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What are the darkest secrets of elite US universities?

To me, the secret about elite universities — or at least the fact that they prefer not to publicize overtly — is that the admissions game is far from fair, which most people would define as based on merit. The truth is that when it comes to admissions, the Ivies, Stanford, and other top schools have their own agendas. Which means that the actual number of spaces available for students without a “hook” is much smaller than one might think.

One agenda is to favor legacies. Harvard has been known to have the children of alums take up one-third of the class. Other schools do the same, at somewhat lower rates. Among my college essay students, I see admissions for legacies as much more likely than for others. If nothing else, the tie often goes to the legacy.

Athletes also get a big edge. This is not limited to Stanford, home of many Olympic medalists. Even at the Ivies, where the level of play in most sports is well below Olympic caliber, a big chunk of admitted students are recruited athletes, who sometimes get a bit of a break on grades and test scores. About half of students at Williams are athletes.

Money matters. Yes, you can buy your way into a top college. It is now known that the parents of Jared Kushner knew that he was not Harvard material and spent millions greasing the wheels. In my own experience, I have seen a student with really weak academics get into a school where the family’s name was on a building.

Race also matters. Students who are historically underrepresented minorities get an edge, even if the family is rich. It is documented that Asian students need higher grades and scores to get into many top schools. Harvard is being sued for this practice.

Universities are more willing to publicize their efforts to broaden opportunity by giving preference to student who will be the first in their family to go to college. “60 Minutes” recently did a segment about Princeton’s efforts to increase socioeconomic diversity. I applaud plans like this. But I also know that this means a lot of places will be earmarked for certain types of students.

Imagine a game of musical chairs with ten chairs. The game begins with legacies seated in two chairs. Recruited athletes are in two other chairs. Two more may already be filled by students who are underrepresented minorities or first to attend college. One more will be an international student. How many spots are left if you do not fit into one of those categories? Three? And half of those go to men and half to women?

The above scenario is inexact. But the point is clear. For a student without a hook, the window to squeeze through to get into an elite university is much smaller than the universities would have you believe.


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