For over a century, gatekeepers to elite universities have relied on the same tools to ascertain merit and to shape incoming classes. These have included numerical metrics (SAT, ACT, GPA), detailed application forms, and often an interview to gauge personal qualities. Over this time, “merit” has been defined in various ways. In The Chosen — a seminal history of admissions to the Big 3 (Harvard, Princeton, Yale) —Jerome Karabel outlines how shifting definitions of merit were largely a mirror reflection of those in power — a soft way to keep out certain groups deemed undesirable.
And so, the history of admissions is filled with conflicts about how to weigh “objective” academic measures like scores versus more ineffable qualities like leadership and character. The debate continues to this day. However, the pendulum has shifted from a subjective definition of "merit" to an over-reliance on micro-distinctions within test scores and grade point averages. Frustration has manifested itself through public discussions about lottery systems, complaints about public rankings, and school-led initiatives like Harvard’s “Turning the Tide” Report emphasizing renewed focus on character qualities like kindness.
Jonathan Cole, Columbia Professor and author, just published a piece in The Atlantic, “Why Elite-College Admissions Need an Overhaul: "The current system for gaining entry to elite colleges discourages unique passions and deems many talented students ineligible.” He makes many points echoing popular sentiment that’s frustrated with a system that encourages perfect compliance and uniformity rather than a more human pursuit of specific interests:
“The schools’ proclivity to ‘do everything right’ may be limiting students’ impulses toward the rebellion and inquisitiveness that could lead to greater skepticism and creativity.”
While his characterization of the problem is laudable, his solution for transforming the admissions process is problematic. First, he impugns the ability of admissions staff to detect deeper repositories of merit within applicants and then follows up with a solution to bring in "more experienced faculty" at later stages of decision making. While faculty involvement could certainly add helpful perspectives, the problem is not the young admissions staff.
To blame a particular group of people reeks of elitism and misrepresents the real issue. Admissions staff have become highly tuned to detecting merit, fraud, and regional differences while effectively enforcing the entrance requirements of their university. If a school wants to change their entrance requirements, they can.
The challenge is choosing the best tools for seeing individuals, their potential, and what makes them unique.
Cole’s call for more committees is uninspiring, but the way he highlights the auditions of Juilliard or Cooper Union contains a useful clue. While those institutions make their final selection through a process of in-person auditions, they can carry out the right decisions because they have seen what each person can make or do. This process goes beyond an interview or even a video essay. It involves seeing the embodiment of their learning — a Portfolio.
We now have the technology to efficiently review portfolios at scale. These may include experiments, apps, robots, creative output, and any other personally meaningful project that a student creates.
Schools have used the same set of tools for a century (test scores and essays). Why not add a portfolio to help discover hidden potential and better differentiate among otherwise qualified candidates? Seeing what someone has made provides the perfect lens for seeing new dimensions of aptitude. It elegantly combines the best of two worlds that have historically been at odds: personal qualities and academic achievement.