Mr. O'Neill says that "students today have a better sense of what it takes to make themselves look like good candidates." They take as many AP classes as they can, prepare for the SATs, polish their essays, etc. And many parents pay tutors and coaches to help with this effort. But he tells me it is an "open question" whether the university's applicants are actually of a higher quality than those of 25 years ago. How many areas of American life are there today in which people work harder and spend more money only to see the same results they did decades before?Well, they'd have interesting things to say because their father is in politics and ran for the presidency. And, as they get older, they will have opportunities for wonderful educational experiences hanging around the Washington political scene or with Oprah or traveling abroad with their families. That is what would make them intriguing applicants to college, not their skin color. But that is what the Director of Admissions sees.
Well, that's not quite true, according to Mr. O'Neill, who proudly points to what he thinks is one of the biggest improvements to the University of Chicago in the past few decades--diversity. The school used to be about two-thirds male and overwhelmingly white. Now the gender ratio is about even, and 7% of the student body is black, 9% is Hispanic and 1% is Native American.
How has this happened? For one thing, Mr. O'Neill tells me, he has de-emphasized the SATs in the admissions process. They're used as "corroborating evidence" for what his staff learns from teacher recommendations, high-school records and essays. Ultimately, Mr. O'Neill believes that "there are some things that are more important than test scores."
A few months ago, black presidential hopeful Barack Obama, a former U of C lecturer, told George Stephanopoulos that he didn't think his daughters should be treated differently in the college admissions process from any other "advantaged" kids. But Mr. O'Neill disagrees. He would give the Obama girls "a break" anyway: "Those children, for all their privileges, will have interesting things to say about American society based on what I'm assuming their experiences are."
This is the admissions season for high school seniors. Almost every day the past few weeks, I've been talking to kids about their applications as they ask me to write recommendations for them. And most of these kids have great grades and decent scores. Almost all of them have been doing community service and school extracurricular activities. So many of this generation of students have been constructing the perfect record for college applications. But they don't stand out because so many others have been doing the same thing.
I suspect that what bothers kids most about the process is not the cutthroat competition they face, but the arbitrary nature of the whole thing. You struggle to give schools what they want. But ultimately folks like Mr. O'Neill may simply ignore your grades or your test scores, focusing instead on whether you've had the right "experiences" or have the right skin color to be admitted to the sacred city.I want to tell my students to relax. They'll all get in somewhere and go off and have wonderful experiences and, if they work at it, they can gain a great education. They can make of college what they will and it won't matter all that much which school they choose or chooses them. They shouldn't set their hearts on any one school because it's become such a crap shoot about where they will get in. And so much of it has nothing to do with anything they did or didn't do in high school. But that's a hard lesson for a 17 or 18 year-old kid who thinks that they should reap the reward that they deserve for having done everything that they were told they needed to do to create that great high school record.