Each fall, a ritual is repeated across the United States. Millions of us have been through it. Few remember the experience fondly.
I’m referring to the personal statement section of college applications, which is required to obtain admission, at most four-year institutions. High school students strive to tell a story which showcases who they are, and what they’ve experienced, overcome and accomplished. They work to stand apart from their peers — each of whom also aims to convey uniqueness.
For those who are fortunate, this piece of writing, combined with one’s academic record, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities, and teacher recommendation letters, will result in admission to the university of their dreams. Of course, having parents or other relatives who attended the university themselves, or donated considerable sums of money to the institution, can be of great help as well.
Each admissions committee has a different view of the significance and value of personal statements. Generally, these essays are viewed as a window into where a prospective student is coming from, and what he or she offers to a university.
However, there are a number of problems with the personal statement process, making it biased and unfair. As an alternative, universities should include a questionnaire which delves deep into a student’s personal experiences, in a more controlled, quantifiable and objective manner.
Personal Statements Increase The Potential For Bias, Unfairly & Arbitrarily Helping Or Hurting Students
The ongoing litigation around the admissions practices of Harvard has drawn considerable attention. Students for Fair Admissions is a legal advocacy group, led by conservative legal activist Edward Blum, a prominent opponent of the use of race in college admissions.
Students for Fair Admissions is suing on behalf of Asian-American applicants who were denied entrance to Harvard, and believe that the university has engaged in discriminatory admissions practices. Amongst other findings, an analysis conducted for the plaintiffs by economist Peter Arcidiacono of Duke University, found that Asian-American applicants were, on average, rated lower on “positive personality” traits, including likability, courage and kindness, than all other ethnic groups. This was particularly surprising, since Asian-Americans who went through alumni interviews, actually scored higher than white applicants.
While Harvard contests Aricidiacono’s research, Students for Fair Admission argues this is just one of many indicators of widespread bias against Asian Americans. They argue that based on criteria like academics and extracurricular activities, far more Asian Americans should have been admitted to Harvard in recent years (Asian-Americans have the lowest acceptance rate of any group of Harvard applicants). Setting aside our individual views of the role race should play in admissions decisions, it seems something is amiss at Harvard.
Subjective criteria play a large role in earning admission to universities. Recommendation letters, after-school activities, personal statements and interviews, are all examples of this.
It is reasonable for universities to seek a fuller picture of an applicant’s ability to contribute to, and benefit from an institution. Admissions should not be based solely on grades or test scores — long-term success in life certainly isn’t.
Yet, giving undue weight to such information, poses serious risks to the fairness of the process. Personal statements, in particular, are fraught with peril. While a university sets certain parameters for admissions officers, personal preferences and biases are an inescapable reality.
Decades of research has taught us that bias is a fact of human existence, and we are often not aware of the extent of it. Our views are shaped by a variety of social forces, and we regularly engage in flawed patterns of thinking. We are far from fully objective or rational. We have strong personal preferences, which color how we behave. Admissions officers are not immune to these realities.
Suppose an admissions officer reviews an excellent personal statement, detailing how a promising high school lacrosse player overcame obstacles on the field, and what she learned from this experience. Let’s assume this admissions officer holds a subtle belief, not out of malice, but rather simple ignorance, that athletics is not a very worthwhile pursuit.
The admissions officer might give short shrift to the applicant’s essay (again, this may not be done intentionally, or even consciously). This places the applicant at a relative disadvantage for gaining admission, through absolutely no fault of her own.
The reverse is also possible. Perhaps an admissions officer views lacrosse as a better predictor of whether someone will contribute to a university, than participation in the drama club, or volunteering at a local soup kitchen. In this situation, our lacrosse player gains an unfair advantage over others.
Similar biases can manifest against students whose essays engage with questions of how class, race or gender impacted lives. Or, perhaps those who don’t use their writing to demonstrate how they were affected by such issues, might seem blissfully unaware of such concerns. To some admissions officers, they now appear less worthy as an applicant.
This is not speculative. The Wall Street Journal reported on some of the lesser known factors Harvard looks at, in selecting applicants. One was a compelling personal statement — in this case, the example cited was the narrative of a student who wrote about being bullied for his foreign accent. To paraphrase the Harvard official cited“How could you not feel for this kid?”
