kitchen table math, the sequel: Leader shmeader

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Leader shmeader

Debbie S. sent me this link to a Times story on Berkeley's holistic approach to reading applications --- amazing!
....Another reader thinks the student is “good” but we have so many of “these kids.” She doesn’t see any leadership beyond the student’s own projects.

Listening to these conversations, I had to wonder exactly how elite institutions define leadership.

Confessions of an Application Reader
Lifting the Veil on the Holistic Process at the University of California, Berkeley
By RUTH STARKMAN
Published: August 1, 2013
Remind me to tell you my story about the time the Dartmouth admissions officer came to Irvington.

Actually, why don't I go ahead and tell the leadership part of the story now.

During his talk the Dartmouth guy mentioned "leadership" so many times that finally a parent in the audience raised his hand and said, "What if your child isn't a leader?"

The admissions officer said, and I am close to quoting: "There are many ways to be a leader. Being a good follower is being a leader."

29 comments:

Anonymous said...

That article was certainly disturbing. My son was also put off by that same "you'll see a lot of them" comment.

A rep from U Chicago specifically told the audience that they were also looking for followers -- that they needed students who would be actively engaged with the life of the campus, but that not everyone could be a leader. This was kind of refreshing.

Is anyone else doing the college info circuit and tired of hearing about the quidditch team?

Phil

Allison said...

If that article was disturbing to you, you need to get over your shock ASAP and realize: it had been this way for at least 10 years already, probably more. Cal was like this already in 2001. This is what your kid is up against. Plan accordingly.

From:
http://www.mindingthecampus.com/originals/2010/07/how_diversity_punishes_asians.html

"On an "other things equal basis," where adjustments are made for a variety of background factors, being Hispanic conferred an admissions boost over being white (for those who applied in 1997) equivalent to 130 SAT points (out of 1600), while being black rather than white conferred a 310 SAT point advantage. Asians, however, suffered an admissions penalty compared to whites equivalent to 140 SAT points."

And, worse than being the wrong color is acting like a certain type of American:
"[]what Espenshade and Radford found in regard to what they call "career-oriented activities" was truly shocking even to this hardened veteran of the campus ideological and cultural wars. Participation in such Red State activities as high school ROTC, 4-H clubs, or the Future Farmers of America was found to reduce very substantially a student's chances of gaining admission to the competitive private colleges in the NSCE database on an all-other-things-considered basis. The admissions disadvantage was greatest for those in leadership positions in these activities or those winning honors and awards. "Being an officer or winning awards" for such career-oriented activities as junior ROTC, 4-H, or Future Farmers of America, say Espenshade and Radford, "has a significantly negative association with admission outcomes at highly selective institutions." Excelling in these activities "is associated with 60 or 65 percent lower odds of admission." "

Debbie Stier said...

@Allison I remember reading that too...after my son wrote that he is NOT hispanic on his college application because we were advised that he wasn't a practicing hispanic and it would be insincere. (I forget why I didn't get a second opinion. Probably too busy.)

My younger child will write hispanic.

@Phil omg! I forgot about the quidditch teams. That was one of those moments when I kept looking around for someone to laugh with, but there was no one....everyone is so serious!

Auntie Ann said...

My favorite (middle school) open house moment was when one of the deans got up and openly mocked every single d&^%$# school's claim to "educate the whole child."

It was so refreshing to hear her call bull*&^% on the usual school-presentation formula.

Grace said...

"practicing Hispanic" lol!

The term used in our case was "authentic Hispanic". IOW, even though our child is Hispanic, he apparently looked too white and suburban to pass as "authentic". We had an idea to convince the school that he was authentic (whatever that means), but it's too politically incorrect to relate here. :)

The unbalanced focus on diversity makes for a dysfunctional process.

SteveH said...

Thanks for the link.

Having just come back from Princeton, and having gone to Harvard, MIT, and Yale info sessions and tours, the message agrees with my views; that admissions people have WAY to much control over the decision. It's not about picking one applicant over another, they get to pick one out of five or one out of ten. Harvard claims that they get some professors involved, but I would like to know how they do that. We also stopped at Michigan's math department and they only have some influence if you end up on a wait list and implore them to help.

Holistic sounds good, but not when it is such a huge fudge factor. They need to define their merit function with the appropriate weighting factors. It can be done with enough detail to bring down the unwritten subjectivity to at least one in two. Holistic is a "no one right answer" philosophy. They clearly need more math.

