Ethical College Admissions: Efficiency vs. Making the Right Call

Jim Jump wonders if speed should really be a factor in reviewing applications.

February 12, 2018

The average person finds the selective college admissions process confusing and mysterious. But is that coincidental or intentional?

Some of that is inevitable. Colleges and universities are independent entities, not members of some higher education cabal, and they are motivated primarily by self-interest. They are concerned about institutional goals and needs and not as much about the collateral damage for applicants and college counselors. As a result there are a multitude of admission plans, deadlines and ways to apply.

It is also the case that admission, and particularly holistic admission, is more art than science. To mix artistic metaphors, sculpting a class is more Jackson Pollock than paint by numbers. Comparing individuals with different strengths and backgrounds requires a complex calculus. Do you reward accomplishment or potential? Talent or effort? How important is context?

The confusion or lack of transparency may be deliberate. Making sausage (or scrapple, for those who grew up in the vicinity of Philadelphia) may be an apt metaphor for admitting a class. The finished product may be appealing, but you don’t really want to know how it’s made.

The lack of clarity may also be self-serving. Several years ago a Chronicle of Higher Education article described college admission as having “mystique,” and transparency is the enemy of mystique.

Of all the things the public doesn’t know about the college admissions process, the one that might provoke the greatest outcry is how little time colleges spend reading applications compared to how much time students spend completing them. Seventeen or 18 years of a student’s life, including four years of high school and several hours spent filling out applications and writing essays, are often judged in mere minutes.

Is the ratio between time spent applying and time spent reading the application increasing? Admissions offices are under pressure by presidents, provosts, boards and even bond-rating agencies to increase application numbers, and yet rarely are they provided more staff to process and evaluate those applications.

That tension drives a number of admission practices. The acceleration of deadlines and the increase in early-decision and early-action programs are at least partly about trying to spread out reading time.

The newest practice, highlighted in a recent Wall Street Journal article with the title “Some Elite Colleges Review an Application in 8 Minutes (or Less),” is committee-based evaluation (CBE), previously reported on here in "Admissions Insider," (where admissions officers read applications in teams of two. According to the article, committee-based evaluation is used at institutions including Penn, Rice, Bucknell, Georgia Tech, Caltech and Colorado College.

A senior admissions officer at Bucknell, which adopted CBE a year ago, told The Wall Street Journal that the team approach is a more humane way to review applications, and I see that. I always worry about the mental health of my colleagues on the college side during reading season, when they may spend 10 hours or more in solitary confinement to get the daily reading quota done. It’s trial by ordeal, and it’s exhausting. No matter how professional you are, the essay that’s cute and witty at 9 a.m. may be clichéd and annoying 13 hours later.

There’s also some evidence to suggest that the traditional method of reading applications may cause staff burnout and attrition, sometimes right as reading season ends. Is that an issue for our profession, which is dependent on attracting and retaining good people?

Committee-based evaluation provides an element of quality control to the reading process, as you have a colleague to compare impressions with in real time. It also is a great way to train and help young staff members grow as professionals. Reading applications involves a different skill set than fall travel, and in my experience too many new admission officers are hired for the latter and then thrown into the former without a lot of training.

The more important question is whether CBE is a better way to read applications. Bucknell reports that a team of two reviews an application in six to eight minutes compared with 12 to 15 minutes for one person reading alone. That’s actually leisurely compared with the four minutes per application reported last year by the University of Pennsylvania. That may make CBE more efficient, but is it better?

I see clear advantages in reading in pairs, but I am less sold on an approach where one person evaluates the “data” part of the application -- transcript and test scores -- while the other reads the “voice” part -- essays and recommendations. In college I learned about Gestalt psychology, which states that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts in a human being. I tend to believe that the same is true of an individual’s college application. I’m also skeptical of the claim that two admissions staffers reading an application for eight minutes each is the same as one person reading for 16 minutes.

That leads to two other questions. How much time is necessary to make an informed decision? How much time does a student who has chosen to apply deserve from the admissions office? The answers to those two questions may not be the same.

Even if the staff at Penn can read and evaluate an application in four minutes, should they? Does a review process that short constitute lack of appreciation and respect for the time, energy and vulnerability put forth by young people applying to college? Should colleges admit how little time they spend reviewing applications if they believe it’s adequate to make a good decision? If not, why not?

The shorter a review process, the more admission offices rely on shortcuts. The truth is that many of the factors that are part of the evaluation of an applicant are shortcuts. Things like GPAs, SAT and ACT scores, class rank, and Advanced Placement courses on the transcript are all shortcuts, existing to save admission offices from a deep dive into the student’s high school record. Those shortcuts are used because it is hard to measure the qualities that are most important in projecting what kind of student and graduate an applicant may become, things like intellectual curiosity and motivation.

Committee-based evaluation may work for admission offices struggling to find the time to process and read the volume of applications they receive. I hope efficiency won’t prevent applicants from getting the consideration they deserve. We don’t need holistic admission to become half-assed-tic admission.


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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