A lawsuit in the US has accused Harvard University of discriminating against Asian American applicants by rating them lower than others on traits like positive personality, likeability, courage, kindness and being widely respected, thus lowering their chances of admission despite having done better than applicants from other racial/ethnic groups on test scores, grades or extracurriculars.
Harvard, whose admissions process remains a closely guarded secret, denied the allegation, saying “soft traits” like character and personality were key to making decisions in its situation — where there were 40,000 applications for 1,600 freshman seats, 13% of domestic applicants had maxed the math SAT paper, and more than 30% had a perfect GPA.
But what does being a “good person” constitute? What is “likeability” or “courage”?
Because the applicants to the best American schools mostly all have excellent GPAs, test scores, letters of recommendation, essays and extracurricular activities, the schools often follow a “holistic admissions process” in which “personal qualities” too, are considered. This assessment is kept non-standardised because, “once it becomes measured, it becomes gameable”, The New York Times quoted Michael N Bastedo, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Education, as saying.
“When a university is very selective, they (also)… want an interesting community. They are trying to impose a different sorting mechanism, because everybody looks alike,” Jon Boeckenstedt, a top enrollment management official at DePaul University in Chicago told The Boston Globe.
What traits do colleges generally value?
A study of 10 unidentified schools by the College Board, the American nonprofit that develops and administers tests such as SAT, found emotional intelligence, self-efficacy, creativity, and leadership were valued. Broadly, colleges look for traits that they believe mirror their own values, and for students who can fit in well. Definitions of these traits can vary subtly — a report in The New York Times quoted a former dean of admissions at Dartmouth College as making a distinction between “empathy” and “kindness”, with the former being a “broader term” that “spoke to what you want students to learn from each other”.
But how can you objectively assess something like empathy or kindness?
You probably can’t, as the lawsuit against Harvard shows. Some participants in the ongoing debate in the US on this issue say such evaluations only “try to be objectively subjective”. Which means the evaluation of personal traits can be done by more than one person, and perhaps also thrashed out in a group. The former Dartmouth dean quoted by The NYT said admissions panels often look for examples of qualities such as open mindedness and curiosity in letters of recommendation — however, those writing these letters may not always be aware of the phrases that can make the best possible pitch for the applicant. Some admissions officers look for a “hook” in the applicant’s file; the hook, though, remains undefined.
What is the way forward, then?
Questions have been raised about the standardised tests as well. Many experts around the world say that these tests are not able to gauge accurately the potential of underprivileged or minority applicants. On June 14, the University of Chicago became the first American top-10 research university to altogether drop the requirement for ACT or SAT scores from US students, and instead allow applicants to make two-minute video pitches for admission.