Our info leader at Princeton was a 2009 art history graduate who is now working in admissions. Clearly, they don't get a lot of scientists and engineers in admissions. At all of the top schools (except MIT) we saw an anti-STEM bias, or at least a huge lack of appreciation of the academic level required. This was also shown by our language, "sensuality studies", and feminist tour guide. And, we also got the message (once again) that distribution classes in math can be fulfilled by other, real world courses. At the same time, our guide was telling us that students really need to not just test out of their language requirement.

One person at the info session asked whether it's tougher to get into engineering than the liberal arts side of the college. You have different SAT II requirements for that application, so they know who you are. She blathered on about how they look at your application to see whether you can handle the more rigorous (36 versus 31 credits) requirements in engineering. She didn't understand that the person was asking whether it might be easier to get into Princeton by not applying to the engineering side. They specifically said that you only apply to Princeton, not the engineering school. Once you are in, they won't stop you from trying engineering. It was completely unbelievable. She also said (as with all colleges) that Early Admission does not improve chances.

MIT has the problem that they want a balanced male/female ratio(it's now 45%) at the school. Add to that a weird "hacker" ethic where MIT admissions people claim they can spot those applicants a mile away, but they can't seem to put that concept into words. At least some admissions people were MIT graduates.

So now that the new Common App is out (but not all of the college supplements - it's OK if they miss deadlines), my son now has to "grok" the application process and the essays because they define the majority of whether he gets in or not. Great grades, great musician? Ho hum. So Asian. Maybe he will get a boost because he has blond hair. My son wouldn't mind having to apply to the physics professor we once went to see at Princeton, but he does not like having to appeal to the sensibilities of an art history major in admissions.

momof4 said...

The bias against strong subject-area kids, particularly in mathy areas, has been around since the early 90s, at least. One of my son's friends really wanted to major in math at MIT and didn't get in, although two classmates did (as usual). Both of the classmates were very strong students, but neither were near this kid in math. Kids who had 800 on the SAT II upper-level math and 5s on AP calc BC said this kid was on another level. Even at a HS with a well-deserved reputation in math-science (and other), this kid was unique; someone the math department might wel have wanted, if they'd had a say. The kids who got in were more "well-rounded", with extracurriculars that didn't include mathy stuff and music; more likely to appeal to non-STEM admissions people.

cranberry said...

My son wouldn't mind having to apply to the physics professor we once went to see at Princeton, but he does not like having to appeal to the sensibilities of an art history major in admissions.

So why is he applying to Princeton? I'm trying not to snark. You're describing a real difficulty with the culture at Princeton (Harvard, Yale.) Engineering/math students aren't the top of the pecking order at those schools.

Holistic sounds good, but not when it is such a huge fudge factor. They need to define their merit function with the appropriate weighting factors. It can be done with enough detail to bring down the unwritten subjectivity to at least one in two. Holistic is a "no one right answer" philosophy. They clearly need more math.

They like the way the holisitic system works. If you look at their SAT scores on their Common Data Sets, they are not in any need of more students with high math scores.

For the schools you mentinon, student with high math scores are a dime a dozen. Musical skill correlates strongly with math talent, so again, strong math students who are musicians are a dime a dozen. If the entire pool were restricted to students with such characteristics, I think they'd need to resort to holistic criteria to sort them out.

The students we've known who applied with applications which could be read as "future engineer" were more likely to end up at Cornell, Tufts, Carnegie Mellon. I do not think strong math scores are a plus, unless you're on the US Math Olympiad team.

MIT is flukily non-predicatable. It was the only college to require students to describe their ethnic background when registering for a visit.

Have you visited Duke, Vanderbilt, Stanford, Rice, Harvey Mudd, and CalTech? I would not underestimate the value of geographical diversity.

palisadesk said...

A humorous true story -- unfortunately I don't remember the source (one of my listservs perhaps). A very capable student applied for early acceptance to one of the top eastern colleges. Along with the various documents the student had to submit, there was also some kind of parent questionnaire. The father filled it out, and was scratching his head over the question that asked about his son's "leadership" skills. He wrote, "I am not sure about this, but I do know he is an excellent follower."

When the boy received his acceptance letter, there was a note to the dad saying, "We are happy that in our incoming freshman class of 473 leaders, there will be at least one good follower."

:-)

SteveH said...

