How I Think You Should Try to Get into an Elite College, Part 2


Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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38 Responses

  1. Avatar ScarletNumber says:

    In 2000 the University of Wisconsin was busted for photoshopping a black student into a crowd picture at a football game that was used as the cover of its application.

    They were caught because this particular black student had never attended a football game.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

      I remember that! We all had a good laugh about it on campus, because the administration was so overly focused on appearing racially diverse and they thought one black kid in a sea of caucasian would do it.Report

  2. Avatar trizzlor says:

    >>so that colleges have enough colors on campus to fill out their campus brochure pictures

    But why do people want to go to colleges with diverse campus brochure pictures. Could it be that a diverse campus makes for a better learning environment?Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

      It could be, but I think the more likely explanation is they do it for the same reason any other advertisers feature diversity in their materials.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        It could be, but I think the more likely explanation is they do it for the same reason any other advertisers feature diversity in their materials.

        The suspense is killing me. What’s the reason, Vik?Report

      • Avatar trizzlor says:

        So there are two proposed explanations:

        1. Universities set lower SAT standards for certain minorities; accept them over their better-scoring peers; dedicate professor time and money in educating them; grant them diplomas; etc. etc. All in the hopes that when it comes time to take photos for the campus brochure, some of these individuals will walk through the frame and get captured in the marketing; leading to other potential minority applicants seeing photo, thinking “people who look like me!” (as they would after seeing a Wheaties box) and applying; at which point the University again accepts them with lower SAT scores; and the cycle continues. At some point, the increased demand leads to profits.

        2. The University prioritizes other aspects of the entrance application and believes that diversity improves the learning environment for all. Better learning environment leads to profits.

        And you think (1) is the more likely one?Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

        I’m sure someone’s explained the reasons better than I have, but here’s my list:

        1. A desire to appeal to a broad range of ethnicities. Having diverse models in ads communicate that the product is not only for ___ but also for you.

        Since the practice is so widespread now, I think people might find it weird to see ads with several individuals but no racial minorities. I think that’s part of why Wisconsin may have felt pressure to photoshop in a black student in their brochure.

        2. A desire to communicate the brand’s openness.
        A lot of Coke’s advertising is about people coming together around the product. It’s a better demonstration of the product’s ability to do this if a black and a white dude are laughing over their bottles of coke than if two white guys are doing the same thing.

        3. A desire to set a good example.
        Advertising is often aspirational. I think to some extent advertisers are trying to show you diverse sets of people because that’s what they feel the world ought to look like instead of the fairly segregated world we actually live in. Ads at least tell us not to feel weird just because you are interacting with someone of a different race.

        This is just off the top of my head. I’ll try searching for what others have written tomorrow.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Hmmm. I’m not seeing why you think trizzlor’s account is wrong here. Or how what you said is inconsistent with it. Maybe I’m just not cynical enough. 🙂Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath says:


        Ack. I was being unclear. I was being facetious that administrators support affirmative action because they want the pictures.

        I do think it is likely that they do have their own sincere reasons for implementing the policies.

        Apologies for the confusion, which was totally my fault.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:


      Evidence shows that diversity — of all types — leads to better learning outcomes.

      This is why I get frustrated when the only arguments made in favor of AA or other attempts to diversify institutions are grounded in social justice. It’s not that social justice is wrong, perse, but I think it is a problematic way to frame the argument and also strategically a likely losing approach.Report

      • Avatar kenB says:

        Evidence shows that diversity — of all types — leads to better learning outcomes.

        Do you have a link or two for that? It’s a very broad statement — whatever specific studies you have in mind to support it are probably more restricted (what age ranges? what types of schools? what social class(es)? what sorts of diversity?) and also probably not able to truly justify “leads to” (more likely just “is correlated with”).Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        You mean better learning with something like history, not calculus, I’m figuring?Report

  3. Avatar Murali says:


    The fact that one’s parents force-fed extra maths/ piano practice down one’s throat and thus gave one a realised skilled (though not necessarily innate) advantage over others does not make that accomplishment any less one’s own. Or even if it does, it does not do so in a way that is relevant to college admissions. College admissions is not (or should not be) about deserving(tm) your place, but about who can do the most with what they already bring to the table. The fact of the matter is if you bring more to the table, there is more you can do with it all things equal. The fact that my parents pushed me to practice maths may have given me a leg up in highschool maths, but it also therefore made me better able to cope with university maths. Maybe that’s unfair, but it would be just as unfair if an accident of genetics just made me that much more naturally gifted at evaluating mathematical expressions. I deserve neither my genetics nor the extra private tuition my parents send me for. And if such deservingness mattered then test scores would be inherently unfair in any world. Just give out places by lottery.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

      I basically agree. All I’m adding is that people should be aware of the opportunities they have been given and perhaps be thankful for them rather than focusing on the thing that disadvantages them a little.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:


      “College admissions is not (or should not be) about deserving(tm) your place, but about who can do the most with what they already bring to the table.”

