X, Y and Z were all applicants to the Yale College class of 2008. They come from similar socioeconomic backgrounds and attend the same suburban high school, which we will tactfully call S. Both X and Y are leaders and at the top of their class. X is vice president, involved in a peer counseling program, music, three seasons of varsity sports, ranks among the five best in his class and has exceptional SAT scores; he is the pride of his small school. Y has received numerous awards for academic achievement, has a particular interest in and passion for the sciences, and involves himself in a range of extracurricular activities. Z has above average grades and above average test scores, and he has worked hard to place himself well towards the middle of the top half of his class. This is a characterization of three candidates, a caricature even, but characterizations and the caricatures they derive are useful creatures. As the dust has now settled, only one will be able to proudly don the blue and white and join the ranks of Yalies. Which of the three do you think was accepted?
Oh, but wait, a piece of pertinent information: Z plays football. Z is the pride of the small S squad, leading the team through two successful seasons (the last as captain) and one league championship. Z led so well, in fact, that he attracted the notice of Yale’s notably less-than-league-champion team. And though School S is not a school noted for football — Z and most other players from School S would have a hard time making the team at Ohio State or the University of Michigan — Z was accepted early to Yale as a football recruit.
This is not a column critiquing the contributions that athletes and University athletics make to school life. Having strong sports teams is part of a tradition that stretches back over 100 years, and we should remember that the Ivy League was started as an athletic consortium. Like any group of peers broken down by extracurricular activity — theatre, a cappella, politics — many athletes contribute to Yale beyond athletics, but many do not. Many athletes maintain outstanding GPAs, many do not. Many go on to incredible careers and continue to “Do Yale Proud,” many do not.
Nor do I condemn athletic ability as a factor in the admissions process. Indeed, like legacy status, family, celebrity or even racial background, recruitment for courts, fields, pools or rivers is something which should definitely be taken into account. It is useful in pushing borderline candidates through the final round, in helping to flag students from large public high schools for further consideration. I certainly do not advocate that all of those accepted be “Organization Kids,” the term David Brooks gave to over-scheduling hyperachievers in his now-famous Atlantic Monthly article of the same name. It is definitely essential that Yale’s class be varied and interesting. But of Yale’s 19,000 applicants, surely there were a few good ballplayers who managed to excel, to positively shine in both academics and extracurricular activities other than athletics. If there were not, then Yale is attracting the wrong 19,000. Using athletics as the absolute and early arbiter of admissions, which practically puts admissions decisions into the hands of coaches, was fishy twenty years ago but is absolutely ludicrous in today’s competitive environment.
It is not for X and Y that I write this column. They are smart, successful kids and have between them been admitted to Princeton, MIT, Brown, Columbia, Duke and others. No, it is not for X and Y, but rather for A and B, the unnamed sophomores and juniors at this small School S, where admissions decisions are no more secret than the cafeteria’s menu. This column is also for C, D and E, their younger siblings, who will soon enter high school and be confronted with the same sorts of academic, extracurricular, and athletic decisions faced by X, Y, and Z a short three-and-a-half years ago. X and Y chose distinction as scholars and leaders, while Z chose distinction in cleats and pads. In the milestone-marked daylight of adolescent memory, A, B, and C will clearly remember the contrast of acceptance and rejection; if X, Y, and Z had all been rejected together, I would have no column to write. There is no question that college admissions are competitive and that admission to a select college — nay, admission to Yale, Harvard, and Princeton — are viewed by many as the pinnacle of adolescent achievement. There is also no question that in high schools, particularly small high schools, the freshmen, sophomores, and juniors examine the admitted of the senior class for desirable characteristics, much the way that younger siblings look towards the experience of older. This examination may be subconscious, but the collegiate profile of each graduating class molds and forms the goals and desires of those who follow.
This reality puts the admissions committees of top universities into the position of awkward and indirect shapers of adolescent values; they have become somewhat accidental sources of ethics and morality. What Yale is saying to A, B and C is that to get into Yale, they need not necessarily cultivate a strong, focused academic work ethic. They need not necessarily engage themselves as leaders across the extracurricular spectrum. They need not necessarily focus on the traditional merit-based values which have prevailed in American higher education since the Second World War. The Yale Admissions Committee — and by extension, the University — explicitly endorses the values of each accepted student. Sometimes, those values are not those which the world expects from an institution like Yale. Sometimes, those endorsements are less than I am proud of. Sometimes, we send the message that rather than being shining, well-rounded stars, A, B and C might focus all their energy and time into tossing around a ball. What sort of message is that?
L. David Peters is a junior in Davenport College.