Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Obstacle course

Given how long I've been holding forth on "holistic" (I'm against it, but not because of any ill feeling towards affirmative action, which is, I suspect, the usual reason people might oppose it, so, to be clear, that's not it) you may think I'd put all my thoughts about it on WWPD, but no! There's more. So much more, in fact, that I didn't get to everything.

In a longer version of the piece, I'd have gotten into the question of whether colleges are actually capable of measuring obstacles-overcome. Also a previous WWPD topic, but it's an important one. Yes, colleges can and should take into account what they can, and certain things absolutely can be known - Duffy Muffington III from Andover, captain of the lacrosse team (assuming they have one) and participant in many a philanthropic vacation program, is coming from a different place than someone whose home address is the Red Hook projects. It's rarely that obvious, however, and a lot of people hold a more patchwork place on the advantage spectrum. In an ideal world, all advantage and disadvantage could be known and given its due, but that will never happen. That doesn't necessarily mean not taking disadvantage into account where it's most straightforward.

But we do need to consider that knowing to speak up about an obstacle - and knowing which obstacles will make you be seen in a more flattering light - is itself a form of advantage.

There are, to reiterate, a bunch of reasons someone might not share a totally valid and major obstacle - whether this means coming to a teacher when trouble at home is impacting a grade, or when applying to college. But to stick with college admissions, the obvious one is, what if your great obstacle involved your parents being legitimately terrible people? (Abuse, etc.) But say their terribleness doesn't manifest itself as a lack of interest in your essays, or in helping pay for college. The applicants in question won't bring this up, yet a messed-up home life is probably one of the biggest obstacles teens face.

But one might say, so be it. The issue is in part measuring whether Student X's 3.5 GPA is more or less impressive than Student Y's, but it's also about righting societal wrongs. The messed-up-family-havers aren't a class, right?

There are other obstacles - invisible disability, illness, or LGBT status in this not-yet-post-homophobia age -  where you wouldn't want whichever class of person discriminated against, but for so many reasons (a sense of privacy, a belief that something will be a liability that might actually be anything but, and where acknowledging whatever it is might help pay for college...), this is probably often left off an application.

There are still other obstacles that aren't particularly sensitive in an obvious, family-secret-type way, but that someone might be shy about. The idea that if a college pities you, you're more likely to get in, isn't necessarily universally known, nor are all people going to be OK with this. Some might feel patronized, or like it's better to get in on your own merits independent of idiosyncratic circumstances, or like even asking for this kind of break is on the cusp of begging.

Long, sleepy point being, as great as an idea as it is in principle for schools to consider individual circumstances, the logistics of doing so, beyond the broadest categories (race and family income), are not only complicated, but potentially going to benefit students who need the boost the least.


Flavia said...

I've been working closely with a former student who's applying to PhD programs at the same time that my spouse has been helping a young cousin with his college application essay. Both have dealt with major, life-changing personal or familial obstacles of the sort you see on made-for-t.v.-movies, and in both cases we really had to push the applicants to TALK ABOUT the obstacles they overcame (in part to explain weird things on their transcripts, but also because they ways they dealt with their respective crises are seriously impressive, and suggest important things about their gumption, perseverance, self-knowledge, etc.).

So although I'm not as skeptical as you are about the utility or fairness of considering obstacles/disadvantages (in part because it isn't just on the applicant: colleges have access to basic info about the high schools their applicants come from; the applications themselves include information about parental/sibling college attendance and employment, and letters of reference can convey more detailed context or background), I do agree that the tendency of many applicants is to shy away from anything that seems like a bid for pity--and that it requires a certain amount of cultural capital or access to people familiar with the genre of the personal statement in order to know a) whether to share personal information of that sort, and b) how to do so effectively.

Phoebe said...


You're right to emphasize that what colleges get isn't just what students themselves send in. But in terms of the fuller picture these extra materials provide, my guess would be that it would be of a student's socioeconomic class, but wouldn't include more idiosyncratic obstacles.

I guess I find it hard to imagine that teachers' letters of recommendation will include much information about a student's home life. In all likelihood, a high school teacher won't know about this sort of thing, but even if they do, they may not realize mentioning the issue, whatever it is, would help a student get into college. After all, not all obstacles-overcome would. Some would make a students seem like a liability. (At least, I'm guessing that what works in a first-person drug-addiction-and-redemption memoir might not in an application.)

Ultimately, while I'm very much on board with colleges looking at the whole socioeconomic picture, which can include race, I have mixed feelings about schools claiming to go further than that. Just extrapolating from my own experiences teaching, where I'd highly suspect that the students coming to me with problems weren't necessarily the ones facing the biggest obstacles.

I also don't like the idea of penalizing students who for whatever reason aren't comfortable sharing their most private stories with a college. Pragmatically, you and your spouse are right to coach students you're mentoring to share. In that situation, I'd likely do the same. But (again, mining the anecdata) I can well imagine students for whom sharing would go against everything they believed, who'd much prefer to be judged on grades and scores.