Objective Subjectivity

Swirling around discussions about admission testing are issues of accuracy and trust. Even though the SAT and ACT are notoriously coachable, they’re often defended as the closest things we have to national standards. There’s “objectivity” in them that can be relied on to counter the vagaries of grading and labeling that affect our national educational system. As college admission deans read applications from far and wide, they can establish a relatively consistent yardstick for evaluation. It’s not apples to apples, exactly, but it serves the purpose.

I submit, however, that what’s needed in college admission isn’t more objectivity, but more subjective evaluation of student applications. With more and more applications, colleges may tend to rely more on numbers to make decisions, but those that use a “holistic” system of admission–that is, reading folders in detail, including essays and other student-supplied information–have an obligation to be subjective as they build a class. Being engaged in a form of social engineering requires attention to many details. As a dean at Amherst College I read many, many applications each year with an eye toward what made each student unique, interesting and ready for Amherst. Frustratingly, however, some of the most interesting students were those with uncompelling test scores. The “objective” standard often trumped my subjective reading of the application. And as a “scientific” measure, it was difficult to argue against in committee, so we often took talented but less compelling students because by objective measurements they were “better” than those with lower scorews.

Now, this is not another test-bashing column. Let’s accept for the moment that testing is indeed a decent yardstick of measurement in college admission, especially in light of an increasing mistrust of high school transcripts, one that thinks grade inflation and wildly different standards make them hard to take at face value unless you know the school producing them very well. While some may then say there is a real need for more uniform, “scientific” ways to measure students’ abilities, I’m going to argue instead for more subjectivity in the college admission process. Since this is an exercise in human assessment, it seems to me that any attempt to make it “fair” by making it “objective” is doomed to fail. (For most people, anyway, “fairness” in the college process means “I got what I wanted.”) And in the end, at least in my experience, objective measures tell a lot less about a student than subjective observations.

At Amherst, at least, applications were read by pairs of deans, who often complemented each other in what they looked for and noted. For example, I was notorious for undervaluing sports achievements and despising tennis essays while looking favorably on singers, actors, and artists generally. Having two readers ensured that what I missed or disliked could be balanced by another’s views. Once in committee, an application was then subjected to the scrutiny of several deans, who could add their own observations and ask questions. Sometimes, an applicant who had looked terrific in early readings faded as she was considered in the context of other candidates. At other times, someone who had seemed modest zoomed out in front because another dean noticed her extensive but only modestly presented community service record. Our discussions hinged on what we as individuals brought to the table, not on any automatic formulae. And frankly, that’s what made the whole process interesting–trying to create a three-dimensional person out of pieces of paper and data then supporting that person to your peers.

At least at smaller colleges, subjectivity really is the name of the game. The general public’s disappointment at college admission “unfairness” comes because there’s an assumption that the process was, has been, and should be “objective,” that is, that college admission should be based on a kind of absolute value of “merit” that everyone can be happy with. But, as I said to one board member at my former school once, “That’s never going to happen.” Ideally, an admission committee is composed of intelligent, empathetic, and committed people who have the best interests of their institution and its applicants at heart. By being “subjective,” then, I don’t mean relying on blind prejudice or knee-jerk likes/dislikes (despite my confession above I was able to appreciate a good tennis player), I mean bringing to bear some empathy for applicants while at the same time considering the institution’s goals and needs. As a former high school teacher, I fancied that I was able to appreciate what students were going through and brought that to my reading; recent graduates in our office brought their still-fresh experiences of undergraduate life to their assessments. Somehow, it all worked out, and the proof was in the fizziness of each class that arrived on campus in the fall.

The best book that’s ever been written about college admission is no longer in print, but it should be. Originally published in 1966, College Admissions and the Public Interest by B. Alden Thresher, onetime director of admission at MIT, takes a fully rounded look at college admission, acknowledging the vast areas of social and cultural knowledge that need to be brought to bear during the “great sorting” that occurs during this time. He outlines some of the necessary subjectives that come into play: “As entrance requirements in the older sense have diminished in importance, efforts have increased to select students on broad grounds of intellectual promise and aptitude, to understand the dynamics of personality as it affects motives and energy, and to trace the dimensions of human excellence beyond such deceptively simple, unidimensional quantities as school marks and test scores.”

Even forty years ago, Thresher was advocating a subjective approach to college admission that takes into account non-quantifiable qualities that can make a student exceptional. Note, too, that he uses words like “promise” and “aptitude,” words that have slid into some disfavor as colleges try to find applicants who seem already to have accomplished as much as one could ask rather than looking for those who could most benefit from what the college teaches. Unfortunately, subjectivity is much more labor-intensive than objectivity. It takes time and effort to sift through piles of folders, teasing out the subtleties of an applicant’s “promise,” such an ephemeral thing to begin with. So going into each application in depth may be a luxury that many institutions can’t sustain. But it is the thing that can not only find proverbial “diamonds in the rough” who will blossom on campus, but also inspire admission deans at every level to stay in the field. While it’s important to know how to read and interpret scores and grades, it is also important to develop the sensibility that can bring an enlightened subjectivity to college admission.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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One Response to Objective Subjectivity

  1. Your post about subjectivity reminds me of two contrasting visions of how two admissions officers evaluated applications to their equally prestigious universities.One looked at academic credentials like test scores and GPA in concert with the other elements of the application. The other used a kind of threshold test, whereby once he was confident a student could be academically successful, he would choose between students based on the intangibles they brought to campus.I imagine the second approach is more compatible with the sort of subjective reading of applications you’re advocating for here.

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