Alan Ryan

May 9, 2003

The professionalism of US admissions offices is a myth - what they do well is balance the demands of their many constituencies

The spring mating rituals have just about come to an end, and students have signed up to join whichever school is happy to have them. As the imminent arrival of the Office for Fair Access will surely excite the Department for Education and Skills to talk a lot of ill-informed nonsense about what the UK can learn from the US, here is a quick guide to the reality. The message is that there is just about nothing that UK universities can learn from the undergraduate admissions practices of US universities. Graduate admissions are another matter - there is nothing to learn because the US graduate admissions process closely resembles UK undergraduate admissions.

Undergraduate admissions are handled by deans and their assistants. Faculty find this tolerable - just - because almost all students choose their majors only at the end of the second year. Harvard University is an exception but, even there, there is a year of general education before anyone focuses on a subject or a field. It is only just tolerable for the faculty at serious universities because the demands of sports teams, alumni preference, affirmative action and finding places for the offspring of faculty and administrators eat into the numbers that can be taken on intellectual merit. Only rarely do faculty rebel and demand more say in the composition of the freshman class. "We need a quarterback" has an urgency and a specificity that "can't you find a few more really bright kids" does not. So the faculty reserves its energy for the graduate students.

The "professionalism" of US admissions offices is a myth. What they are good at is balancing the demands of their multiple constituencies. They often - as do Oxbridge tutors, for which they are criticised - form relationships with particular schools, to know what their products are like; they know, much as UK tutors for admission know, what proportion of the students offered admission will take up the offer, and know how to make offers accordingly.

Even Harvard enrols only about three-quarters of the number it admits; the rest of the Ivy League gets a bit over half. They know that minority students and athletes will generally do rather worse than the average, and that Jewish and Asian students will do rather better. What they don't know any better than the well-informed layman is how a particular individual will do. Hard-pressed state schools admit on the basis of formulas; the people who work as assistant deans in posh places debate endlessly the merits of one applicant against another on the basis of wholly inadequate evidence.

Once offers of admission are made, the haggling starts. Athletics coaches can lean on university presidents to find more money or remedial teaching for their star performers. The star performers bargain as hard as they can for money and for facilities. Non-athletes can compare the financial aid packages at all the places willing to take them and engage in whatever delicate negotiations the places allow. It would, in short, be completely dotty to try to model university admissions in the UK on the US pattern unless we seriously intend to go all the way down that track. The obviousness of this proposition becomes all the greater when you look at US graduate admissions.

Graduate admissions bear a much greater resemblance to UK undergraduate admissions. Early in January, a great wodge of applications will fetch up in your department, together with assorted bits of information from the dean of the graduate school - how many fellowships you have, what the average stipend will be, what this year's policy on affirmative action is, whether you can take students who are good, though not top of your list, but who can pay their own tuition. You might want 20 students; you know that you'll get half the students you make offers to, and you may well have 600 applicants. So you sift their personal statements, read their essays, look at their undergraduate grades and their graduate record examination scores, try to remember what you know about the professors who wrote their recommendations, and end up with a rank-ordered 40.

Because the only interesting question by the time students get to graduate school is whether they will be good at a particular discipline, the faculty would not allow a dean of admissions anywhere near graduate admissions. At this stage, intellectual excellence - as defined by the profession - is the only basis for acceptability, and even stretching a point for affirmative action is done very cautiously. It is all very similar to what happens at the more highly selective UK universities at undergraduate level. In short, there is indeed a lot the UK could learn from the US - but not about admissions.

Alan Ryan is a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University.

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