How Tall Are You? And How Big Are Your Ears?

Have you ever considered that the shape and size of your ears could have been one of the factors that got you into HBS? Or, perhaps, almost kept you out of here? Take a careful look in the mirror. How do they look? Are they too pointy? Perhaps a tad too big? Don’t worry: whatever shape or form, they are good enough for Harvard-according to the New Yorker magazine, that is.

In New Yorker’s October 10th edition, Malcolm Gladwell presents a review of Jerome Karabel’s book “The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.” Although the discussion focuses on college admissions only, its references to the familiar notions of “leadership potential,” “personal qualities,”
“references from people who know you well,” and “well roundedness” arouse some painful memories of last year’s MBA application season and provoke a question: why do schools focus on these particular dimensions? How did it all come about?

Almost one year after my admission in January, I have become too comfortable and cozy with the feeling that the “intricate interplay” of my personal qualities and the “abundant wealth” of my diverse personal and professional experiences played the defining role in securing my admission. Whenever approached by an admiring applicant with questions about my GMAT scores or the number of months in my work experience, I put a wise look on my face and lecture them on how this personal “je ne sais quoi” supersedes any figure in the application package and makes the admissions process more of an art than a science. But every now and then, I secretly ask myself: “why is this really the case?” I never bother to answer.

The author begins the answer by referring to some simple admissions statistics, reviewing how, in the early twentieth century, the newly established College Entrance Examination Board at Harvard enabled representatives of such “emerging” social segments as Jews and public-school graduates to gain acceptance into this bastion of elite education. This shift in focus toward applicants’ merit, as opposed to background and status, led quickly to some “alarming” trends in the class balance “by 1922, [Jews] made up more than fifth of Harvard’s freshman class”

The author goes on to describe the strategy of dealing with the “issue” without retreating to any illiberal measures, such as imposition of quotas: “If a definition of merit based on academic prowess was leading to the wrong kind of student, the solution was to change the definition of merit.” That’s when things begin to look familiar: “Candidates had to write personal essays, demonstrating their aptitude for leadership, and list their extracurricular activities.” In case the above wasn’t enough to ensure the “balanced” class representation, “the letter of reference became mandatory.”

Further, in describing the increased subjectivity in the admissions process at other schools, the author quotes Karabek directly to underscore the importance of applicants’ overall stature and image in the admissions process: “So preoccupied was Yale with the appearance of its students that the form used by alumni interviewers actually had a physical characteristics checklist through 1965… Yale carefully measured the height of entering freshmen, noting with pride the proportion of the class at six feet or more.” Nor does he leave Harvard out of the discussion on image obsession: “one [Harvard] application – and at this point you can almost hear it going to the bottom of the pile – was notated, ‘Short with big ears'”. Now you feel better about your ears?! You made it!

Ultimately, however, this change in “definition of merit” produced an unusual result: the schools realized that they have accidentally developed a superior admissions philosophy that allows them to find students with the highest potential for wide and long-term social impact, as opposed to just superior intellect. Even after the “controversial” percentage of the Harvard class stabilized, and the need for the new admission practice was eliminated, the schools chose to keep it: “according to Karabel, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton didn’t abandon the elevation of character once the Jewish crisis passed. They institutionalized it.” Gradually, the original shift prompted even further liberalization of the admissions practices, ultimately leading to acceptance of African-Americans and women.

One hundred years after these changes took place, we are fortunate that schools like HBS continue to scrutinize over multiple dimensions of each applicant, instead of focusing exclusively on hard-core statistics. Even the author agrees ultimately that “subjectivity in the admissions process is not just an occasion for discrimination; it is also, in better times, the only means for giving us the social outcome we want.” On another occasion, he gets even more aggressive in defending the importance of “character and personality,” as opposed to pure intellect in quest for applicants with the highest post-graduate potential “If you let in only the brilliant, then you produced bookworms and bench scientists; you ended up as socially irrelevant as the University of Chicago.”

Leaving the University of Chicago out of this discussion, the question remains how we should feel about the origins, as opposed to the ultimate benefits, of the contemporary admissions philosophy. To rephrase the familiar rhetorical question on whether the end justifies the means, we should ask whether this fortunate end redeems the questionable initial cause for change. We should also wonder what this institution might have been like now, had it not established its College Entrance Examination Board in 1905, causing the initial explosion in the number of admitted students from the “questionable” social strata.

If your busy HBS schedule prevents you from reading Jerome Karabel’s entire 672-page tome, take a look at Malcolm Gladwell’s succinct review in the October 10 edition of New Yorker.

The social logic of Ivy League admissions