      Says you.Report

      • Avatar Murali says:

        Yeah oughts like this are difficult to argue for. But few other principles which justify a significant portion of current admissions behaviour pass the smell test.Report

      • Avatar trizzlor says:

        >>But few other principles which justify a significant portion of current admissions behaviour pass the smell test.

        Let’s set aside the racial angle entirely. There are ~30,000 high-schools in America. Harvard admitted 2,048 students for the Class of 2018. If they wanted to, Harvard could have admitted a class entirely made up of valedictorians. Why do you think they chose not to do this?Report

      • Avatar Murali says:


        There are other very good colleges which valedictorians apply for. I’m assuming that Harvard just cannot capture all the valedictorians because of competition from other equally good universities.

        Note, I’m not making an argument against affirmative action or diversity hires per se. I’m saying that the best justification for admissions is forward looking not backward looking. This is compatible as Vikram pointed out below with affirmative action. After all, if all else equal, being of a disadvantaged background indicates that one is likely to put in more effort than others with similar extra curriculars, or if diversity creates a better learning environment, that is a good reason to craft admissions policies which create diversity.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        I’m assuming that Harvard just cannot capture all the valedictorians because of competition from other equally good universities.

        But it doesn’t even try, right? Why think that their decision is results from the pragmatics of a competitive market based on a single and somewhat trivial metric rather than a “forward thinking” view of the type of student who will excel given the opportunities Harvard presents?Report

      • Avatar Creon Critic says:

        Don’t ask me why I know this, but Harvard has something like an 80% yield rate. That is, in head-to-head competition with other elite schools, students tend to select Harvard. So it is entirely plausible that Harvard admissions, if they so chose, could aim to admit classes of pure valedictorians (and still be rejecting a significant number of other valedictorians).

        Also, in less quantitative terms, they call it dropping the H-bomb, and ending up with dodges like “I went to school in Boston.” Harvard has a pretty big pull on the American higher ed imagination – I’d say elite schools generally are the focus of a far and away a disproportionate amount of attention when the vast majority of higher ed institutions admit +50% of those who apply. It probably says something about our media culture, the chattering classes, and focus on the struggles of upper middle class lives that we spend so much attention there instead of, say on improving community colleges, or as the original post wryly suggests,on (pre-)K-12 education.Report

      • Avatar trizzlor says:

        @murali : “I’m saying that the best justification for admissions is forward looking not backward looking.”

        Yeah, this is what I was getting at. The idea that – if it weren’t for AA or multi-culti liberals – universities would just pick some testable metric and admit students that maximize it is not consistent with what universities actually do (at least at the highest level). What’s much more consistent is that universities aim to select students with a mix of features that indicate “will contribute to learning environment”. It so happens that one subgroup that meets this criteria and averages 50 more SAT points than the majority, and another subgroup averages 230 SAT points less. But the idea that this disparity is an injustice is unsupported unless you conclusively show that that the disparity is confounding the “will contribute” goal. The argument that one group is being “penalized” 50 points is completely backwards, just as it would be if we found that group A had much higher athletic performance than group B and claimed that group A is therefore being penalized for being good athletes.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

        The reasons Harvard does not admit only valedictorians are the following.

        1. Valedictorians often lack “character”.

        2. Practically speaking, the median valedictorian is still nowhere near as good as the 100th best student at Stuyvesant.

        3. Most valedictorians are not pointy. Yes, they are the best in the school subjects among those attending their school, and that says something, but as far as accomplishments go, it is pretty boring compared to Olympic shot put medal winner or even the kid who got the school lunch program shut down.

        On #3, I empathize with Harvard. What does the valedictorian have to bring to the classroom? If she has something to say, it’s almost necessarily going to be unrelated to the fact that they were valedictorian. In my classes, the best comments came from thoughtful students who had unique experiences, who were only sometimes among the highest scoring students.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

      Oh, there’s one other thing that doesn’t seem to have made it into the final post.

      It does kind of matter to colleges how much help you got in achieving your success. Unless you really are going into the music department, they don’t care about how well you play the piano. They care about what how you play the piano says about you. If you had your parents’ support, it says less than someone who worked a job to play for lessons (if such people exist).

      Similarly, our daughter is speaking exclusively Mandarin now and our hope is that she will remain fluent into adulthood. Universities won’t give her as much credit as they would a fluent white kid with non-Mandarin-speaking relatives because that kid probably had to work much harder to achieve his fluency. That makes sense because the thing they are after isn’t actually Mandarin fluency, it’s being the kind of person who goes and does a bunch of extra work to accomplish something.Report

      • Avatar Murali says:

        OK that actually makes sense. So even though such stuff matters for extra curriculars only, because of the disadvantage in extra curriculars, the difference has to be made up via SAT scoreReport

      • Avatar Alan Scott says:

        An interesting fact related to Mandarin speakers an university applications:

        The AP Chinese Language and Culture test is the AP test with by far the highest pass rate, and is primarily taken by native or heritage speakers of Chinese.Report

  4. Avatar Creon Critic says:

    You can’t do anything about it.

