, as I do, you simply can’t escape the drudgery and the drama of the college admissions sweepstakes. Everywhere you go, the conversation is the same: Who got in where, and why? Kids like to talk, of course. But in the old days, it took a little while for the word to get around. Now it’s just a mouse-click away. And that just makes things worse.

    Worst of all, though, most of our children seem to think that the college admissions process is a meritocracy: The “best” students get into the “best” schools. That’s precisely why they express such surprise — and, often, outrage — when an apparently ordinary student gets into a top-rated college. She’s not that smart! No fair!

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    Let’s leave aside the question of what “smart” means, or whether SAT scores and grades provide a useful measure of it. Colleges don’t want classes composed solely of kids with perfect grades and scores. They also want “diversity” — of enthusiasms, experiences and, yes, ethnicities.

    The kids know all of that, too, but they still say it’s a numbers game. And for a brief moment, about a century ago, it was. Fearful that its classes were filled with mediocre young men from prep schools, Harvard College adopted the College Entrance Examination Board as the major basis for admission in 1905.

    Other leading universities quickly followed suit. So for a few years anyone with a high enough score — and a big enough bank account —could get in. But the result, to the chagrin of America’s WASP gentry, was a steep spike in Jewish students.

    By 1908, the fraction of Jewish students in Harvard’s freshman class had jumped from almost nil to 7 percent; a decade later, it rose to 20 percent. At Yale, meanwhile, an admissions officer complained that the roster of new students “might easily be mistaken for a recent roll call at the Wailing Wall.”

    To elite university officials, this development threatened nothing less than the destruction of the elite university itself. “The summer hotel that is ruined by admitting Jews meets its fate because they drive away the Gentiles,” Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell warned, “and then after the Gentiles have left, they leave also.”

    The solution was simple: Request more information about the “character” of the applicants. Starting in the 1920s, Harvard applicants had to submit essays, recommendations and lists of extracurricular activities. They also had to answer questions about “Race and Color,” “Maiden Name of Mother” and, believe it or not, “What change, if any, has been made since birth in your own name or that of your father? (Explain fully.)”

    That made it a whole lot easier to identify — and, of course, to reject — Jewish students. But you could never tell for sure. So Harvard’s admissions office devised a secret labeling system. The designation “j1” meant that a student was “conclusively Jewish;” “j2” indicated a “preponderance of evidence” towards Jewishness; and “j3” meant it was a “possibility.”

    Ironically, then, our current system for determining “diversity” — essays, recommendations, and so on — was born in a bigoted attempt to prevent it. Today, it’s unheard of for someone to scour applications to figure out a kid’s religious background. But colleges still try to gauge each applicant’s “character,” which is no easier to measure than “Jewishness” was in the 1920s.

    So to get in, it’s not enough to be smart. You also have to be fortunate, which is something nobody likes to talk about around here. We want to believe that the process is systematic, rational and predictable. And, most of all, we want to believe that we have earned whatever we get.

    But any honest admissions officer will tell you that isn’t so. Sure, you can do any number of things to improve your odds. At the end of the day, though, it’s still a crapshoot. A bunch of people will sit around a table and try to judge your character, as well as your smartness. And they’ll make highly imperfect estimates of both.

    That’s why Swarthmore psychology professor Barry Schwartz has suggested that colleges set a standard — of grades, scores, and extracurricular activities — and make a random selection among all the candidates that meet the standard. The colleges would end up accepting kids that are every bit as talented as the current ones are. And we wouldn’t have to pretend that everyone “earned” their way in.

    So if you didn’t get accepted by the college of your choice, please don’t take it personally. And if you did land your top school, don’t let it go to your head. Yes, you got into a great college. But you also got lucky.


    That’s History is a partnership between WHYY NewsWorks and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

    Jonathan Zimmerman is an historian with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory”  and is currently writing a history of sex education around the world.

    This article was previously published in the Christian Science Monitor.

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