Last week, Michael Kinsley, the editor-at-large for the Atlantic Wire, wrote an op-ed piece on the admissions process that highlighted some of the reasons why things have become so competitive and cutthroat over the years. The piece focused primarily on college admissions, but there are multiple mentions of graduate school and examples of HBS, so it seems fair to consider Kinsley’s words from the perspective of graduate school admissions.
And what were his words?
As they pertain to admissions officers, nothing much more than the usual screed about the arbitrary nature of selective college admissions. Make no mistake, there are some good thoughts in here: some interesting and basic (and probably more interesting because of how basic it is) math showcases the rise in competition over the years, and I certainly agree with the idea that in planning out our lives we “obsess about this college versus that only because that’s the only factor we can obsess about.” Well said and certainly true, as far as I’m concerned. Where Kinsley loses me is in his critique of the admissions process itself, and the accusation that “the decision is essentially random, the process was wildly inconsistent, and I might well have been turned down because the assistant dean didn’t care for his lunch that day.”
Here, Kinsley simply resorts to the party line of outsiders, media members, and higher ed critics, groaning on about how arbitrary it all is. I half expected to read the phrase “throwing darts at a dart board.” And make no mistake, there is an element of chance in the admissions process at an elite institution. There is luck. There is a human element that plays a large role. There are more than enough qualified candidates and it can seem harsh, unfair, and capricious when some get in and some do not. But to dismiss the entire process because of these factors is to fail to understand that process. Yes, there is luck — but the role that luck plays can be reduced through careful planning and presentation. Yes, there is a human element — but that human element can be a benefit when you take the time to consider the person on the other side of the desk. Yes, there are more than enough qualified applicants — does that mean you should just give up?
I can tell you two things, as someone who was an admissions officer at a highly selective college (acceptance rate under 30%) and as someone who now works with applicants to highly selective graduate programs. The first is that admissions officers DO work hard, as they claim in their rejection letters (much to Kinsley’s chagrin). An admissions office typically has one “file reading” professional for every 1,000 applications and that personnel is responsible for both recruiting those applicants and then making decisions on their credentials. The process features multiple layers and gets several eyes on the same profile — decisions aren’t made based on what someone has for lunch. That’s reductive, throw-away language that people use when they don’t want to wrestle with reality.
The reality is that admissions officers work hard, they care about what they are doing, and they want to see applicants who work just as hard and care just as much. This is bad news for many who view the process as more of a sweepstakes and less of a rigorous match-making and interviewing experience, but it’s good news for people who want to roll up their sleeves and treat their applications with care.
The second thing I can tell you, given everything I just wrote above, is that I wouldn’t want someone who views the admissions process the way Michael Kinsley does to advise me on my own applications.
At Veritas Prep, we both support the work of admissions professionals and believe in our ability to help candidates confront this difficult process. We don’t throw up our hands and blame it all on the fates. And neither should you.
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