Bryan Caplan  

An Ivy League Admissions Officer Speaks

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My post on elite high schools and college admission led an Ivy League admissions officer to email me.  Here's what he wrote, with his kind permission.  Name and school redacted.



Bryan,

Your post on TJ caught my eye, as last year I read admissions files from NOVA for [redacted Ivy League school] (along with an actually qualified admissions officer), including those from TJ. Feel free to share any of this, though for reasons of discretion (and being junior faculty!) please don't include my name/exact institution.

Much of what you wrote rings true from my experience, but I'm not sure I'd reach the same conclusion you did. 

We definitely held students from TJ to a higher standard than those from less prestigious schools. In fact, if memory serves they were held to the highest standard by any NOVA students by a decent margin. 

Why? From our perspective, mainly knowing that students there get lots of encouragement/coaching to do the kinds of things that look good on an application, so a student from TJ that looks equally good on paper as someone from another school (setting aside class rank) is probably less good of a student. Also, there was some desire to give students who had fewer opportunities a leg up, though this effect probably wouldn't help the children of a professor even if they went to a less prestigious school. 

On the other hand, we also certainly accounted for the strength of the school when interpreting class rank. I don't remember exact numbers, but I think we gave students from TJ a close look in the 2nd and even 3rd decile while this would be a kiss of death from most other schools. 

From a parent/student perspective, the question is whether the boost in application quality from being surrounded by high achievers and resources/opportunities students don't get elsewhere outweighs the fact that they will face a higher bar when admissions officers read their file.  Theoretically, I would think that causal effect of going to TJ on chances of admissions is probably neutral to somewhat positive. To the extent that admissions officers care about getting talented students who are prepared for an elite college, even if they fully filter out the better preparation at schools like TJ when making inferences about talent, they will still appreciate the better preparation in and of itself. Nothing in my empirical observations led me to think this theoretical expectation is wrong. 

(Of course this sets aside the impacts outside of chances of admission to an elite school, like what they actually learn or how they might be harmed by the pressures of going to such a school!)

Hope this is of interest,

[redacted]


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
jon writes:

As I posted in the earlier thread, if your whole goal in life is to get your otherwise average kid into an above average college, it can be done in two easy steps:

1. Move to Wyoming. Other neighboring states like Montana, Idaho or the Dakotas would also work, but Wyoming is the least populated. Low population East Coast states might also work, but would be a bit more risky because of their close proximity to most of the really good schools.

2. Get your kid started early in one of those obscure sports that are mostly only played at elite colleges. Or if that's not an option (since you know live in Wyoming), have them at least specialize in a sport that is something other than football, hockey, basketball or baseball.

Now, the hardest part about all of this is figuring out how to pay for it, because a lot of these elite schools don't offer athletic scholarships.

jc writes:

Perhaps a bit tangential, but I keep thinking of the parenting studies and the 50/0/50 rule.

If 50 percent of outcomes is due to the non-shared environment, and much/most of that is peer effects, then the best a parent can do (beyond giving good genes) is to exert some positive control over their child's peers.

No, they can't choose who their child will have chemistry or shared interests w/ or what not. But they can influence the larger set that their child then chooses a subset of to be friends, e.g., by sending their kids to the "right" school, the "right" church, etc.

Even if there was a penalty on applications for coming from an elite school, perhaps it's a wash in terms of class rank...

For example, consider "John". At an elite school, John aces his classes but finishes 15th in his class overall. Yes, w/ the same GPA he might finish 1st at a lesser school. It's also quite possible, though, that in the absence of "scholastic" peer effects, John doesn't push himself as hard, and he finishes 15th or even much lower at a lesser school.

Matt Moore writes:

If you are genuinely bright and want an easy admissions ride compared to most Ivy Schools, apply to either Oxford or Cambridge (you can't along to both in the same year).

I did economics admissions at Oxford for two years while doing my PhD. The only thing that matters is academic potential, with some bias towards being able to discuss academic issues in an interview.

I never conducted an interview that included anything other than problem questions.

Dylan writes:

jc:

If 50 percent of outcomes is due to the non-shared environment, and much/most of that is peer effects, then the best a parent can do (beyond giving good genes) is to exert some positive control over their child's peers.

There's less and less reason to believe peer effects have much impact at all. "Completely unknown" (and perhaps unknowable) is where most of non-shared environment is coming from. I suspect it's just random noise in neural development, or at best you can say the non-shared environment is different conditions in the womb. I suspect that between genes and developmental noise you've accounted for very big percentage of your ability and your potential is pretty much locked in at a very early age. And other than the genetic part you can't control anything that matters.

So pick a smart, conscientious spouse, hope you roll well (or at least not badly) on the random component, and relax. The rest is out of your (and your child's) hands.

gwern writes:
On the other hand, we also certainly accounted for the strength of the school when interpreting class rank. I don't remember exact numbers, but I think we gave students from TJ a close look in the 2nd and even 3rd decile while this would be a kiss of death from most other schools.

So without going back to the original paper to run the numbers, hasn't this admissions guy confirmed the paper's claims? That people going to as elite schools as TJ are being heavily discriminated against, inasmuch as they are only giving TJ students a 2-3x bonus (considering not just top decile but 30s as well) while TJ students are more like 50-100x more select than the general student body?

Question for admissions guy: do the admitted TJ students over or underperform the average admitted student?

Phil writes:

@ Matt Moore I was under the impression that Oxford and Cambridge are pretty stingy with tuition assistance for Americans, am I off base?

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