It it is only natural to have empathy for someone who was treated so badly. Yet, this statement underscores how what is discussed in a personal statement, and the way it connects with a particular reader, can ultimately influence admissions decisions.
The admissions process remains opaque — and universities seem to prefer this status quo. Therefore, it is difficult to pinpoint just how often personal statements impact admissions decisions, and how biases and personal preferences might play a role. Yet, what we are learning about Harvard, and possibly now Yale, tells us that when it comes to fair admissions practices, all is not well.
We must weigh the value of a personal statement, in facilitating a better understanding of an applicant, against the potential for inequitable, arbitrary treatment, or an applicant gaining an unfair advantage, based on the worldview and preferences of who is reading. Eliminating personal statements, as currently structured, is the most realistic way to achieve this goal.
Personal Statements Advantage More Affluent Students
In theory, a personal statement is an opportunity for a student to reflect deeply, and showcase who he or she is. An essay should be honest, personal, and authentic.
There is an industry of personal statement coaches and consultants, dedicated to helping prospective college students craft the best essay possible. The price of these coaches vary, from a little as a few hundred dollars, to well into the thousands. Some are former university admissions officers, allowing them to offer students unique insights into the process.
These professionals aren’t necessarily writing essays for students. Rather, they might guide students towards writing a well-crafted essay, one which does a better job of tailoring that to what an admissions committee might find compelling.
Obviously, such coaching isn’t accesible for everyone. Students from poorer or even middle class backgrounds may be less able to afford these sorts of services. In some cases, wealthier students might attend schools where assistance is available, on campus itself.
As a result, well-off students are likely to gain an edge, in terms of submitting essays which better connect with admissions officers. This only helps increase their chances of admission.
Affluent students are also more likely to have highly educated parents, who might be able to help craft and edit their child’s essays, or have friends who can do so. It stands to reason that the son of an attorney from Santa Monica, has a much higher chance of effective parental assistance, than the daughter of a restaurant worker from Watts.
Such advantages, and, as a corollary, disadvantages, are present not just in the world of university admissions, but life in general. We cannot hope to entirely eliminate them. However, we should work to limit their impact.
Instead Of Using Personal Statements, Universities Should Use Questionnaires & Letters of Recommendation, To Gain A Full Idea Of An Applicant’s Personal Profile
College admissions decisions should consider more than just an applicant’s grades & test scores. It is reasonable for a university to seek out a broader profile of an applicant. However, this can be done in a manner which is less vulnerable to bias and manipulation.
The vast majority of universities ask students to provide information regarding the extracurricular activities they engaged in during high school, both in terms of the nature of the work done, as well as the number of hours required. Using these metrics, universities can gauge how a student used his or her time.
Letters of recommendation provide admissions officers with deeper insights into what makes an applicant tick. Teachers, as well as outside community leaders, are often in a unique vantage point to understand what a particular student offers
Lastly, it is possible for universities to develop a meaningful understanding of who a student is, without requiring personal statements. Besides letters of recommendation (where such issues might be discussed), a university receives (or can request) information regarding the zip code where a student grew up, and the schools he or she attended.
They can inquire as to the income and education levels of his or her household, whether they were raised by a single parent or other relative, or grew up in a two-parent household. If a student worked part time during high school, or had to commute to a better school outside of his or her neighborhood, this is the sort of information that can be discerned through brief, specific questions.
Such data serves as a window into the challenges a student faced, and what he or she overcame. Yet, by keeping such an inquiry fact-driven, rather than depending on a narrative, the sorts of biases discussed earlier are greatly reduced.
Some might argue that these changes depersonalize the admissions process, making it more metric-driven. I wholeheartedly agree.
It is important that we gain a sense of who applicants are, and what they’ve experienced, without allowing our biased brains to be swayed by a particular narrative, and unfairly privilege or discount any applicant. We must strive to learn more about applicants, while keeping the process objective.
University admissions are far too important to hinge on personal statements, as currently structured. We can do better. We must do better, for the college applicants of the future. It’s time for personal statements to go.