Widgets Magazine


Holistic admissions undermine a meritocracy

Many American universities tout their subjective holistic admissions as providing opportunities to socioeconomically disadvantaged applicants. While this goal is laudable, there exist tried and tested wholly objective alternatives to accomplish the same goal, such as admitting the best students from socioeconomically disadvantaged schools independently of how these students compare with students from advantaged schools. While all methods have flaws, including the latter, not all methods are equally flawed.

America aspires to be a society in which anyone can transcend his or her socioeconomic class through merit, in contrast to societies of the “old world” that its immigrants left behind. Whereas transparent objective criteria would immediately make clear what exactly anyone could do toward being admitted to a college of one’s choice, opaque holistic criteria undermine a meritocracy.

Holistic criteria favor those who can afford private high schools and private college counselors to guide them through the nuances of a successful application. Such counselors can reveal biases of particular admission committees that often aren’t publicly known — what works and what doesn’t — and then lobby for their charges. On Wall Street, acting on any non-public information is termed “insider trading,” a crime, but in college admissions, doing so is routine. Surely, this ability to purchase subjective insider information is a distinct, undeniable and undesirable advantage available only to the very rich.

Holistic criteria also favor the powerful and well-connected, allowing them to bypass the same admission review that everyone else is subjected to. For instance, according to The Washington Post, President John F. Kennedy graduated from The Choate (High) School with an average score of 68 percent, when the school’s passing score was 65 percent, and yet he was admitted to Harvard.

Holistic admission criteria were invented by Harvard in the 1920s to limit the number of  intellectually accomplished Jewish students that were admitted, which they immediately did. Can a device borne of such malicious intent have transformed itself into a wholly noble instrument?

As Ron Unz notes in The American Conservative, quoting Pulitzer Prize-winner Daniel Golden, Asian-Americans are the “New Jews.” Unz reveals that from 1993 to 2011, the percentage of Asian-American Harvard undergraduates dropped from 20-plus percent to 17.2 percent and has remained steady since. Although it is possible for Harvard to have maintained this surprising consistency without explicit and provable bias, exactly as it did previously to limit Jewish admissions, is it fair?

Colleges argue that they seek racial and geographical diversity, but the former disfavors any race that might see larger numbers admitted on merit alone, and the latter disfavors any race  that is concentrated in a few geographical pockets, as is typical of new immigrants. Both introduce implicit, if not explicit, racial bias against Asian-Americans. Do you care whether a cure for your impending disease is discovered by an ethnically and geographically diverse team? There is value to diversity, but not at the expense of merit.

So, the second casualty of holistic admissions is race neutrality. It is laudable to help those with a continuing history of discrimination and socioeconomic disadvantage, but not to distinguish within the remaining population on a basis other than transparently objective merit.

You can be sure if there were a greater number of Asian-Americans in Congress, as there are now Jewish-Americans, perceived discrimination against the “New Jews” would also be a thing of the past. Why? Because no elite U.S. institution can afford to alienate Congress when federal funds are the lifeblood of every institution’s research and resultant prestige.

If not holistic admission criteria, then what? One alternative is to use performance on specific exams, such as the SAT or college-administered exams, as the main admission criterion.

The SAT might indeed be an imperfect gauge of a student’s potential, given that this exam can be mastered through diligence and coaching, as many colleges claim, and coaching can only be afforded by the well-heeled. But does that make the SAT inferior to holistic criteria? Does not the mastery of any skill, even those that are non-academic, benefit from diligence and coaching? And are the SAT’s deficiencies enough to dismiss all objective admission criteria?


As the SAT is transparent in its administration, anyone can go out and strive for a perfect score irrespective of his or her means. Coaching might help, but with the ubiquitousness of the Internet, coaching is neither necessary nor sufficient. In contrast, not anyone can go out and access a college counselor in the know, show an interest in a foreign culture by spending a summer abroad or pursue an expensive (and therefore uncommon) sport such as horse riding.

College entrance exams that suppress all personal information from examiners are routine the world over for good reason: They are accepted by the populace as fair. In many countries, such as India and China, doing well in such exams is the surest way to rise socioeconomically: What better testament could there be to the meritocratic nature of such exams? Whereas economically better-off students do have an advantage over others in preparing for such exams, the economically worse off are far more motivated. Furthermore, any advantage the former have in such exams pales in comparison to their insidious advantage in holistic admissions.

Why is there not a single empirical study that has tracked the careers of graduates of any college to compare those who would have been admitted to that college under one criterion and not another to determine how holistic criteria fare relative to their objective alternatives? Is it because the powerful have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo?

Consider that any child of a U.S. president would probably be welcomed at any college independent of the child’s merit. This is sad, but what is sadder is that we would accept this without a second thought. Is our claim to a meritocracy, then, simply an illusion?


Contact Gitika Nalwa at gitikanalwa@gmail.com.

  • asdf;lkj

    Whaaat after all that the alternative you offer is SAT scores??? How is it better to accept someone based on one number–hours wasted studying useless material–then it is to look at the person as a whole? People with more time and money, and with parents who start them at a younger age will obviously do better. Good college counselors are necessary to make them realize how important the tests are–I for one didn’t even know what SAT subject tests were until junior year of high school. Basically if the SAT was the key criteria, Stanford would be a school full of boring no-lifes who only care about winning.