"The bias against strong subject-area kids"

That's a good way to put it.

I saw MIT as different, but I still sense a bias in terms of fuzzy factors.

SteveH said...

"So why is he applying to Princeton?"

He didn't like Princeton too much and he hasn't committed to applying there. Harvard has it's own issues. He likes Yale, but it's still the same thing for admission. He likes MIT, but the process is a holistic and statistical minefield.


"For the schools you mentinon, student with high math scores are a dime a dozen."

You just have to look beyond SAT or ACT math. You also have to look beyond SAT II and AP Calculus. Some places actually ask for AMC/AIME/etc. scores. They could make a distinction if they wanted to, but I suspect that typical admissions people don't know how to do that.

The holistic issue is an admissions problem, not a problem with the department you want to get into. Physics at Princeton is very good. We are not going to cross Princeton off the list because of admissions.

My son is no future engineer. It will be physics or math. I have no idea how admissions people view these students.


"Have you visited Duke, Vanderbilt, Stanford, Rice, Harvey Mudd, and CalTech?"

Are you saying that these colleges have different people in admissions or use a different process? About all I know is that CalTech supposedly is more numbers-based in it's admissions. It's on his list, but it's very small. Stanford is also on his list. Most of those schools also claim to use a holistic admission criterion.

I know that geography is a factor. That's why we added in a couple of west coast schools, but that is just another factor in the game. He is now faced with the too big factors of the essays.

Cranberry said...

You just have to look beyond SAT or ACT math. You also have to look beyond SAT II and AP Calculus. Some places actually ask for AMC/AIME/etc. scores. They could make a distinction if they wanted to, but I suspect that typical admissions people don't know how to do that.

Of course they can. They wouldn't be very useful to the universities if they couldn't. They have to balance many competing institutional needs, though.

As far as I have been able to find out, all selective private colleges use a form of holistic admissions. ALL. So, it's the same process, but every school might have different factors they think add up to a successful class.

You should read the paper, "A Revealed Preference Ranking of U.S. Colleges and Universities," by Avery, Hoxby, Glickman, Metrick.

Take a good look at Table 3. The highest ranking colleges on that list--Harvard, Yale, Stanford, CalTech, MIT, Princeton, Brown, (etc.)--have no need to get rid of "Art History" admissions personnel. They have their pick of every year's crop of graduating seniors. If they want 'em, they'll get 'em.

Geography is a factor. So is yield. Visit the schools you're seriously interested in, even if there's significant travel involved. Most colleges, except the very tippy-tippy top, care about "demonstrated interest."

These days, they apparently can even track if the applicant opens the emails they send.

If I recall from earlier posts, you're not far from Brown University. If you're close enough to be "really local," I recommend you visit and seriously consider Brown. All the Ivy League schools do take local ties seriously. (If you're close to Boston, apply to Harvard. If you're close to Princeton, apply to Princeton, etc.)

Another college local parents have been really happy with is the Colorado School of Mines. Rolling admission, and a serious campus culture, so if your son likes the college, he can get an answer quickly, and focus on a few high reaches.

Every college which made my oldest child's final list required supplemental essays. It's a serious commitment, and it's best to figure out which colleges your child loves best before embarking on writing essays.

He should not try to write essays to manipulate admissions people. That will backfire. He should write his own essay, not what he thinks they want to hear.

If there's one reach college he likes best by the end of October, he should apply to it Early Action. (Only do Early Decision if the money would work).

A good book to read: _The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite_
Christopher Avery, Andrew Fairbanks, Richard Zeckhauser. Note that Harvard & Princeton did away with, then reinstituted Early Admissions since the book's publication.

SteveH said...

Been to Brown. He's played at the Granoff Center. They do favor the locals. Brown is highly rated by the students. It's on his list.

"He should not try to write essays to manipulate admissions people. That will backfire. He should write his own essay, not what he thinks they want to hear."

That's easy to say, but when I read some essays that are supposed to be good, they turn my stomach. The comments in this thread's link don't help. They obviously want to hear something. It's just not what one might think they want to hear. He can't just write his own essay without regard to understanding what sort of anecdote or experience they might like best. He apparently has to appeal to readers who are tired of reading the same sorts of things over and over. A department head at one college told us that he likes the poems - when he does get a chance to read essays.

