How Race Factors Into College Admissions

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

In the US Admissions Process, Race and Ethnicity are Considered by Selective Colleges

Many families may have some idea of how admissions offices evaluate applicants, but in the US, universities use the “holistic review” process, meaning admissions officers place emphasis on the applicant as a whole person, not just his or her academic achievements.

In holistic review, admissions officers look at “hard factors” (quantitative data) and “soft factors” (qualitative data) in order to gain a full picture of applicants.  Things like:

  • GPA

  • Course Rigor

  • Standardized Test Scores

  • Extracurricular Activities

  • Recommendation Letters

  • Strength of School

  • Essays

  • Demonstrated Interest

Building a Class
There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes before decisions are made. Predictions about yield, discussions about the institution’s needs, and evaluation of the overall quality of the applicant pool are just a few of the things admissions offices consider before deciding who gets in and who doesn’t.

Other factors like departmental or institutional needs can also play a factor. For example, the school may need more music majors to help build their diverse student body, so all music majors who the school feels will do succeed at the institution and make an impact on campus may be considered for admission.

Or there might be a saturation of biology majors, so only those applicants intending to study biology with application factors above the median requirements for admission are considered.

These needs vary from school to school and year to year, but the main purpose of evaluating applicants and their different application components is to help determine those applicants who would succeed at the institution.

Race and College Admissions
Determining the institution’s needs and building a diverse class of specialists is also where background, race, and ethnicity can sometimes come into play at private and highly selective institutions like the Ivies. Schools want to build diverse classes of high-performing students, and while diversity comes in many forms (socioeconomic, geographical, gender, etc.), it often includes race as well.

If a school feels that a minority group on campus is underrepresented, they may want to fill that need by affirming some students of a certain race or ethnicity that fall into that range of students who were already determined able to do the work and succeed at the school.

A high-performing student with impressive grades, test scores, extracurriculars, and great essays, might be even more attractive if he or she comes from a unique background or ethnicity.

In any selective admissions pool, admissions offices review students with important contextual information in mind, including race. Behind closed doors, things like an applicant’s test scores will be evaluated in context to those in their racial category, but more importantly also in their ethnicity.

For example, an Asian applicant is going to be reviewed in the context of his or her ethnicity because being Cambodian is very different than being a Chinese international student.

In the case of Kwasi Enin, the Long Island student who was accepted to all eight Ivy League schools this year, his status as a first-generation American from Ghana is rare in any applicant pool. Along with his many academic and personal accomplishments, his racial and ethnic background makes him an even more interesting applicant to admissions committees.

Enin’s test scores were in the top percentile for all students, as well for African-American students and boys. He was already an impressive applicant on paper, and his Ghanaian background, along with being a first-generation American, set him apart from other applicants who identified as black or African-American.

While this may seem unfair or disadvantageous, it ensures that all applicants are evaluated with all contextual considerations in mind, not just against the applicant pool as a whole.

Race and affirmative action in admissions has long been a hot button issue, and many do question its place in today’s society. The truth is race is a factor that is considered when evaluating some applicants, but it’s just one small piece of the puzzle. Dozens of other factors are also considered when making admissions decisions, not just race, ethnicity, or background.

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