An Unmentionable Factor in College Admissions
In a recent posting on the comments page of last week's Friday Trends column [Will Advanced Placement Replace the SAT?] on this blog, a reader identifying herself as Crimsonwife asked a good question:
"So Mr. Mathews, please tell me- imagine that you are an admissions officer at Harvard. Without the SAT, how would YOU distinguish between student A, who's a valedictorian with a 4.5 GPA and five scores of 5 on AP exams and student B, with the exact same stats? Wouldn't YOU want to know which had the 1550 and which had the 1450?"
Here is my answer. I am repeating it because my brain informed me some days later, as it often does, that I stupidly left out an important factor in admissions. It is rarely mentioned, because it is so beyond the control of most applicants, but I think in some circumstances has more weight than either GPA, SAT or AP. Can you guess what it is?
I said: "In that situation it would not matter if the admissions officer knew that one kid had just a 1450. He would still be over the 1400 (or now 2100) mark and thus considered in the same maybe pile as the kid with the 1550. If both kids had the same stats other than the SAT, the issue would still be decided by other things--most importantly extracurriculars, how effusive teacher recommendations were, quality of essays and if their respective schools already had a lot of kids admitted to Harvard. Or, as happens a lot these days, it would be just how they felt at that moment about each of those kids when they asked the committee, cutting the class back to the target number, to say yea or nay for each kid. At that point, there is no time to discuss reasons any more. They just vote. That is why admission to such schools has become not much more rational than winning the lottery, and as I say all the time, not worth worrying about because you can get just as good an education at at least 300 other schools."
What i failed to mention was what admissions folk call the legacy factor. If student B had a 1450 SAT [counting just reading and math scores], but also had a parent or other close relative that went to Harvard, and student A, with a 1550 SAT, did not, student B would have a better chance of getting in. Princeton researchers Thomas J. Espenshade and Chang Y. Chung calculated that the legacy factor is worth on average 160 extra points on the 1600-point SAT. I have noticed that the students admitted to Harvard from the selective private high school my daughter attended usually have a Harvard connection. I have been privy to the give and take over applicants to some colleges, and if a student is a legacy, it is mentioned and has great weight. (Although it will not guarantee the admission of a so-so student.)
If you believe, as I do, the research showing that going to Harvard or any of the other selective colleges offers no significant advantage in life, that students of similar quality at little known colleges do just as well after graduation, then the legacy factor is not very bothersome. If you don't believe that, then it is a cause for concern. But there is absolutely no sign that the colleges who give preference to legacies, and consider it an important way to win alumni support, are going to stop doing that.
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