In about a month, hundreds of high school students around the country will receive a letter of admission from Yale and wonder, “Why me?” Last Thursday, after almost four years at Yale, I had the opportunity to find answers to this question.
On Jan. 17, I submitted a request to view a copy of my admissions files to the Registrar’s Office, under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Passed in 1974, FERPA gives students over 18 years old the right to “inspect and review” education records kept by schools and universities. Last year, a group of students at Stanford discovered that they could invoke this provision of FERPA to successfully request to view their admissions records, including the comments that application readers had written about them.
Admissions processes at Ivy League schools are notoriously opaque, and I had my suspicions about them. With over 27,000 applications to read the year I applied, how could the Yale Admissions Office have devoted enough attention to each application to properly evaluate it? How do admissions counselors distinguish between so many qualified candidates? Does the admissions process simply incentivize high school students to develop ridiculous extracurricular resumes? Is it true, as Harvard professor Steven Pinker claims, that top-tier universities select fewer than 10 percent of students based on academic merit?
So, I submitted a FERPA request to view my admissions records, hoping to better understand how Yale chooses each class of freshmen. Twenty-three days after my request, the Admissions Office set up a 30-minute time slot in which I could view my admissions records, including the worksheets filled out by those who read and evaluated my application. While I was not allowed to make a copy or take a picture of these records, I took extensive notes and learned a great deal about how the admissions process works.
High school students might be relieved to learn, for instance, that Yale admissions officers don’t look up their Facebook profiles, track their campus visits or know basically anything about them other than the information they include in their applications. This is, of course, both a positive and a negative. Going through my admissions worksheets, I was struck by just how little application readers knew about me apart from the descriptions and essays I had carefully curated (none of my readers, for better or for worse, referenced my “short takes”). Much of their information was encoded in numbers: Each of my recommendations was scored on a scale of 1–9, my grades and scores were compiled into an academic index on a scale of 240 and I even received a score for “personal/extracurricular” activities.
Given this limited information, I was surprised and impressed by how much the readers of my application were able to glean about my personality. While my first reader went through my application section by section in her comments, it was clear that she was synthesizing different portions of my application to create a holistic picture of my character and interests. At one point, she noted how a comment I had made in one of my essays fit thematically with some of my extracurricular commitments, for instance.
Yet, any broad themes about my life that my readers identified were almost certainly those that I intended them to pick up on when I wrote the application four years ago. It is often said that, above all else, Yale’s admissions process implicitly selects for high school students who can craft a good personal narrative to sell themselves. Viewing my admissions records did not contradict this hypothesis. I like to think that I represented myself honestly in my application, yet I was somewhat disturbed by how easily I was able to convey a certain set of personal qualities that all three of my readers picked up on.
Of course, the Admissions Office probably cares almost as much about applicants’ backgrounds as their personal qualities, and this was also reflected in my records. The worksheet contained extensive demographic information, a checkbox for whether I lived in a “low-income” zip code and a textbox that noted my parents’ occupations. Presumably, because the Admissions Office is need-blind, it relies on these various proxies to estimate applicants’ socio-economic status. Yet, presumably, like most of the other portions of the application, the information provided by these proxies has an uncomfortably high ratio of noise to signal.
All in all, the anecdotal evidence from reviewing my own records is insufficient for all of the bold claims that I want to make about the admissions process: that it prizes self-promotion over hard work, long lists of extracurriculars over love of learning and superficial measures of diversity over a truly well-rounded student body. What I did learn is that Admissions Officers review applications more carefully than I thought, but the limited information they have to work with makes admissions, at the end of the day, mostly a matter of luck.
Scott Greenberg is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.