He can't write whatever he wants. He needs to understand his potential audience. We are left in the same position as the "reader" in the article. It's an unwritten game. You have to be different or memorable, or have the guts to say that you are an excellent follower, which probably isn't true. It's also not what colleges are looking for. It's just a way to be different. You almost have to show that you really don't care that much about the school. It's a silly game.

SATVerbalTutor. said...

@Steve. Plenty of kids get into top schools with perfectly awful essays; at the very top schools, they're only a tip factor in a fairly small number of cases. Bottom line, very few essays are going to wow every single member of an adcom -- as established, holistic admission is unfortunately a *subjective* process, and people have their likes and dislikes. But they do make an effort to counteract that effect by making sure that anyone under serious consideration gets their essay read multiple times. Don't worry about trying to make it into the Greatest Things They'll Read This Year; your son should make sure to avoid the cliches (I travelled to a third-world country and was so sad to discover that there are poor people in the world!), but beyond that, he should simply write about what he's interested in. If he can talk about it in a way that makes it clear what he finds interesting about it, chances are an admissions committee will find it interesting as well, If he truly loves math and physics more than anything in the world, he should write about math and physics and not worry about presenting himself as "too one-sided." It's not worth the grief of trying to get inside adcoms' heads.

As for kids who are clearly superior academically getting chosen over less academically stellar kids from the same school, you never actually know what got put down on a person's application. While an essay is rarely the tip-factor, one that's sloppy or poorly thought-out or arrogant or condescending can get someone rejected, no matter how accomplished they are. Those are factors that go beyond just "knowing the unspoken rules of college admissions" -- they carry over into how someone behaves in general, and a kid who makes a poor impression as a human being is likely to get passed over in favor of someone equally (or more) accomplished who simply doesn't raise those red flags. I'm not saying that's what happened with the kids mentioned, just that it does sometimes happen.

SteveH said...

Thanks for the feedback.

We did, however, hear admissions people saying that the essays were really important. It's hard to calibrate those comments. Are they talking about obvious things ("I love working in a soup kitchen.") or something else?

"It's not worth the grief of trying to get inside adcoms' heads."

Like the SAT essay, go for the 10 and no wrong answers?

Allison said...

Williams! Williams! Williams has a fantastic faculty in physics!

Re: MIT: MIT has some sophisticated metrics they use in addition to their personal-reading scored 1-5 scale. One thing they look at is kids who went to MIT from your school and how they did. Have others from your son's school gotten in there? Is he stronger than them? That will factor.
Did you meet any music folks there? any of the leads of symphonies/chamber groups he'd join?

And yes, at least some of the staff are MITers. So they get the culture, or at least their subculture, and pick people they like, and match.

The "strong subject" issues at MIT are different. They know the bulk of girls getting them up from 1/3 to 45% will go into bio sciences, chem and cs, not aero-astro, physics, and math. There are fewer hostile art history feminists there :)

Allison said...

--One person at the info session asked whether it's tougher to get into engineering than the liberal arts side of the college.

Interesting she didn't know or care.

The answer at UC Berkeley is: the engineering school has requirements of the SAT, and much much higher cutoffs on the SAT than the lib arts school, and has not yet been forced to ditch it. So on paper, it is "harder to get into". But not for the group being discriminated against...the white or asian boy with perfect sat scores. So if you want to be a physics major and you are not a "diversity candidate" who will win the holistic score challenge, and you have excellent scores, you are better off applying to the engineering dept directly, and being an engineering physics major.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Alison said "They know the bulk of girls getting them up from 1/3 to 45% will go into bio sciences, chem and cs, not aero-astro, physics, and math."

Really? Most places have a much higher percent female in math than in CS. Does MIT succeed in getting a lot of women into CS? Or does it fail at getting them into math? (Or were you making up fields, not looking at MIT data?)

I don't have nationwide data easily available but http://planning.ucsc.edu/irps/studentDegrees.asp has data for one campus (UCSC):
computer science 9.1% female
math 36.6% female

At UCSC, the only department with a lower percent female than CS is electrical engineering. Of course, CS is pulled down by the game-design major, for which only 6.5% of the graudates in 2012 were female.

(For bio, chem, and physics, Alison's view agrees with UCSC's numbers:
bio 57% female (EEB+MCD)
chem 41.4% female
physics 13.7% female
and UCSC does not have aero/astro as an undergrad degree).

Allison said...

