At the admissions end, it’s common knowledge that Harvard selects at most 10 percent (some say 5 percent) of its students on the basis of academic merit. At an orientation session for new faculty, we were told that Harvard “wants to train the future leaders of the world, not the future academics of the world,” and that “We want to read about our student in Newsweek 20 years hence” (prompting the woman next to me to mutter, “Like the Unabomber”). The rest are selected “holistically,” based also on participation in athletics, the arts, charity, activism, travel, and, we inferred (Not in front of the children!), race, donations, and legacy status (since anything can be hidden behind the holistic fig leaf).
The lucky students who squeeze through this murky bottleneck find themselves in an institution that is single-mindedly and expensively dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. It has an astonishing library system that pays through the nose for rare manuscripts, obscure tomes, and extortionately priced journals; exotic laboratories at the frontiers of neuroscience, regenerative medicine, cosmology, and other thrilling pursuits; and a professoriate with erudition in an astonishing range of topics, including many celebrity teachers and academic rock stars. The benefits of matching this intellectual empyrean with the world’s smartest students are obvious. So why should an ability to play the bassoon or chuck a lacrosse ball be given any weight in the selection process?
Compared to the rest of the world, American college admissions is unique in relying so heavily on non-academic factors. This has been a source of constant puzzle to me ever since I landed at Dartmouth College after finishing high school in India. My sense is that professors have a strong preference for having smart students in their classes. If they were in charge of admissions, they would probably try to take the smartest students they can get. But the admissions office has other priorities. And I'm guessing that those priorities are handed down to them from top administration. The question is, what explains those priorities? Are they trying to identify people who are likely to become financially successful and donate to their alma mater? And maybe being good at academics is not the only predictor of financial success? There must be something behind it, because if these choices don't make sense, then why aren't colleges just below the elite level attempting to capture all the smart students who didn't get into Harvard because they lost out to the bassoonist or the lacrosse athlete? The sub-elite colleges look at other things too. They also pass over smart people for musicians and athletes.
I would be very interested in comparing Caltech graduates to science majors at other universites. Caltech admissions focuses much more on academic achievement than other schools. So are they getting it wrong in some dimension? Do their graduates not go on to become captains of industry and donate millions? Do they end up working for the well-rounded musician-athlete with lower SAT scores from Harvard? I am genuinely curious.