Last year, I conducted alumni interviews for Yale applicants. It’s an easy gig. You take a smart, ambitious 17-year-old out for hot chocolate, ask them about their life, and then report back to the university, “Yup, this is another great kid.”
I recently got an email asking me to re-enlist. Was I ready for another admissions season?
I checked “No,” mostly because “Aw, hell no” wasn’t an option.
Why my reluctance? No grudge, no beef, no axe to grind. It’s just that the whole admissions process is so spectacularly crazy that participating in it— even in the peripheral role of “alumni interviewer”—feels like having spiders crawling out of my eyeballs.
In the last 15 to 20 years, Yale’s applicant pool has gone from “hypercompetitive” to “a Darwinian dystopia so cutthroat you’d feel guilty even simulating it on a computer, just in case the simulations had emotions.”
I don’t fault the admissions office. For every bed in the freshman dorms, twenty kids are lining up, at least five of whom are flawless high-school rock stars. From that murderer’s row, they face the impossible task of picking just one to admit. There’s no right answer.
But two things freak me out about this process.
You may have heard this chestnut: “The hardest thing about getting a Yale degree is getting accepted in the first place.” For me, it rings true. Thousands upon thousands of the rejects from Yale would have thrived there, if they’d just gotten the thick “yes” envelope instead of the thin “no” one. (That includes the five totally amazing kids I interviewed last year, none of whom got accepted.)
Dozens of people have asked me, “Wow, how did you get into Yale?”
Not a single one has ever asked, “Wow, how did you manage Yale coursework?”
With so many uber-qualified students lining up, top colleges don’t—as you might expect—look for the “very best.” They don’t even operate on a single, well-defined notion of what “best” means. Instead, they pick and choose. They go for balance. They’re just trying to fill their campus with a dynamic, diverse cohort of freshmen. Consistency and “fairness”—whatever that would mean—have nothing to do with it.
It’s like making a trail mix. I don’t care whether this particular peanut is more “deserving” than that particular chocolate chip. I’m just choosing high-quality ingredients to strike a nice balance of flavors. Nothing more.
It might not be “random” from the university’s perspective. But it is from the students’. One year favors trumpeters, the next favors bassoonists, and kids have no way of knowing whether their particular skills will be in demand this time around.
All this wouldn’t be particularly troubling, except when coupled with this fact:
Just look at the demands of the Common App. “Write me a confessional essay. Document your leisure activities in meticulous detail. Muse on a philosophical question. Tell me what you love about my school. Give me testimonials from your teachers.”
The application becomes an autobiography, an audit of your whole self: ambitions, achievements, convictions. The process feels customized, personalized, complete. Before they make a decision, Yale insists on peering into your very soul. (Either that, or they’re gathering the data to build your robot doppelgänger.)
I get why they want all that information. But all this data puts a mask of intimacy on what is fundamentally a factory process. No matter how sincere their intentions, the Yale admissions team is beholden to grim statistical reality: 94% of students are getting rejection letters, period.
Being rejected by a university ought to feel like getting swiped left on Tinder. There’s nothing terribly personal about it. They don’t really know you. The university is just looking out for its own interests, and you don’t happen to fit into the picture.
But between everything—campus tours, information sessions, supplemental essays, test scores, transcripts, letters of recommendation, and alumni interviews—the application process becomes a lengthy and weirdly romantic courtship.
Rejection feels less like turning down a first date than getting left at the altar.
Long story short, that’s why I’m not doing Yale alumni interviews anymore. As much as I loved my college education, it drives me crazy to be the face of a process that’s unpredictable, opaque, and (at least 94% of the time) disappointing.
I find myself compelled by the so-crazy-it’s-gotta-be-right proposal of the psychologist Barry Schwartz: run admissions by lottery. Says Schwartz: “Every selective school should establish criteria [for admission]…. Then, the names of all applicants who meet these criteria would be put into a hat and the winners would be drawn at random.”
Before you write Schwartz’s proposal off, remember this. Currently, we’ve got a random process, disguised as a deliberative one.
Why not take off the mask?