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Confessions of an Application Reader Essay

A HIGHLY qualified student, with a 3. 95 unweighted grade point average and 2300 on the SAT, was not among the top-ranked engineering applicants to the University of California, Berkeley. He had perfect 800s on his subject tests in math and chemistry, a score of 5 on five Advanced Placement exams, musical talent and, in one of two personal statements, had written a loving tribute to his parents, who had emigrated from India. Enlarge This Image Brian Cronin for The New York Times Related Go to Education Life » Enlarge This Image Peg Skorpinski Sather Gate, a literal and symbolic portal on Berkeley’s campus.

Readers’ Comments Readers shared their thoughts on this article. Read All Comments (250) » Why was he not top-ranked by the “world’s premier public university,” as Berkeley calls itself? Perhaps others had perfect grades and scores? They did indeed. Were they ranked higher? Not necessarily. What kind of student was ranked higher? Every case is different. The reason our budding engineer was a 2 on a 1-to-5 scale (1 being highest) has to do with Berkeley’s holistic, or comprehensive, review, an admissions policy adopted by most selective colleges and universities.

In holistic review, institutions look beyond grades and scores to determine academic potential, drive and leadership abilities. Apparently, our Indian-American student needed more extracurricular activities and engineering awards to be ranked a 1. Now consider a second engineering applicant, a Mexican-American student with a moving, well-written essay but a 3. 4 G. P. A. and SATs below 1800. His school offered no A. P. He competed in track when not at his after-school job, working the fields with his parents. His score? 2. 5. Both students were among “typical” applicants used as norms to train application readers like myself.

And their different credentials yet remarkably close rankings illustrate the challenges, the ambiguities and the agenda of admissions at a major public research university in a post-affirmative-action world. WHILE teaching ethics at the University of San Francisco, I signed on as an “external reader” at Berkeley for the fall 2011 admissions cycle. I was one of about 70 outside readers — some high school counselors, some private admissions consultants — who helped rank the nearly 53,000 applications that year, giving each about eight minutes of attention.

An applicant scoring a 4 or 5 was probably going to be disappointed; a 3 might be deferred to a January entry; students with a 1, 2 or 2. 5 went to the top of the pile, but that didn’t mean they were in. Berkeley might accept 21 percent of freshman applicants over all but only 12 percent in engineering. My job was to help sort the pool. We were to assess each piece of information — grades, courses, standardized test scores, activities, leadership potential and character — in an additive fashion, looking for ways to advance the student to the next level, as opposed to counting any factor as a negative.

External readers are only the first read. Every one of our applications was scored by an experienced lead reader before being passed on to an inner committee of admissions officers for the selection phase. My new position required two days of intensive training at the Berkeley Alumni House as well as eight three-hour norming sessions. There, we practiced ranking under the supervision of lead readers and admissions officers to ensure our decisions conformed to the criteria outlined by the admissions office, with the intent of giving applicants as close to equal treatment as possible.

The process, however, turned out very differently. In principle, a broader examination of candidates is a great idea; some might say it is an ethical imperative to look at the “bigger picture” of an applicant’s life, as our mission was described. Considering the bigger picture has aided Berkeley’s pursuit of diversity after Proposition 209, which in 1996 amended California’s constitution to prohibit consideration of race, ethnicity or gender in admissions to public institutions.

In Fisher v. the University of Texas, the Supreme Court, too, endorsed race-neutral processes aimed at promoting educational diversity and, on throwing the case back to lower courts, challenged public institutions to justify race as a factor in the holistic process. In practice, holistic admissions raises many questions about who gets selected, how and why. I could see the fundamental unevenness in this process both in the norming Webinars and when alone in a dark room at home with my Berkeley-issued netbook, reading assigned applications away from enormously curious family members.

