With the developments of the past week, and those sure to come in the next few months, the admissions system at our university is going to get the time in the spotlight that it sorely needs. But not only because racial preference in admissions is a topic desperately in need of evaluation; it’s also imperative that our own administration use this opportunity to examine other flaws in the department.
As a focus of its defense in the admissions lawsuits, our administration says that, beyond test scores and grades, each applicant offers valuable assets to the classroom experience that can benefit the education of everyone else. Thus, diversity presents countless points of view that can prove paramount to providing the most complete education possible.
This is an impressive ideal that I would have no trouble supporting if I believed that it was anything more than a defense for a system under fire. But my experiences as an applicant make me know otherwise.
In early January 1999, my application was deferred by the University. Nevertheless, I proceeded with my planned visit to the campus a few weeks later, and followed my guidance counselor’s advice that I meet with an admissions counselor. There, I learned the intricacies of Michigan’s point system and was told that my prospects for admission were not good. I had scored an 86 and the bar for early admission, which would go up as the year progressed, was 90. He told me that my grades and test scores were fine but that I didn’t have any extracurriculars.
I reminded him that I had about three pages of extracurriculars. So he pulled out my application and explained that every one of the activities on my list was on the local level. Michigan only awards points to activities outside one’s own school.
But as he went down the list, he asked if my basketball team, which I marked down that I played for, was any good. I told him that even though we were a small Jewish private school, we made it to the New Jersey semis for our league.
“State?” he asked. “Oh, I can give you a point for that.”
Though certainly generous, this infuriated me, much more so than being told I’d flown a good way for no reason. After telling me that three pages of substantive extracurriculars were meaningless, he gave me recognition because I happened to join a team in high school. He never asked if I played. He never asked if I was any good. He didn’t ask if I’d try to play any sports at Michigan. He never asked if I had in any way contributed to my team’s success. But the mere fact that I had written on my application that I played basketball apparently meant more than the countless ways that I had contributed to my school.
I lived a half hour from my school, about 75 minutes on the bus. On most days, I got home by 5:30 or 6 p.m., about 9 p.m. when I had practice. When was I supposed to get a job? When was I supposed to do community service? Realizing that my schedule didn’t allow time to improve my community, I did everything I could to improve my school. But I was a number in an admissions formula, and I didn’t compute.
Somehow I got accepted, and I’d say that I have made a substantial contribution to the community. But that never would have happened if I hadn’t taken advantage of a chance to get interviewed. And that is the greatest problem with our admissions system.
My situation can’t be the only one of its ilk. And what I’ve learned from it is that even though our administration nobly looks to compose the most diverse student body possible for the benefit of everyone around, it can’t possibly succeed in this goal without finding a way to interview every student. If racially preferenced admissions exist to repair past wrongs, I can’t argue. It’s neither here nor there. But regardless of what the administration hopes to compose, a piece of paper saying what an applicant has or hasn’t done and a formula to add up the achievements is not enough to figure out who can add what to the greater community.
Surely it’s a heady request to ask for about 25,000 interviews, but it’s not impossible, not with the largest active alumni base in the country. Who knows how many people have been turned away, not because of anything they did or didn’t do, but because it didn’t look right on paper. Is the system working if a high school basketball jersey is worth more than the creation of a task force to curb consumption of illegal substances?
This is not a plea for or against affirmative action. That question is for nine people in black robes to answer. What I do want, though, is for people to realize that the problem is in the execution, not the ideal.
Our admissions system has flaws, and those opposing what they see as some of them will soon get their day in the highest court. My only hope is that the evaluation doesn’t end there.
Jon Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.