Every process has its puddle

The recent ‘Varsity Blues’ scandal in the U.S. should not put off students from an otherwise holistic admissions process

Published - April 20, 2019 12:59 pm IST

In March, thousands of Indian applicants to American universities experienced elation and disappointment when they received acceptance and rejection notices after months of anxious anticipation. Most of these students slogged to get top scores in school and on the SAT; and they spent countless hours drafting and revising their essays for the Common Application. While the acceptances can seem like a reward for a student’s diligence, neither rigour nor conscientiousness are the keys to getting into American universities.

American educational institutions pride themselves on being meritocracies — the ideal that everyone admitted deserves to be there. This carefully cultivated myth was shattered by the admissions scandal — dubbed Varsity Blues — that unfolded last month. It involved eight elite universities (including Stanford and Yale), 45 students, 33 parents, and $5.9 million paid in bribes to college counsellors (and in some cases, college employees), and some of America’s wealthiest families. The scandal unmasked a system of corruption underlying the admissions process.

Room for subjectivity

Unlike the traditional Indian university that relies primarily on board and/or entrance exam scores, American universities use a holistic process where test scores and grades are only two factors considered. They want to get a sense of the student and his or her context by asking them to write personal essays, share letters of recommendations from teachers, and information about various activities they participated in, resulting in a subjective evaluation system. For students who don’t necessarily shine numerically on paper, this can be an opportunity to show why she/he would be an outstanding college student. However, it can leave a lot of room for making decisions that are not particularly transparent.

What is shocking about the latest scandal is the brazenness with which parents exploited a holistic process by lying about their child having a learning disability as a way to cheat on the SAT; paying to have someone else take the test for their child; or, by creating fraudulent athletic profiles of their sons and daughters. This, in addition to the bribes paid to college coaches, is the crux of the criminal charges parents and others are facing.

American universities have always made it easier for the well-endowed to ensure a child’s admittance through large donations. These legal means of corrupting the system seem less sinister, except to a deserving young scholar, who sees a mediocre student gain a seat in their stead because the new library was donated by his/her parents.

Nevertheless, these legal means of obtaining admission through extravagant donations also benefit other students, whether it is a library or money for endowments that can provide financial aid for international students.

What’s important to keep in mind — both for those students making decisions about where they wish to study next year and those planning their applications for the batch of 2024 — is that a holistic admissions process can benefit Indian students who have an authentic story to tell about who they are and what they want to do in this world.

There are many terrific colleges in India and around the world that don’t have the brand recognition of an elite institution. Yet, they provide excellent education as well as prospects for a good career, and most importantly, a fulfilling life.

The author is Director of Spruha Higher Education Counselling Services. marcy@spruha.co.in.

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