Across this great land of ours, bright high school students, along with decent high school students, fair-to-middling high school students, all the way down to downright dullards who are railroaded through our creaking educational system to maintain graduation rates, are enrolling in post-secondary education this coming fall. For the past few months, decision letters have been shipped out from institutions of higher education. These decision making processes are fairly straightforward; for the vast majority of the decision letters, it's pretty simple: if you meet the requirements, you're in. If you don't, you're not. It's not this simple, but there are a few areas of higher education admission that make otherwise moderately intelligent, kind hearted adults turn into rage filled stab-o-sauruses hungry for the souls of progressive lawmakers.
The process by which students apply to college isn't really all that interesting. Filling out the common app, answering supplemental questions, and finding two teachers who don't hate your guts/have a boilerplate letter of recommendation into which they can punch your info isn't super hard, nor is it super interesting.
The way schools recruit and admit students to their prestigious ranks is much more interesting. In general, the best way to think about recruitment and admissions is to think about a giant funnel. At the very top of the funnel, you have all the advertising and direct mailers that colleges do. Most colleges don't engage in an awful lot of billboard purchasing, but most college students, by way of attending some open house or regional institutional showcase will receive hundreds of letters in the mail from colleges and universities enticing them to apply and enroll.
As an adult, especially one who works in Higher Ed, I have a bullshit meter set as high as possible. Nowadays, when I receive a letter which refers to me by my full name, or my full first name, I am instantly skeptical. But back when I was seventeen and dumb as dog shit, I received a letter from Washington University of St. Louis and though "Holy shit, this college knows who I am, and wants me to go there!" Kids are stupid; it's a terrifying prospect that we just hand them a steel battering ram and/or missile that they climb into at age sixteen and let them bomb around unsupervised. Driver's licenses need to be issued after age twenty five ONLY.
A little further down the funnel is the group of students who follow the instructions of that letter and go to the website or call and schedule a campus tour. Percentage-wise, this is really only in the single digits of people who actually receive these letters. Sorry, Wash U in St. Lou, I didn't follow up on your form letter.
From there, even further down the funnel are people who actually carry through on doing more research/coming to campus for a visit. This tends to be a regional thing. If you really love USC but live in Maine, it doesn't matter if the campus is full of goose shit and bums, you still want to go to SC film school no matter what. But if you're on the fence between NYU and Columbia, and live in North Jersey, why not go for a visit? They look the same and are populated with the same pretentious dickheads walking around like they own that square of Manhattan, just in either powder blue or purple, depending on the campus. This is again a mere single digit percent of the people who progress in the recruitment process.
It continues like that until a student applies. At that point, they write a crappy essay about how their church bible study or basketball state championship run was the greatest time of their life and how it made them who they are today at age seventeen when they have no clue who they really are anyway, submit the application, pay the application fee, and cross their fingers.
The recruitment aspect is done. The admissions aspect begins. Without getting in to early decision admissions, which are stupid because they basically make students feel like they have to commit to a school if they apply early decision, but really, they can't make you go to the school, nor can they make you pay for classes for which you don't register, so why all the tough talk? Anyway, the admissions process runs on a deadline, meaning they are not rolling/space available. Once the deadline passes, the admissions office computes the admissions scores of applicants for things like (deep breath, white people) minority status, quality of secondary school, and other, more arbitrary factors that actually serve as decent bellwethers for quality of preparation (things like free and reduced lunch programs at high schools, which may mean that many of the students attending are from inner city low income, or east bumfuck low income areas and did not receive the highest quality secondary schooling.
At this point, I assume most opponents of affirmative action have torn their own eyes out and replaced them with the lasers they use to cut diamonds. Chill out. They don't really say a black person's SAT score is worth 20% more because they are black. What they say is that, based upon this person's educational background, and going to a school that spends less per student than most other schools in this area, even though they received a 1240 on their SATs, that is more significant than Richie Rich who went to East Fontleroi School for Wealthy Teens and Debutantes and got a 1270 on his SATs. It's sort of like saying "Here's two guys who can dunk a basketball. One's Shaq, the other's Spudd Webb. The result is the same, but Spud had to jump higher." This equates to "points" on the student's application.
Additionally, chill out more. There's another way that colleges add these "points" to the application (again – the application, not the SATs.) If a student is a "legacy" student, they receive what amounts to a far more significant bump to their application in terms of these nebulous "points." A legacy student is a student who is the descendant of a former graduate of the University. Because of policies of segregation and the socioeconomic divide that has existed (and continues to exist) in our country, far more white people benefit from legacy admissions than do minority students, especially as the perceived quality/competitiveness and price tag of the institution increases.
Once everything is graded, Admissions offices determine who is qualified, and who is not. No one who does not meet the standards of the University are admitted to the University. Period. Admissions is not graded on "more qualified vs. less qualified." There are two distinctions that are made BEFORE offer letters are made: "Qualified" and "Not Qualified." A University's role is not to admit the absolute best candidates. Its job is to admit students who are qualified, and will make up a diverse pool of intelligent human beings to promote academic discourse and the exchange of opinions regarding subjective facts and knowledge.