    I’m on the pro-affirmative action side of the argument, in fact I think America is a little too complacent on the spectrum of positive discrimination steps that can be taken to ensure equity in a number of important spheres of public life. But I do want to take issue with this particular it-is-what-it-is point. Demonstrably, people have successfully done something about it. iGrutter v. Bollinger was a 5-4 Supreme Court decision, it took a Grutter to – from the affirmative action critics perspective – stand up to a practice she found unconstitutional and impermissible (and Bakke had no majority opinion, so kind of more open terrain to work with for the Court). And it isn’t clear how such cases are going to come out, especially with the conservative appointment tilt on the Supreme Court for many years.

    In addition to the courts, there’s the whole self-governing democracy bit. What is the democracy if many, many citizens think they can’t do anything about the structure of norms, institutions, and laws that govern their lives? And I can make the point even more forcefully, I mean, if you see what you perceive to be a genuine injustice perpetrated against X group – what’s more, you happen to be a member of X group! – shouldn’t you do something about it?

    Put another way, “You can’t do anything about it.” would be a very, very bad slogan for a social movement.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

      Sometimes people do make differences, but I wouldn’t advise anyone to actually try to make a difference in this particular way. Someone who has the wherewithal to accumulate proof that they would have been admitted, file a lawsuit, prevail through appeals, and brand themselves in a particular way that is likely to be difficult to rewrite. My advice would be to dedicate all that energy to something more likely to end up productive for the person individually.

      And, yes, I realize the limitations of this strategy. If MLK had asked for my advice first, I’d have totally have told him he was crazy and stay safe. But I really doubt that affirmative action policies are such a policy worth fighting. If they are indeed a bad idea, it’s probably only the 237th worst idea we implement as public policy. Why obsess over it as an individual?Report

      • Avatar Creon Critic says:

        Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s “well behaved women seldom make history” comes to mind.

        Why obsess over it as an individual?

        There’s that quote that the public gets the democracy it deserves. I’m probably pretty positive on this stuff at the moment having watched the testimony of Justices Kennedy and Breyer before Congress (ostensibly on next fiscal year’s funding for the Court), and their concluding point about the need for civic engagement and the Ephebic Oath, with particular emphasis on the duty to leave Athens better for future generations. Is there room for civic duty with a starting premise as constricting as “You can’t do anything about it.”?

        And though this, affirmative action, isn’t my hobby horse, I can see that different people in the subset of interested-in-politics, have different top priorities and cluster around them. So libertarians might go on-and-on about coercion reduction, and identify all sorts of sectors and policies that might make someone coming at it from a different perspective shrug their shoulders. Or feminists might identify all kinds of distinctions, gender roles, and inequities that even people who might be sympathetic won’t necessarily want to put at the top of their priority list. I’d say that kind of diversity/dynamism probably helps the political culture work its way through some of these conflicts. To me, a don’t rock the boat political culture seems near-static, and in rather unhealthy ways for society.Report

  5. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Is this true for all Asian applicants? Like Indian is equivalent to Pakistani is equivalent to Hmong is equivalent to Japanese?Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

      Yes, this is universal to all who have to check the Asian box. If you’re biracial or otherwise multi-racial, of course, you should select the box of the race that benefits you most for the purpose.Report

    • Avatar Alan Scott says:

      What exactly do you mean by that, Jaybird? The specific study that those numbers are from isn’t cited, but I assume it’s an average based on some sample population–so those exact numbers don’t apply to most students by definition.

      But as far as “are all Asians treated the same way by admissions offices?” I think the answer pretty much depends on the specifics of the admission procedure.

      Take for example, that student who wanted to get into a UC and study engineering. Per proposition 209, the UC system can’t consider race as a factor in admissions–so the barrier faced by students like the one in the article is related to race-blind diversity promoting policies.

      So, for example, the UC system guarantees admission at one of their campuses to students in the top 5% of their class. This example student, who presumably goes to one of Arcadia’s excellent public schools, might be kicked out of that 5% based on that one A- she got in AP European History. On the other hand, the Iu Mien refugees who went to my poor, rural high school could have easily been in the top 5% of by getting semi-decent grades in honors classes. But that level of success is harder to achieve when you’re born in a refugee camp than it is when you’re born to a pair of rich doctors who live in San Gabriel Valley.Report

  6. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    My son went to a well-known private high school in San Francisco that had recently switched from boys-only to co-ed. At back-to-school night, the principal explained that, since the school was by design 50% boys and 50% girls., they had had to make the entrance exam cutoff for boys lower than it was for girls. So (and he used these exact words) every boy there was the beneficiary of affirmative action.Report

  7. Avatar Will Truman says:

    The affirmative action for boys issue is an interesting one.Report