What College Application Essays Are Really For
June 14, 2011, 04:47 PM
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According to "Mixed-Race Students Wonder How Many Boxes to Check" in the NYT, the endless demands from college admissions offices for essays from applicants are just what cynics figured. First, some throatclearing:
And yet these days, white students are now only 43 percent of the student body at Rice [University in Houston], where an applicant`s racial identification can become an admissions game changer. This can be especially true during the "committee round" in early spring, when only a few dozen slots might remain for a freshman class expected to number about 1,000.
At that stage, a core group of five to seven bleary-eyed admissions officers will convene for debate around a rectangular laminate table strewn with coffee cups and half-eaten doughnuts as the applications of those students still under consideration are projected onto a 60-inch plasma TV screen.
For most of the nearly 14,000 who applied this year, the final decision - admit or deny - was a relatively straightforward one resolved early on, based on the admissions officers` sampling of factors like test scores, grades, extracurricular activities and recommendations.
But there are several thousand applicants whose fate might still be in limbo by the committee round because their qualifications can seem fairly indistinguishable from one another. This is when an applicant`s race - or races - might tip the balance.
Oh, come on, this is the oldest myth in the college affirmative action book: that quotas only "tip the balance" when applicants "seem fairly indistinguishable." The white-black SAT gap at Rice back during the 400-1600 scoring days was 271 points, according to The Bell Curve. That was the biggest gap found out of a couple of dozen college. Of course, as the Rice president irritatedly pointed out to me when I called Rice`s distinction to his attention at an alumni fundraiser, Rice is the smallest school to play Div. I football, so the proportion of football players` SAT scores counted under the black total is larger at Rice than elsewhere. But, still ... One reason colleges can pull the wool over the public`s eyes on this is that very few people think in systems terms about how this works. It`s hard to think about the effect of more than one college doing this at a time. If Rice was the only college in the country to have a quota, then, sure, it could fill its quota with black applicants who are "fairly indistinguishable" from the white norm. But, funny thing is, Harvard also has a quota, so all those black applicants are going to Harvard instead of Rice. And the black students who are just below the Harvard-bound are going to Stanford and MIT on quotas instead of Rice. So, Rice takes the blacks who would be going to Texas A&M if nobody had a quota, and Texas A&M takes ... The whole system winds up pretty accurately reproducing at each college the one standard deviation gap seen in the whole population. But that`s really hard for most people to grasp.

So, what are the essays for?

"From an academic standpoint, the qualifying records, the test scores, how many AP courses, they may all look alike," said Chris Mu?±oz, vice president for enrollment at Rice since 2006. "That`s when we might go and say, â€?This kid has a Spanish surname. Let`s see what he wrote about.` Right or wrong, it can make a difference." ...
Still, Rice knows that however much it emphasizes that students should be guided by the honor principle in making such calls, some will seek to stretch the new definitions to their own gain.
"There are players out there," said Julie Browning, the longtime dean of undergraduate admission at Rice.
Mindful of that, Rice admissions officials try to reconcile whatever boxes an applicant may have checked with the rest of the application.
For example, in its customized supplement to the Common Application, Rice asks an essay question about "the unique life experiences and cultural traditions" that a student might bring. "If they care about their cultural heritage, it comes through," Ms. Browning said. "If they`re lukewarm about it, and they`re trying to make it something they care about, it comes through."
Of course, many of these application essays are written by professional essay writers or the like, so I guess it all evens out in the long run. Anyway, the message from Rice U. is: If you`ve got it, play the Race Card. Over and over again. Be as authentically nonwhite as you can. (We can tell!) You`ve got to feel deep down that you deserve this quota spot. So, don`t forget to mention how special your Quinceanera made you feel, especially if you are a boy.

One commenter once noted that Dreams from My Father sounds like the President`s monstrously enlarged Diversity Essay. Unfortunately, the Times` article seems pretty confused about the concept (or concepts) of "multiracial":

And yet, at Rice, the chances that a multiracial applicant might be admitted have climbed over the last five years to 23 percent this year. (By contrast, the admission rate for the freshman class as a whole this year was about 19 percent.)
Adding to the confusion in admissions offices is that there is no standard definition, in higher education or elsewhere, of what it means to be mixed race. But the hundreds of colleges, including Rice, that accept the Common Application have allowed students to mark more than one box for several years now.
Over the last five years, the number of applicants to Rice who characterize themselves as of more than one race has skyrocketed to 564 from 8. Multiracial students now account for about 6 percent of the freshman class at Rice, nearly as many as those who identify themselves as "black or African-American." (Nationally, about 3 percent of Americans identify themselves as mixed-race.)
The reporters` notion that colleges treat "multiracial" as one entity seems highly naive and provincial. I can`t imagine any California college treats applicants who check 1. Black and 2. White (You`re like, omigod, Obama!) the same as applicants who check 1. Asian and 2. White (Yeah, so what else is new?)

I know from personal experience of a highly marginal case that they`re going to treat applicants who assert any black ancestry as BLACK. The black legislators in Sacramento don`t ask Berkeley for pictures of the students, they just want to know the numbers. I am extremely doubtful of the NYT`s interpretation in this passage:

Mr. Mu?±oz, who is ultimately responsible for Rice`s effort to promote diversity on campus, says he has been guided by the template of his own mixed-race family. He is Mexican-American, the first in his family to go to college, while his wife is of Irish descent. They have three grown children.
"I am honoring, best I can, how the students see themselves," Mr. Mu?±oz said. "If they say they`re mixed, I`m not going to say, â€?Oh no, you`re black.` I`m going to say, â€?You`re mixed.` Isn`t that O.K.?"
And, he added, "We`re not out to play �gotcha.` In all things there is an element of trust." Still, he acknowledges, such questions give applicants (and their families) wide latitude.
An applicant`s final determination of what to say about race is often made in consultation with a college counselor. Many counselors will convey to families that a multiracial applicant - like one who is black and Chinese - often has a better chance of being admitted to a highly selective college than those in any other racial or ethnic category.
Maybe in the case of an extreme exotic like a black-Chinese mix, a multiracial would be more desirable to admissions offices than just plain black, but the whole tenor of this article — that admissions offices treat "multiracial" as a group — is doubtful. For getting into college, black is best, and the one drop rule applies to who gets called black, so anybody who credibly claims to be part black will be treated as black for quota / bragging rights purposes. I know a young man who is not noticeably black, unless you are looking for it, who wasn`t going to put down on his Berkeley application that he was black because he was having an argument with his New Orleans Creole of Color light-skinned father and identified more at the moment with his Armenian mother. He finally did, and then not only he got into Berkeley with below average test scores, but he got a huge scholarship from the African-American Alumni Association. The more interesting questions are part Hispanics and part Asians. The federal government has never created a mixed-ethnicity category for people who are part Hispanic. In fact, in the 2010 Census, the feds abolished the concept of ethnicity in general, and didn`t bother to provide any conceptual justification for demanding to know if you are Hispanic or Not Hispanic. You just had to tell them because they have more guns than you have. So, Mr. Munoz should have been asked what he`s going to put down on his half-Mexican kids` college applications. By the way, here`s a picture of the President of Mexico with Mexican students at Stanford. Nobody looks like that guy in Machete. The most interesting question to NYT subscribers is probably what to do if you are part Asian. That gets into the whole question that the NYT hasn`t much dealt with: do colleges discriminate against Asians, and if they do why?