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A HIGHLY qualified student, with a 3.95 unweighted grade point average and 2300 on the SAT, was not among the top-ranked engineering applicants to the University of California, Berkeley. Now consider a second engineering applicant, a Mexican-American student with a moving, well-written essay but a 3.4 G. Berkeley might accept 21 percent of freshman applicants over all but only 12 percent in engineering. We were to assess each piece of information — grades, courses, standardized test scores, activities, leadership potential and character — in an additive fashion, looking for ways to advance the student to the next level, as opposed to counting any factor as a negative. Every one of our applications was scored by an experienced lead reader before being passed on to an inner committee of admissions officers for the selection phase.He had perfect 800s on his subject tests in math and chemistry, a score of 5 on five Advanced Placement exams, musical talent and, in one of two personal statements, had written a loving tribute to his parents, who had emigrated from India. My new position required two days of intensive training at the Berkeley Alumni House as well as eight three-hour norming sessions.
Considering the bigger picture has aided Berkeley’s pursuit of diversity after Proposition 209, which in 1996 amended California’s constitution to prohibit consideration of race, ethnicity or gender in admissions to public institutions. the University of Texas, the Supreme Court, too, endorsed race-neutral processes aimed at promoting educational diversity and, on throwing the case back to lower courts, challenged public institutions to justify race as a factor in the holistic process.
In practice, holistic admissions raises many questions about who gets selected, how and why.
Officially, like all readers, I was to exclude minority background from my consideration.
I was simply to notice whether the student came from a non-English-speaking household.
Is the kindergarten aide or soup kitchen volunteer a leader?
And what about “blue noise,” what the admissions pros called the blank blue screen when there were no activities listed? ”IN personal statements, we had been told to read for the “authentic” voice over students whose writing bragged of volunteer trips to exotic places or anything that “smacks of privilege.”Fortunately, that authentic voice articulated itself abundantly. He competed in track when not at his after-school job, working the fields with his parents. And their different credentials yet remarkably close rankings illustrate the challenges, the ambiguities and the agenda of admissions at a major public research university in a post-affirmative-action world. Both students were among “typical” applicants used as norms to train application readers like myself.Why was he not top-ranked by the “world’s premier public university,” as Berkeley calls itself? There, we practiced ranking under the supervision of lead readers and admissions officers to ensure our decisions conformed to the criteria outlined by the admissions office, with the intent of giving applicants as close to equal treatment as possible. In principle, a broader examination of candidates is a great idea; some might say it is an ethical imperative to look at the “bigger picture” of an applicant’s life, as our mission was described. Apparently, our Indian-American student needed more extracurricular activities and engineering awards to be ranked a 1. An applicant scoring a 4 or 5 was probably going to be disappointed; a 3 might be deferred to a January entry; students with a 1, 2 or 2.5 went to the top of the pile, but that didn’t mean they were in.Why did I hear so many times from the assistant director? Some things can’t be spelled out, but they have to be known.Application readers must simply pick it up by osmosis, so that the process of detecting objective factors of disadvantage becomes tricky.In my application pile, many students from immigrant households had excellent grades and test scores but few activities. Many essays lucidly expressed a sense of self and character — no small task in a sea of applicants.I commented in my notes: “Good student, but not many interests or activities? Less happily, many betrayed the handiwork of pricey application packagers, whose cloying, pompous style was instantly detectable, as were canny attempts to catch some sympathy with a personal story of generalized misery.Should I value consistent excellence or better results at the end of a personal struggle? An underrepresented minority could be the phoenix, I decided. I scribbled this exchange in my notes: A reader ranks an applicant low because she sees an “overcount” in the student’s a-g courses.We were not to hold a lack of Advanced Placement courses against applicants. She thinks the courses were miscounted or perhaps counted higher than they should have been.