Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Still against "holistic"

To new readers, to readers not as tuned into the inner workings of my mind as I am: When I say I'm not a fan of "holistic" in college admissions, I don't mean that I oppose affirmative action, using race or class. That I'm fine with. No, what I mean is this notion that colleges accept or reject not an application, but a person. It's supposed to sound better not to be thought of as a number, a mere faceless sum of your test scores, GPA, and whichever other qualities. But if you're rejected as a person, that just has to sting more than if you're turned down as an applicant to a particular college.*


All of this is my longwinded prelude to the latest from Michael Winerip, a journalist who will have you know that some of his offspring were/are mediocre students, and who finds a way to work that in whenever at all possible. The piece opens with a bit about what a wonderful person its author is, a professional writer, helping the neighbors' kids with their college essays. And I suppose this is a credit to Winerip as a writer, because he almost has you convinced that he's doing something pro-social-justice. Don't write about your fancy vacations, he advises these kids. Write about the little things in life! What matters isn't what you have, but who you are!

Which sounds nice and all, until you infer that the people Winerip is offering a boost to are those who need it least. Expanding the audience for his advice from his wealthy neighbors to NYT readers is maybe a slight improvement, but still hardly the height of altruism. Do the children of NYT-reading parents need an edge?

But set aside the problematic nature of Winerip's own project. What do we make of the content of his advice? I suspect he does correctly describe the formula - what it is colleges want to see. And what they want to see is evidence of who you are as a person. In other words, what they want is confessional writing. They want memoir. The college essay, I suppose, is where dirty-laundry writing meets holistic. What, then, of the kid who isn't comfortable sharing, or sharing in this context? Maybe something tragic or merely embarrassing happened, and the kid doesn't want to tell this story to perfect strangers on an admissions committee? Or maybe there's a fine story there, but it's about the parents' divorce, and the parents (as they so often do) are reading essays? Why do we need to teach young kids (who already have too much of this message) that nothing is private?

I see why an essay of some sort is necessary in gauging whether someone is prepared for college-level work, and why the content of essays could be useful in finding some applications to toss (a guy writing in about how he loves torturing ants, say) and which to give a leg up (although an unverified sob story... still, a lot can be read between the lines.) But maybe the topic could be something like, 'why do you want to go to college?' or 'why this college?' and not a call to confess.

* Why do we have "holistic"? So many reasons. There's the sinister one - well-roundedness as the legacy of anti-Semitic discrimination. There's also the fact that nowadays everyone needs to first have this general degree before specializing (via grad school, internships, etc.), so you're applying to a school not as a pre-law but as a human being. And, of course, there's the desire on the part of those who run colleges to make the process seem fair and painstaking, to make every applicant feel as if he was given proper consideration. You still need to pay for each application, right? I guess it's thought that 17-year-olds' sense of justice will be shaken if they're judged via algorithm. As for whether anyone other than yours truly sees the downside to "holistic" I've just expressed, I have no idea.

10 comments:

PG said...

What did you think of the UChicago essay prompts? The only essay from undergrad applications that I remember writing was one responding to a UChicago question about my neighborhood, where I wrote about how I didn't feel very close to my literal geographic neighbors but instead grew up feeling that practically any Indian-American was sort of my neighbor.

When I've advised people on essays, I'm usually not recommending that they get confessional, dirty-memoir, etc. so much as sincere. I don't think you have to say something you would be embarrassed to have your parents read, so much as you should try to dig a little into what you think or feel, because that's the best way to sound individual. My favorite essay that I wrote for law school applications was about my dislike of having the racial problems in the U.S. treated solely as something wrong with the South. For all I know, this essay annoyed some admissions committees (maybe that's why I didn't get into Fordham?), but I think it's worth taking the risk of putting some people off in order to express a genuine belief or feeling. Anyway it doesn't seem likely to fall into the traps of the TFA essay. (I think my Yale Law 250-word essay was a stripped-down version of a blogpost about the grammatical virtues of the word "y'all." I knew I wasn't getting in no matter what I wrote, so why not.)

I'm not sure that holistic admissions actually is premised on a claim of being able to assess the whole person. E.g. see the description of the UMich Law process in the Supreme Court's last swing at the affirmative action game. This was labeled "holistic" in contrast to the assign-a-number-to-each-factor process of the undergraduate admissions, which was deemed unconstitutional as a quota.*

But the law school didn't claim to be judging who was the best human being. "The hallmark of that policy is its focus on academic ability coupled with a flexible assessment of applicants’ talents, experiences, and potential 'to contribute to the learning of those around them.'" You could be Mother Teresa and fail to get in because you had the cool experiences but no meaningful talents, academic ability or potential to contribute to others' learning.

