From a post on a New York Times blog specifically about college admissions:
My daughter is a senior from a public school with a class size of 589. She has a 4.0 GPA with mostly advanced and AP classes, except required classes. She has an SAT of 2,250, ACT 36. So she is a National Merit finalist, President Scholar candidate, and a winner of MI Southeast Conference All Academy Award (only five students in her school win). She is a cellist in symphony orchestra and a varsity crew member on the rowing team.
Yet she was rejected by four Ivy schools and put on the waiting list for the University of Chicago. What went wrong? Her counselor was stunned by her rejection. What should she do to get off the waiting list?
Answer:Your daughter sounds like a terrific scholar, musician, and athlete. The world of selective college admissions is so hyper-competitive that trying to read the tea leaves about why decisions were rendered is almost impossible…
One feels sorry for the daughter, she is such a quantitatively perfect person. Her SAT score is higher than most graduate students’ monthly incomes. She has perfect grades. She has perfect stats. She has more honors and decoratations than a military veteran. She comes from a public school, so she isn’t too marked by obvious badges of class status. She appears, at least to her parent, as a completely flawless unit ready for insertion into what was, evidently, expected to be a flawlessly meritocratic system.
Such was the strength of the expectation, that perfect preparation equals perfect success, that its failure provokes a moment of stunned incomprehension. “What went wrong?” On one level, this question is rhetorical, even performative: the parent already knows what went wrong: their daughter didn’t get in where she was supposed to. The very question what went wrong? presupposes an assumption that the daughter could not possibly have been rejected, projects an image of a world that functions automatically, a giant sorting system in which the best reliably get what they deserve.
The system is fake, to state the obvious. For one thing, because the qualities that make one a perfect student are themselves not evenly distributed from equal starting points; rather they’re a function of family background, class status, home town, gender, race… The response to her letter read in part: “Gender does play a role and it is simply more competitive for young women at most places these days.” I wasn’t aware of that but I guess it’s not surprising, given statistics that more women than men are going to college.
But these kinds of systematic biases are relatively minor flaws in the meritocracy compared to its real problem, which is that sometimes it just doesn’t produce the reliable result one expected, sometimes it doesn’t pick people who seem to be the best, sometimes its results are shocking, random, arbitrary. This arbitrariness is understood by the people making the choices between applicants, I think, but is viscerally felt much more by the system’s rejects.
One feels sorry for the daughter, or at least for her parent, whose fantasies of vicarious success seem to be developed to a high degree. It doesn’t seem to occur to people like these to long for a world where higher education wasn’t organized as a massive meritocracy, where the education was more even in quality across different institutions, where a few overvalued elite institutions (and I should know, having gone to two of them now) get more credit than they deserve. There seems to be no chance of a political analysis of class reproduction occurring in this situation. Ultimately, it’s not just the daughter’s rejection that’s shatteringly arbitrary, it’s the whole system of higher education that comes to appear like a castle in the clouds, a fantasy world of success more longed for than understood.