Hidden gold in college applications

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If the gatekeepers at Davidson College had judged the teenager by her ACT score, she probably wouldn’t have gotten in. It was 25 out of a possible 36, and more than three-quarters of the students at Davidson, a liberal-arts school in North Carolina with about 1,800 undergraduates and an acceptance rate of just over 20 percent, do better than that.

Her grades at a small charter school in the Boston area didn’t carry the day. I was allowed to look at her application, with her name redacted, and what I saw was an impressive but unexceptional mix of A’s and B-pluses, along with an impressive but unexceptional array of extracurricular activities much like any ambitious high school senior’s.

I had to read deeper, as the admissions officers at Davidson had done, to understand why they felt so strongly about her, and to feel that way myself. I had to notice details embedded in her letters of recommendation and mentioned fleetingly in bits of personal information she’d provided.

She’d been reared by a single mother. She had a 6-year-old brother. And for the last few years, she’d spent three nights a week making his dinner and getting him to bed while her mom was at work, earning an income so modest that the teenager met the federal requirements for receiving free lunch at school.

“Look at what she’s juggling,” Chris Gruber, Davidson’s dean of admissions, said as we chatted about her. In the context of those stresses, her Advanced Placement classes shimmered brighter; so did her volunteer work.

Forget that ACT. She was a wager that Davidson was willing to make, and she was granted early admission to the class of 2020, which will begin studies next fall.

There has been a crescendo lately in talk about how to conduct college admissions in a manner that brings greater socioeconomic diversity to campuses, making them richer places to learn and better engines of social mobility.

I had extensive conversations with administrators at several schools that have made such diversity a priority and were willing to discuss specific applicants whose mettle became evident only upon a closer consideration of circumstances. The administrators explained how such an examination is done.

Admitting students with merit that isn’t instantly clear in their transcripts is a purposeful effort, a commitment. Another school I looked at, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, does extensive outreach to make sure North Carolina kids from geographic areas and backgrounds that aren’t ready-made conduits to top colleges know about them and about aid that can make them affordable.

Chapel Hill’s admissions director, Stephen Farmer, told me about a young man who recently applied for early admission.

His test scores placed him toward the bottom of the applicant pool. He had D’s from his freshman and sophomore years. But then there was a stunning improvement that suggested a commitment all the more noteworthy in light of significant adversity in his family.

Farmer and other admissions officers wavered, conscious that, “If you put students in an academic environment that’s too tough for them, you’re setting them up to fail.”

But they admitted him, and he started last fall. For that first semester, he had an A-minus average. And he’s proof, Farmer said, that, “If we’re viewing everybody through a single lens, we’re not seeing most people clearly. So we need to get better at adjusting our vision, or we’re going to miss a lot of talent.”

So is America.•


Bruni is a New York Times columnist.Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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