E. Whitney Soule, Bowdoin’s dean of admissions and financial aid, writes of looking beyond the usual metrics in the admissions process in favor of a more holistic view.
It’s the time of year when the narrative around college picks up extra energy. There is rampant anxiety about what people believe are impossible expectations for admission and escalated expectations of achievement, especially when it comes to selective colleges.
Often, these are conversations about who gets in or who gets left out, and whether the process is fair. The assumption and the frustration are that highly selective colleges favor those who achieve the most—the most AP classes, the most leadership, the most breadth of exposure and experience. In other words, the process appears to benefit those with opportunity and access to resources, and it seems to disadvantage those from schools with fewer curricular options, who work instead of lead clubs, or who cannot afford test prep service—suggesting that these students can’t possibly compete.
In reviewing applications, we move past the obvious, and we are more critical and more considerate than one might expect.
The truth is, the process isn’t fair. It will never be fair. But instead of focusing on what the process isn’t, let’s focus on what it is. It’s human. It’s not a commodity—an object that is purchased and consumed. It’s an involved mash-up of content, skills, people, ideas, activities, friends, stress, relief, retreat, advancement, failure, and accomplishment. It’s an experience. Content in the classroom is taught by a person—with a personality, and ideas—guiding others to develop skills in inquiry, collaboration, idea development, and problem solving.
Our objective is to educate students to negotiate the world in which we live, one that will always be changing demands for what we know, what we do, and how we lead. To meet that objective, we need our classrooms, our dorms, our clubs, teams, and dining halls to actually represent the vast and varied collection of experiences of people whose lives and development have been different. This is the world we negotiate every day and the world we seek to create with and for our students.
Back to admissions and who gets in. Do selective colleges value and even prioritize academic achievement in rigorous coursework and demonstrated leadership? Yes. But they also value and prioritize character, initiative, and potential, and they seek—and find—those elements in ways and places that rarely make it to the popular narrative.
Last year, our admissions staff traveled to ten countries and forty states. We visited 415 high schools, stood at fifty-one college fair tables, and conducted 350 interviews in hotel lobbies, Starbucks, and alumni offices. We also brought high school and community organization counselors to our campus to help them understand what we offer so that they can spread the word to their students about the qualities we seek. We are actively searching, widely, to find students who will contribute to this deliberately diverse constellation of questions, ideas, and skills that are alive in the classrooms and in the conversations and friendships on our campus.
In reviewing applications, we move past the obvious, and we are more critical and more considerate than one might expect. Not every captain or club president is actually a strong leader. Not every student with the toughest classes or the highest grades is actually motivated by learning. We don’t just look at the activity list searching for the moniker of leadership. We look for evidence of leadership. Plenty of students have lengthy commutes to school, work jobs after school, and serve as dedicated family caretakers. We value these, too. When students work, we know that they have learned to prioritize their time and to navigate an environment with a boss and coworkers. We value that.
The fact of selective admission is that the majority of students who apply are easily qualified for our academic expectations. Some demonstrate their readiness through obvious achievement while others generate a conversation about the potential that is not yet realized—perhaps due to lack of access, exposure, or experience. A student who doesn’t earn admission to a particular college isn’t necessarily a poor fit. It could be just a function of basic supply and demand. But focusing on who does earn a spot can tell a story beyond the obvious or expected list of achievements, and will likely reveal an individual who displays commitment, initiative, and curiosity—someone eager to participate in a community of equally eager learners.
As we move into application season, I hope there is room in the narrative for the value of holistic review and for the human activity of noticing and responding to the unique characteristics of the incredibly interesting and talented young people who choose to apply.