Is university admission really a meritocracy?

Intelligent and hardworking students receive the best university offers, which is only fair and right – or is it?

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Yein Oh

Utahloy International School Guangzhou (UISG), China
5 Jul 2024
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Blocks with students' faces on them, either piled up or laid flat
image credit: istock/Andrii Yalanskyi.

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“Because I worked hard in high school, and I am an intelligent and capable student, my success – in the form of university offers – must be entirely my doing.”

“Those who did not get accepted didn’t work hard enough or were not capable enough, and didn’t deserve to reap the successes I did.”

These thoughts might easily be on the mind of a high-school senior with many offer letters in hand. The notion that hard work and talent should be rewarded fairly in the realm of work and studies seems sound enough at first glance.

After all, these ideas can be found in the commonly espoused narratives of success, and even in the idea of the American Dream. A story of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps and making it is inspiring, filling novels and family anecdotes alike.

University admission: a fair reward for hard work and intelligence?

The university-admissions process, which aims to acknowledge and reward talent and diligence through assessment of grades and extracurriculars, relies on this basic idea: that hard work and intelligence should be rewarded fairly, provided that chances are more or less equal.

University commencement speeches are especially great places to spot these ideas (a whole article is devoted to this).

This is the meritocratic ideal. Not only is it seemingly fair and universally accepted, but it also feels moralising and motivating. After all, if we can work hard with our given capabilities to achieve success, wouldn’t that drive us to strive harder every morning?

Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor of political philosophy, shows that this is not the case, in his book The Tyranny of Merit. Not only does the fair implementation of meritocracy have flaws in its logic, but it can have deeply negative impacts on human psychology, in more than one way.

Imagine how a meritocratic world too easily divides winners and losers. We as counsellors are likely all too familiar with this during the December of our students’ senior year, as the offer letters divide those who are accepted from their early applications to US universities from those who have been rejected.

Moreover, when the idea of a fair meritocratic university-admissions process is accepted without question, it can lead to hubris for the accepted and humiliation for the rejected.

Meritocracy is often unquestioned, although it comes with its criticisms and possible harmful effects to mental health. As college counsellors, understanding this can help us to be more thoughtful educators and effective advocates for our students.

Criticisms of meritocracy

Meritocracy can be captured in the following assumptions, heard recently in the Hidden Forces podcast: “If chances are more or less equal, then the winners deserve their winnings. The ones who land on top having exercised their efforts and talents deserve the material rewards that we lavish on the successful.”

There are two major criticisms of meritocracy that we should keep in mind as counsellors. 

First, for meritocracy to be sound and fair, the “chances should be more or less equal”. However, university admissions simply does not provide a level playing field. Statistically, we can look at how SAT scores correlate with socio-economic status, and more students at Ivy League universities come from the top 1 per cent than from the bottom 60 per cent combined.

Anecdotally, we know how it is possible for wealthy parents to engineer extracurricular choices and arrange tutors for their children to create the impression of immense drive and autonomy. A meritocratic process should enable everyone to rise based on their talents and efforts alone, but this isn’t really the case with university admissions – to the effect of elite university admissions entrenching inequalities, instead of advancing social mobility.

Second, even if we could somehow create a perfectly level playing field, meritocracy would still not be fair. It would be a mistake to assume that “Those who landed on top due to effort and talent morally deserved all the benefits that flow from talent.”

Those two elements that enabled the university offer – effort and talent – are not of the student’s own making, but down to good fortune. These students have been born with the cognitive and environmental capacities to do well in school, and born into a society and generation where the ability to do well in school is rewarded.

The university-admissions process in the 21st century first and foremost rewards academic performance, not another type of ability. It is much easier to be noticed by admissions officers if one was fortunate enough to have been born with the right type of intelligence and into the right environment for this to blossom into good grades. Therefore, the rewards that flow from the interaction of these two factors haven’t necessarily been earned or merited by the successful individual.

Meritocracy and mental health

Other than being unsound, meritocracy can have deeply harmful effects on the mental health of the “winners” and “losers”, especially considering their developmental stage of adolescence and nascent state of self-concept.

Why this is harmful for the rejected is likely quite clear. Envisage a student who opens their inbox to read a rejection letter for the very first time. The humiliation of rejection is disempowering and demoralising. The news seems to invalidate not only their carefully crafted application but also their hard work over their entire four years of high school. Resentment towards the students smiling with acceptance letters can easily build up, and motivation is incredibly difficult to harness in this emotional state.

Why this is harmful for the accepted students is a bit less apparent, but thinking about the effect of this experience on the capacity of empathy for one another can help. The following excerpt from the Hidden Forces podcast puts it succinctly: “The more I think of myself as self-made and self-sufficient, it’s harder to think of myself in other people’s shoes.”

Meritocracy is harmful because it can possibly lead to the individual easily forgetting that success is not of one’s own doing – it is the result of the support of their community and also the advantages derived from the interactions of their environment and genetics.

In The Tyranny of Merit, Michael Sandel makes an incisive observation about how such amnesia is almost inevitable, though: “But to those in the midst of hypercompetitive struggle for admission, it is impossible to view success as anything other than the result of individual effort and achievement.”

The hypercompetitive university-admissions process is summed up elegantly in the following quotation, also from Sandel: “Meritocratic arms race – for those who lack the apparatus of advantage it is unfair; for those entangled in the apparatus, it is oppressive.” 

Don’t forget that this is a time when students are developing a coherent sense of self. By inevitably spending so much time in the university-admissions process, they are putting their self-worth out there to be judged in a spotlight, with a clear societally approved distinction of “winners” and “losers” at the end. Especially at a time when the attention to the perceived self by others is magnified, this is a painful process to go through. Perhaps the statistics that demonstrate faltering adolescent mental health in this demographic are not so surprising.  

Now that we have looked at some ways in how the meritocratic admissions process is unfair and harmful, what can we as college counsellors do about it?

College counselling in a meritocratic system

While we cannot do away with meritocracy single-handedly, we can help shape the developing worldview of our students, and humanise the gruelling admissions process for the students we work with.

For the rejected students, self-compassion is an effective salve, which is more thoroughly explored hereIn addition to this, I explain to students how the university-admissions process is not always as fair as it seems to be. In my practice, I find that a more nuanced understanding of the university-admissions process (rather than seeing it as completely objective and “fair”) brings immense understanding and subsequent relief for the students.

To counter the hubris that offers may bring to students, emphasise that success is never individually achieved – it is only possible with the contributions of others. The reflection questions in RAFT for transition workshops contain many prompts to help students acknowledge the support of countless people on their journey.

Of course, this should not come at the expense of validation, as university admission is a joyful experience to celebrate. But a more thoughtful affirmation, if possible, may have a lasting impact.

For both parties, I also stress how self-worth cannot and should not be just defined by university offers. Although the pieces of paper may seem to determine students’ entire universe now, it is just to denote where they will spend the next three to four years of life – a small portion overall.

Celebrate all students and pathways. Success takes many forms, and is defined differently by everyone. Interweave this message in your parent presentations too, for it takes the community to understand and convey this message.

As college counsellors, we cannot change society, but we can help shape the developing view of the world for our students. They will soon face many more meritocratic structures in life. Planting a seed to question meritocracy, and the unkind effects it has on self and others, can help our students face the challenges beyond their university-application process.

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