I didn't mean the list respectively comparing CS to math. Women end up in cs there when they punt EE or other less soft engineering majors just as they end up in mat sci instead of physics or in Chem instead of phys. Women in cog sci there too. Unsure on the numbers , but women end up officially math because of some concentrations, but math there is different than at other schools. Math at other places is a refuge for women in STEM because it is softer. But at MIT the theory math major is all kids who want to go to grad school in math, not people who want to be math teachers.

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SteveH said...

"Williams! Williams! Williams"

I know, I know, but what is northwest Massachusetts compared to Boston for music? And my son is definitely an urban Boston type.

MIT has David Deveau for piano who is head of the Rockport Chamber Music Fesitval. There is also Marcus Thompson who is the Artistic Director of the Boston Chamber Music Society. My son just got done performing Dvorak's piano quintet. They also have the Emerson Scolarship Program. MIT is only 1000 Smoots from Symphony Hall and NEC. The sailing pavilion is right across the street.

MIT was the only place where I liked the admissions people. They weren't explaining how one could fulfill math requirements with non-math courses. It was quite the opposite. They were a little weird about their "hacking" ethic, going so far to ask students (in a handout) what hacks they could come up with and showcasing the police car that was put on top of the dome. They explained about the different dorms, and perhaps unfortunately, my son has already decided on which one he would choose.

Allison said...

Which dorm?

There is still some subversiveness at MIT? That's good. The hacking ethic pre-dates computers. it's is one of the better parts of MIT.

I loved going to Symphony Hall. I think I fell asleep as soon ad the lights were out 10 times out of 11, though. too tired to enjoy it. living a block from the red line stop made it really easy.

Have Deveau and Thompson met your son? or heard him? I knew quite a few musicians there, and that talent is highly desired there, sought after.

some of those friends did physics and music. others did physics and math and music. a couple punted everything but music by senior year :)

SteveH said...

He likes Random Hall, but his analysis is only superficial.

I know that one can audition for potential studio teachers at conservatories, but I don't know if that is true at a place like MIT. He might just be limited to the Arts Supplement. They might have heard of him, but I don't know. Some people at NEC know him, but I don't know why.

I'm finding out that MIT is well known for music and I'm glad to hear that they value musical talent. Harvard has their NEC connection, but I think it's a copout for not providing better musical opportunities.

".. a couple punted everything but music by senior year :)"

That's interesting because we want to keep that door open. He is at a much higher level in music than physics. Who knows what will happen when he gets to that level in physics. We posed that question to someone who is now starting his PhD at CalTech in physics and he said that he was concerned that he would not like physics as the material changed and advanced. Clearly, that didn't happen for him.

Allison said...

Ha! Today I wondered if he would pick Random! It isn't a surprising choice actually.

What's horrifying is *all* of the reasons kids pick dorms there are superficial. At MIT, though, it's defining. Unlike other places, kids basically stay in the same dorm or ILG the whole time, and their friends are from their dorm.

Remember the Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs and Elmer(?) change hats and therefore personalities? MIT dorms are like that in a way, too. you end up conforming to the uniform, so to speak.

But such is life.

Here's the thing about MIT and MIT physics in particular: it's a terrible place if you are unsure if you can handle something, or if you need encouragement or emotional kindness and warmth to take a risk or in order to succeed. It is also a bad place if you lack any need for external validation, because they will let you get away with anything for longer than is good for you. So long as you are in between, in that spot where grades positively motivate you and where being humiliated only knocks you down for a couple hours, it can be a great place and a good department.

It is a great place if you already know how to learn and study from books, and if you can force yourself to go to lecture even when exhausted, even when the lecture is taped and rebroadcast. It is great if you know how to find friends who are intellectually excited to be there, which a shockingly large set, maybe even a plurality, are not.

It's okay to change one's mind there. I switched from physics to math my senior year for a very practical reason: I was a lousy student and still had to do the 2nd term of a giant lab course I was terrible at. Just by being a physics major who worked hard at the related math, I had already taken all but one course in math needed to finish that degree, and wouldn't have to do a thesis.

Knowing if you like physics at the high level also depends on what's happening in physics research *right then*, and that can change. Love particle physics or string theory? That stuff was in when I was there. But diff geo, thermo and various quantum stuff wasn't--yet just a couple years later, string theory was out and quantum comp was huge.

MIT's music program can be phenomenal. Even the "staff" who taught the history of music and theory courses were excellent, because they were all visiting teachers from Berklee or NEC!

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