Getting Into Harvard

Scott Alexander writes:

I am not Harvard material. But when I was looking at colleges, my mother pressured me to apply to Harvard. “Come on!” she said. “It will just take a few hours! And who knows? They might accept you! You’ll never get in if you don’t try!”

Harvard did not accept me. But my mother’s strategy is growing in popularity.

Part of this might be genuine egalitarianism. Maybe something has gone very right, and the average American really does believe he or she has a shot at the Ivy League.

But credit should also go towards an increasingly streamlined college admissions process, including the Common Application. I didn’t like my mother’s advice, because every college application I sent in required filling in new forms, telling them my whole life story all over again, and organizing all of it into another manila envelope with enclosed check. It was like paying taxes, except with essay questions. And there was a good chance you’d have to do it all over again for each institution you wanted to apply for.

Now that’s all gone. 800 schools accept the Common Application, including the whole Ivy League.

From the Times again:

Six college applications once seemed like a lot. Submitting eight was a mark of great ambition. For a growing number of increasingly anxious high school seniors, figures like that now sound like just a starting point…

For members of the class of 2015 who are looking at more competitive colleges, their overtaxed counselors say, 10 applications is now commonplace; 20 is taking on a familiar ring; even 30 is not beyond imagining.

And why stop there? Brandon Kosatka, director of student services at the Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., recently worked with a student who wanted a spot in a music conservatory program. To find it, she applied to 56 colleges.

A spokeswoman for Naviance, an online tool that many high school students and their counselors use to keep track of applications, said one current user’s “colleges I’m applying to” tab already included 60 institutions. Last year the record was 86, she said.

Does this mean increasing competitiveness is entirely an illusion? Suppose in the old days, each top student would apply to either Harvard or Yale. Now each top student applies to both Harvard and Yale, meaning that both colleges get twice as many applicants. Since each of them can only admit the same number of students, it looks like their application rate has been cut in half. But neither one has really become more competitive!

This can’t quite be it. After all, in the first case, Yale would expect 100% of accepted students to attend. In the second, Yale would know that about 50% of accepted students would choose Harvard instead, so it would have to accept twice as many students, and the acceptance rate per application wouldn’t change.

But if more people are following my mother’s strategy of applying to Harvard “just in case” even if you’re not Harvard material, then this could be an important factor. If the number of people who aren’t Harvard material but have mothers who imagine they are is twice as high as the number of people who are really Harvard material, then Harvard admissions will triple. If Harvard accepts these people, they will definitely go to Harvard, so there is no need for Harvard to increase its admission rate to compensate. Here there really is an illusion of increasing competition.

Finally, this process could increase sorting. Suppose that, for the first time in history, a Jewish mother had an accurate assessment of her son’s intellectual abilities, I really was Harvard material, and I was unfairly selling myself short. If the existence of a Common Application lets more people apply to Harvard “just in case”, and if the Harvard admissions committee is good at their job, then the best students will get more efficiently matched with the best institutions. In the past, Harvard might have been losing a lot of extremely qualified applicants to unjustified pessimism; now all those people apply for real and the competition heats up.

And in the past, I think a lot of people, including really smart people, just went to the nearest halfway-decent state college to their house. Partly this was out of humility. Partly it was because people cared about family and community more. And partly it was because college wasn’t viewed as the be-all and end-all of your value as a human being and you had to get into the Ivy League or else your life was over. If all these people are now trying to get into Harvard, that heats up the competition a lot.


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