  • down with the system

    if it was a meritocracy than this would be a country full of rich illegal immigrants…
    stop perpetuating the illusion and this competitive stress culture

  • anonymous

    Just imagine if “merit” took a back seat to “holistic admissions” in picking the members of the football team and the basketball team. What if an administratively determined share of the recruits had to be white, hispanic and asian in addition to black? Who wants teams “full of boring no-lifes who only care about winning?”

  • asdf;lkj

    This is apples and oranges, 99% of the time using an analogy to make the argument to change a policy doesn’t work.

    A football team is only about winning, studying for the SAT is about winning. But Stanford needs creative visionaries, people from different backgrounds (different perspectives), etc., which the SAT isn’t reflective of.

    It’s concerning that a student doesn’t see the full mission of Stanford, and only sees it as a place to “win”.

  • Candid One

    Get a life yourself. Isn’t “nerd” simply a euphemism for “no-life”? Do you know that football and basketball are only two of Stanford’s 36 varsity sports? That’s 34 other sports that have variously–and arguably–contributed toward those 20 consecutive Director’s Cups without much help from those other two sports. Each football and basketball recruit has to compete for admission against HS valedictorians, all-star student body presidents, future and current Olympic and professional athletes–and hot-shot legacy applicants. What makes you think that Stanford isn’t being holistic about its meritocracy? You seem to have a particular concept of “merit” in mind. How arbitrary do you think that your idea of merit might be? Certainly as arbitrary as any other.

  • Stanford ’16

    As a Stanford student I am embarrassed by this article. It is so incredibly simple. The fact that your final conclusion comes back to SAT-like tests is evident of that. I’m glad you weren’t reading my application and thought that some random guy with an SAT score 100 points higher than mine somehow “deserved” the spot more. Also your comparison to insider trading is also poorly thought out. Some people can afford counselors? Sure! What about the kids who can afford proper SAT prep? Seems like when there is any single thing it all comes back to the same issue. Kids who could afford to join better sports teams got better and recruited. Kids who went to better schools, etc.

  • A


    “Test scores transmit social disparities without improving our ability to select youths who will succeed in college.”
    Your question that we actually live in a meritocracy is a joke right?

  • A random reader in Japan…

    I agree with many sentiments in here, but wanted to comment on a few points. On insider trading, that is a beautiful analogy. Though I would be careful of saying that only the very rich can get that. I went to a private school on financial aid and am on financial aid at Stanford as well. In general, there is this “insider trading” (I love that analogy!) at the preparatory schools. Notice that less than 1% of Americans go to prep schools, but about 33% of “elite” colleges are comprised of those students…certainly not a coincidence.
    On the Asian Americans as “new jews”, it is a fascinating point as well. It is a very discriminatory practice going on against Asian Americans. Especially given that that group faces much of the same racial discrimination as hispanics and blacks in the US. The idea of “clumping”, or treating part of “the mass”, as Jewish Americans have become does seem pretty valid to me.
    As other have commented, I do have some disagreement with using a single standardized test for anything. Having lived in Japan now for a few months, where standardized tests truly are king, there are flaws in using a single test, such as the fact that it basically is just accepting students based on who is good at filling in bubbles. It doesn’t show academic track record, outside achievements, etc. And I agree with your own note about how more privileged people tend to do better on this. It is interesting to note the SAT’s new re-writing and collaboration with Khan Academy. I do wonder how that will change the playing field. But at the moment, I don’t think the SAT is ready for prime time (nor is the ACT for that matter).
    Very interesting article though!

  • Stanford ’83

    Your comment is proof why a SAT score cutoff is desirable and why “some random guy with an SAT score 100 points higher” than yours could well have been a more desirable admit. One, your command of English is pathetic even after a couple of years at Stanford: You missed the central thesis of the article and do not know when to use “simple” and when to use “naïve,” or even when to use “an” and when to use “a.” Two, you are disparaging students with better SAT scores than yours without knowing anything about them.

  • Gurney Halleck

    The real definition of “meritocracy”: High IQ.

    According to Steven Pinker, who has tweeted this piece, IQ is determined by genes.

    Suppose some kid in California is raised correctly by his parents, works very hard, does every homework assignment, etc, and studies hard for the SAT but ends up getting an average score. According to those championing “meritocracy,” this kid does not deserve a place at elite schools because he lacks the raw genetically determined intelligence to do well on a high stakes test specifically designed to sort students by raw ability.

    The so called meritocracy the likes of Pinker champion is a sort of tyranny, just as is the sort of “holistic admissions” process that the Ivy’s employ to benefit some ethnicities over others.

    The country needs a better system. Perhaps the solution is to track every student and be ruthless about IQ while at the same time redistributing wealth and harshly taxing elites. Equalize outcomes per Rawls.

  • Prospective Stanford Parent

    Your link points to a Bates College study that justifies its making SAT scores optional, which happened to improve its US News and World Report ranking.

    See this article by Prof. Pinker of Harvard that argues against the holistic admission practices of Harvard and discredits self-serving campaigns against the SAT:

  • Stanford ’11

    Let’s be honest though, Stanford students have always been grammatically challenged.