* In my opinion, so long as the weight given to race stayed the same each year, such that the number of successful minority applicants might vary year-by-year just based on how strong the applicant pool happened to be, the undergraduate process seemed less quota-like than the law school's "critical mass." If you've already decided ahead of time that you need to have a certain number of people of a certain race (whether you're minimizing Jews or maximizing Native Americans), that's a quota.

Phoebe said...

PG,

I'm sure that holistic is sometimes used as a euphemism for 'we're going to admit more minority students and not tell you our algorithm.' But do you really think that's what it is in all cases?

And the example you give, of who would most contribute to a learning environment, fine, Mother Teresa might not make the cut, but part of the problem is that it's so very ambiguous and subjective. It's whether or not they like you. In that sense, it's more like dating or, for that matter, friendship - it's not 'may the best man win,' but you're still being judged as a person.

Re: UChicago, I wrote about a communal llama farm in a (literal but obviously fictional) closet. I don't remember overthinking it. I don't remember, that is, whether what I know about how bourgeois kids aren't supposed to write about their vacations, whether this is something I know as an adult (I think it is?), or something I knew at the time.

Then, for grad school, I wrote about why I wanted to devote my life to the Dreyfus Affair, or something along those lines. I think they may have had space to also say something about your special circumstances, but my circumstances weren't special, so that was about it.

"When I've advised people on essays, I'm usually not recommending that they get confessional, dirty-memoir, etc. so much as sincere."

I see how this would work for someone like you or me - people who like arguing about ideas, this and that, and who can do so without getting hyper-personal. But I'd imagine striking that balance would be tough for a lot of 17-year-olds. Who are, of course, much younger than typical law-school applicants. It's really, really tough to do "personal" without confessional, to be humble without somehow being self-defeating (an admission of weakness only counts if there's some kind of positive spin), etc.

In any case, what you're talking about is how one succeeds writing one of these essays. I'm saying that the prompt should be something different, such as 'why do you want to go to (this) college?' That could also elicit "sincere," but wouldn't be this trick question, where either someone in the know has told you what's implicitly expected or not.

PG said...

I'm sure that holistic is sometimes used as a euphemism for 'we're going to admit more minority students and not tell you our algorithm.' But do you really think that's what it is in all cases?

Not at all; as you alluded to, sometimes holistic is a euphemism for "There's too many Jews/ Asians here and it's making whitefolks uncomfortable so we're going to give weight to enjoying country music and playing varsity football."

It's whether or not they like you.

But I thought the TFA essay discussion cut against that. The YLS admissions officer, at least, specifically stated that she did like all of the applicants who did TFA. I mean, they gave up two years of their lives to work in awful schools with problem children for meager pay and the hostility of unionized teachers, what's not to like? The problem the TFAers have is not of being unlikable, but of sounding too much the same and not standing out (in a good way) as an individual voice.

When I talk to people about their essay, especially if they are somewhat marginal candidates (as I generally was), I say they should write something that the reader will remember and be able to tag them with if s/he wants to fight for their acceptance. Llama Girl, Dreyfus Obsessive, whatever. If someone is not interested in ideas, whether a liberal education will do them much good is debatable anyway. (And if they are getting a technical education, what they're like as a person and what they'll "contribute" to the Mechanical Engineering 301 course taught by an Indian guy with an indecipherable accent is pretty irrelevant.)

Phoebe said...

Re: tfa statements. My point isn't that 'holistic' means decisions are in fact made on the basis of which applicants a committee likes. Rather, that this is how applicants perceive the process.

Sigivald said...

If someone is not interested in ideas, whether a liberal education will do them much good is debatable anyway. (And if they are getting a technical education, what they're like as a person and what they'll "contribute" to the Mechanical Engineering 301 course taught by an Indian guy with an indecipherable accent is pretty irrelevant.)

Interesting.

I got a philosophy degree, myself, and as far as I can recall, the "contribution" of my fellow students was pretty minimal regardless of their background - even in the 400-level seminars shared with the grad students.

I'm exceedingly dubious about the contribution of any students whatsoever to almost any classes.

(And somewhat dubious about the implicit pooh-poohing of "technical education", especially compared to the horribly useless fluff I saw masquerading as much of liberal arts.