First and foremost, the process is confusingly subjective, despite all the objective criteria I was trained to examine. In norming sessions, I remember how lead readers would raise a candidate’s ranking because he or she “helped build the class. ” I never quite grasped how to build a class of freshmen from California — the priority, it was explained in the first day’s pep talk — while seeming to prize the high-paying out-of-state students who are so attractive during times of a growing budget gap. (A special team handled international applications. )

In one norming session, puzzled readers questioned why a student who resembled a throng of applicants and had only a 3. 5 G. P. A. should rank so highly. Could it be because he was a nonresident and had wealthy parents? (He had taken one of the expensive volunteer trips to Africa that we were told should not impress us. ) Income, an optional item on the application, would appear on the very first screen we saw, along with applicant name, address and family information. We also saw the high school’s state performance ranking. All this can be revealing.

Admissions officials were careful not to mention gender, ethnicity and race during our training sessions. Norming examples were our guide. Privately, I asked an officer point-blank: “What are we doing about race? ” She nodded sympathetically at my confusion but warned that it would be illegal to consider: we’re looking at — again, that phrase — the “bigger picture” of the applicant’s life. After the next training session, when I asked about an Asian student who I thought was a 2 but had only received a 3, the officer noted: “Oh, you’ll get a lot of them.

” She said the same when I asked why a low-income student with top grades and scores, and who had served in the Israeli army, was a 3. Which them? I had wondered. Did she mean I’d see a lot of 4. 0 G. P. A. ’s, or a lot of applicants whose bigger picture would fail to advance them, or a lot of Jewish and Asian applicants (Berkeley is 43 percent Asian, 11 percent Latino and 3 percent black)? The idea behind multiple readers is to prevent any single reader from making an outlier decision. And some of the rankings I gave actual applicants were overturned up the reading hierarchy.

I received an e-mail from the assistant director suggesting I was not with the program: “You’ve got 15 outlier, which is quite a lot. Mainly you gave 4’s and the final scores were 2’s and 2. 5’s. ” As I continued reading, I should keep an eye on the “percentile report on the e-viewer” and adjust my rankings accordingly. In a second e-mail, I was told I needed more 1’s and referrals. A referral is a flag that a student’s grades and scores do not make the cut but the application merits a special read because of “stressors” — socioeconomic disadvantages that admissions offices can use to increase diversity.

Officially, like all readers, I was to exclude minority background from my consideration. I was simply to notice whether the student came from a non-English-speaking household. I was not told what to do with this information — except that it may be a stressor if the personal statement revealed the student was having trouble adjusting to coursework in English. In such a case, I could refer the applicant for a special read. Why did I hear so many times from the assistant director? I think I got lost in the unspoken directives. Some things can’t be spelled out, but they have to be known.

Application readers must simply pick it up by osmosis, so that the process of detecting objective factors of disadvantage becomes tricky. It’s an extreme version of the American non-conversation about race. I scoured applications for stressors. To better understand stressors, I was trained to look for the “helpful” personal statement that elevates a candidate. Here I encountered through-the-looking-glass moments: an inspiring account of achievements may be less “helpful” than a report of the hardships that prevented the student from achieving better grades, test scores and honors.

Should I value consistent excellence or better results at the end of a personal struggle? I applied both, depending on race. An underrepresented minority could be the phoenix, I decided. We were not to hold a lack of Advanced Placement courses against applicants. Highest attention was to be paid to the unweighted G. P. A. , as schools in low-income neighborhoods may not offer A. P. courses, which are given more weight in G. P. A. calculation. Yet readers also want to know if a student has taken challenging courses, and will consider A.

P. ’s along with key college-prep subjects, known as a-g courses, required by the U. C. system. Even such objective information was open to interpretation. During training Webinars, we argued over transcripts. I scribbled this exchange in my notes: A reader ranks an applicant low because she sees an “overcount” in the student’s a-g courses. She thinks the courses were miscounted or perhaps counted higher than they should have been. Another reader sees an undercount and charges the first reader with “trying to cut this girl down. ”

The lead reader corrects: “We’re not here to cut down a student. ” We’re here to find factors that advance the student to a higher ranking. Another reader thinks the student is “good” but we have so many of “these kids. ” She doesn’t see any leadership beyond the student’s own projects. Listening to these conversations, I had to wonder exactly how elite institutions define leadership. I was supposed to find this major criterion holistically in the application. Some students took leadership courses. Most often, it was demonstrated in extracurricular activities.

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