A bit more on this aspect. Everyone's "information" is based on static facts, but "knowledge" is the synthesis of those facts into a prevailing belief. Example: It is a fact that the New Deal was a 1930s expansive government program designed to provide relief from the great depression. This isn't "knowledge." "Knowledge" is to place this information in context with your personal opinions and the other elements of society at the time in the 1930s. I have always grown up believing that the New Deal stanched the downward flow of the Great Depression, brought the country back to some stability before it was kicked in to high gear by World War II. I have some small government libertarian friends who believe that it was a massive overreach by the federal government, unconstitutional, and that it prolonged the depression by instituting massive taxation and federal spending. These are opinions based on the same set of facts. We know what happened in the mid-to-late 1930s, and what happened in the early 1940s that eventually brought the country out of the recession, but this is the nature of "Knowledge" and Reflective Judgment (it's a student development theory.) A diversity of experiences and opinions allows for more information and perspectives to be considered, and benefits everyone involved in the discussion.
What's more, the people who ARE highly qualified – those who get the 1600s on their SATs, for schools that aren't Ivy League, or Stanford or wherever DO get admitted to these schools. As a part of recruitment, and the lowest part of that funnel is the group of students who are admitted and do not go to that school. I was admitted to all three schools to which I applied. Sorry, Syracuse and Penn State, I chose NYU. The vast majority of students admitted to schools came in well above the bar. However, when it comes down to the last few spaces (Bite your tongue, I'll explain), schools have a very arcane scoring system that takes into account all of those nebulous "points" and spits out those who are best qualified. Points are earned by legacy, minority status, standardized testing and secondary school performance, as well as the essay quality and exhibiting interest in the school (I was offered the opportunity to apply to NYU's General Studies Program. I went to an information session in New York one warm March 2002 morning, and was told first thing in the morning, "You're accepted. Those who schedule an information session are the ones who are dedicated and want to come here. You're accepted." Sometimes, that's all it takes (that usually doesn't happen; I'm just special.)
Those last few spaces are the few spaces where this whole "affirmative action" debate comes into play. Without getting into the gory details, these are the spaces where someone is offered, and someone is not. Those who don't get offered admission are usually waitlisted. They are qualified, and are at the top of the waitlist, but the school has to wait and see who is going to accept the admissions offer, and who will decline it before moving forward with waitlist offers. It is not the academic admissions thunderdome, into which two applications enter, and only one will survive. They don't have a massive 256-person bracket where members of the admissions office flip coins to see who will advance, tournament style, before the final, best-of-31-flips contest to determine the one person who gets the last seat in the classroom, especially since schools don't know who is going to accept, or whether or not they will have to dip into their waitlist, and if so (they will) how deeply. Furthermore, those who are not qualified, unless they are athletes, do not get an offer.
So why do schools add these weighted points to applications? Why aren't students allowed to just compete on their own merits? A few reasons. First, it's not really a competition. There's a cutoff, and even then, people who meet the cutoff don't always get offers. Even massive schools like Ohio State, Arizona State, and the University of Texas only have about ten thousand freshman enrolling there, yet they still have upwards of fifty thousand people applying for admission. It's still a numbers game, and those are the largest schools in the country.
Second, schools want to keep you attending at all costs. They don't want stop outs, drop outs, or transfers. It's that old axiom that it's ten times easier to keep an old customer than to attract a new customer, or whatever. If they get you as a stupid freshman, they'd rather you stay for your full time, keep paying them all four years, and leave a slightly less stupid, much fatter, far drunker senior.
Last, and most importantly, undergraduate admissions really aren't based on past accomplishments. Because we live in a federation of states that set their own education curriculums, education funding is regionalized, and not all school districts are equal, we can't assume that students all received the same level of preparation – this is the dunking thing again. But, regardless of their grades and the shittyness of their high school teachers, a student can be better than what their past accomplishments dictate. For every Will Hunting, there's some little snot-nosed prick who came in at the bottom of his prep-school class.
Instead of past accomplishments, undergraduate admissions are based more on future potential. This is where things like standardized tests, interviews, and essays come into play. All of this, of course, is a crapshoot. It's an educated guess. Admissions officers are good at what they do, but every year, people fail out of top schools, transfer, or drop out. However, their batting averages are pretty high. They are tasked with admitting a four year student who will stay, and keep paying to stay. It's sort of like moneyball for untapped potential – moneybrain.
When you receive your mound of rejection letters peppered with safety school waitlists, this is the process by which your school's decision regarding your attendance was made. Just make sure you don't haul off and sue because you're pissed the minority kid "got in instead of you." He or she didn't, and it insults you both to assume that's the case.