The number of schools one can get a serious liberal arts education at, of the Old School, must be very small ... and even there I take the idea that student contributions via background diversity are meaningful, with a small salt mine.)

Britta said...

One of my least favorite things about applying to grad school was Stanford had a 'diversity statement' where you had to write about how you would contribute 'diversity' to the campus, and it was mandatory. It was irritating, because honestly, as a middle class white girl from the west cost, I am probably their most overrepresented demographic in most PhD programs. Having to make something up just felt a little sleazy, like those white people who check the 'native american' box because they were born in the US.

Flavia said...

Re: Winerip doing a "service" to his community: this resonates with some of the ambivalence I've felt about serving as an alumna interviewer for HS students applying to my alma mater. I'm ambivalent both because I teach in the community, at a college that likely isn't even a "safety school" for most of the kids I interview (but that I really believe is a fine institution, with some great students), and because, well. . . does my alma mater actually need more people to sell it? And do already-high-achieving HS students really need me to advocate for them?

To the extent that I have a defense, it's twofold. First, I live relatively far from the centers of elite power in this country. Most of the students I interview are public school kids, and most--even those with highly-educated parents and various other advantages--aren't particularly "wordly." I figure it's not a bad thing to help promote the achievements of students from my region.

Second, it turns out that I'm a very good interviewer and interview-writer, probably in part because I teach college students; I also have a long relationship with the undergraduate side of my alma mater, including teaching there not so very long ago. I think I'm adept at promoting the individual strengths of the students I interview--including those who really don't like talking about or bragging on themselves. (I had one of those last year, whose letter consequently presented a complicated rhetorical challenge, but I loved writing it--and he got in.)

I never see their essays, recommendations, or other application materials, so beyond the interview, I have no real sense of their strengths or weaknesses and no idea how much my report may compensate for or illuminate other things in their applications. But the number of my interviewees who've gotten in is unusually high--and I hope that sometimes I've actually had something to do with it.

PG said...

I'm exceedingly dubious about the contribution of any students whatsoever to almost any classes.

With the exception of an entry-level Logic course, I think every philosophy (and religious studies) class I took in college was for the bioethics program, and I generally found the discussions interesting. When you're talking about overlapping consensuses, a set of people with diverse experiences and viewpoints contribute to illuminating that concept in itself. I can see how this might be less true in more abstract courses. When one professor suggested that I major in philosophy, I decided against it specifically because I doubted I had much aptitude for required courses in things like Epistemology.

And somewhat dubious about the implicit pooh-poohing of "technical education", especially compared to the horribly useless fluff I saw masquerading as much of liberal arts.

It's not pooh-poohing technical education as such; it's pooh-poohing the idea that students' general experiences of the world will have any relevance to such courses. Obviously technical education is more useful, in the sense of having immediate practical applications, than the liberal arts. Duh. It is probably not merely coincidental that the more a 20-year-old might have to say that's at all original on a subject, the less likely it is that that subject will have any material benefits.

The number of schools one can get a serious liberal arts education at, of the Old School, must be very small

If by Old School one refers to reading the classics and such as was once a required part of the curriculum at Oxford et al., I doubt that classroom discussion would have much to contribute to it, partly because of the subject matters but also because that model of education was always more based around tutors than classrooms. My understanding is that nowadays Oxbridge sometimes has tutorials/ supervisions with more than one student at a time, and in such circumstances students are expected to be able to defend their ideas from the criticism of fellow students as well as faculty. Thus having classmates with different perspectives from one's own would probably be useful.

like those white people who check the 'native american' box because they were born in the US.

I had not heard of that before. Gross.

Britta said...

PG

I know of one kid who did that, and received a fairly prestigious scholarship. I refrained from gouging his eyes out.

I've found that, outside of certain limited technical disciplines, sloppy and rigorous thinking cut across all disciplinary boundaries.

Moebius Stripper said...

A few years ago, a Canadian magazine published an article asking - in entirely good faith, I'm sure - whether Canadian universities were too Asian. The entire piece is a train wreck, but my favourite quote has to be this one:

many white students simply believe that competing with Asians...requires a sacrifice of time and freedom they’re not willing to make. They complain that they can’t compete for spots in the best schools and can’t party as much as they’d like.

In other words, it would really help a lot of white kids if, in admitting students, universities wouldn't just look grades, but also at things such as how hard their applicants can party.