Raw Material or Finished Product?

Eugene S. Wilson, legendary admission dean at Amherst College, believed that no matter how long he was in the business he’d never perfect the art of human evaluation, and that was OK. For him, every applicant was an opportunity to see the potential in a young person, to assess him fairly, and to render a decision that might indeed prove incorrect down the line. For him (and his immediate successor at Amherst, Ed Wall), admission was most definitely an art, not a science, and putting a class together was the delicate balancing of the college’s needs with the needs and desires of young men (and later, women) as they began to enter adulthood.

When I joined the Amherst admission office in 1990 I was delighted to be part of that tradition. To this day, I believe that Dean Wall used his gut more than my numbers to admit me to Amherst in 1973, and I wanted to have a chance to combine hard numbers and humane considerations to create Amherst’s next generations in a way inspired by Wilson and Wall. At the core, I think they recognized that applicants to college were still unformed persons trying on new identities and exploring different aspects of their lives and the world’s offerings. A liberal arts college like Amherst was designed to help students choose well and build on their previous accomplishments as they moved into their future lives.

To me, this meant that students would apply to college as works in progress, ready for the college to exert its influence on them, and vice versa. We were looking for potential, a most elusive quality: We all know of the class presidents who burned out or the most likely to succeed students who never made it out of their hometowns. Our test as admission officers was to spot the energy, the uniqueness, the elusive qualities that infused the GPA and test scores and made the whole a great deal more than the sum of its parts.

But after a few years of helping make admission decisions, I began to feel that looking for the :diamond in the rough” or the “potentiality” of an applicant was less important that getting the numbers as high as possible. Not that it was ever fully mechanistic, but our admission process seemed to me more dependent not only on the black and white figures but also on what students had already accomplished. We celebrated (and rightly so) the applicants who had achieved some remarkable goal, like writing a novel or developing a new invention, but they began to overshadow other applicants who had “only” led a community food bank or restructured their high school’s student government or did exceptional work in math or biology classes. I began to call these applicants “merely wonderful” because while they were truly exceptional in their own right, they faded in comparison to the superstars.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t have taken the precocious, but it became clear to me that we were beginning to look for the already formed instead of the in progress student. Faculty members wanted to see more students who had been published or made major contributions to their fields. We wanted to see academic “heavy hitters” almost to the exclusion of anyone else. We were lucky to have plenty of them apply and we were always in a little awe of what some of our eventual freshmen had done, but some of the pleasure in putting a class together was lost as we had to turn down more and more exceptional students to make way for the super-accomplished. That pleasure had come from being able to say “yes” to someone we could see as coming into him or herself at Amherst. It was potential we wanted to see on campus as much as past accomplishment, but increasingly the process became more mechanistic and less idiosyncratic, leading to more predictable, but in many respects less satisfying results.

This situation was reflected in the change made a few years into my tenure at Amherst. Our last round of deliberations was devoted to each dean’s bringing to the table one favorite candidate who hadn’t made it in the regular rounds. Although the applicant had to meet basic requirements for admission, the deans could present their candidates and have them admitted. Even though this round occurred after weeks of debate over hundreds of candidates, it was often the liveliest and most interesting. We were able to exercise our judgment and reward some wonderful quirk in a wonderful student who we felt would add to the incoming Amherst class. Our choices often reflected our own personalities and interests. I remember speaking up for a kid from Arkansas who, among other things, liked to create “found poetry” by cutting up prose and putting it back together randomly, then reading it at poetry slams. Others spoke for student-athletes, mad scientists, and others who would otherwise have been overlooked, and we always ended the season on that high note.

Admission continues to be more an art than a science, especially at small liberal arts colleges, but I still wonder whether the impulse to enroll only the most over-accomplished students has crowded out a more humane imperative to identify human potential that will benefit from our institutions’ educational offerings. It affects students, too: The more they see the overachievers being rewarded with college admission, they more they feel they have to stay up until two in the morning and spend every waking moment getting ahead. Perhaps we should re-examine how we look at human potential in the college admission process in order to recalibrate our expectations of students’ past and future, as well as our institutions’ missions.