Early this year, I went to the basement of the admissions office at Yale University and sat down in front of a thin manila folder. It contained my own confidential admissions documents: my high school years distilled into numerical rankings, and notes from admissions officers on my intelligence and character.
By now, my files are likely completely erased. I was never meant to see them: they were visible through a quirk in a federal privacy law called the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act that was exposed by a group of Stanford students earlier this year. Once students at elite schools began requesting to view theirs en masse, Stanford and Yale quickly and quietly moved to destroy the records, making sure that, from now on, no students will ever get a glimpse at their own.
The "confidential admissions material" I found in the folder wasn't much. It consisted of printouts of electronic worksheets that two admissions officers, called "readers," had filled out about me based on my application. (Some people apparently get three readers; I don't know why.) There were text boxes where they composed short essays about me (neither of them longer than two paragraphs), slots to fill out biographical information, and drop-down menus where the readers had graded different parts of my application and compiled an "academic index."
Those electronic worksheets were eventually sent to the final admissions committee, allowing them to quickly assess my personality, intelligence, and background without having to pore over the reams of essays, transcripts, and questionnaires I had sent via the Common App. They were the ones who ultimately decided whether or not to let me in.
Most of what I read was pretty nice. One of the two admissions officers called an essay I wrote "a bit cheesy for my tastes," which turned out to be a huge understatement; the essay was included in my files, and it was so dripping with schmaltz that I couldn't make it to the end. At one place, one of my readers must have confused me with somebody else, because she made a note in her text box about a summer job I didn't have; it was way cooler than the one I actually had, so I'm not complaining.
Even the numerical indexes the readers used to grade my application were extremely subjective. Admissions officers selected numbers to represent how much my teachers and interviewers liked me. But while the first admissions officer thought that my alumni interview translated into a "9," the highest score available, the other read the same document and gave me a more tepid "6." The first admissions officer thought my teachers' recommendations were both "8"s; the second gave them a "5" and a "6."
Both of the admissions officers took care to note, explicitly and unsubtly, exactly the spot I would fill at Yale if I were accepted: I would be a "high-impact writer on campus," as one phrased it it. This is not exactly a secret of college admissions. It's well-known that elite schools don't just take the top 5% of applicants; they assemble themselves a marginally diverse, interesting, and "well-rounded" class that also happens to have good grades and test scores. Like a lot of people, I pretty much knew this when I applied, and I shaped my application so that admissions officers could neatly box me up and sell me to the committee. Which is exactly what they did.
Yale practices what's called "need-blind" admissions, so there was no mention of my parents' income anywhere on the form. But the worksheets do their best to allow anybody reading to approximate a guess at what that income might be. A separate text box noted my parents' jobs and where they'd gone to college; a series of drop-down menus allowed admissions officers to note the percentage of students at my high school that were minorities and those that went on to a four-year college. There was a checkbox to note whether or not I lived in a low-income census tract. In addition to pursuing racial diversity, Yale says it makes a concerted effort to accept students from a variety of different geographical areas and from public schools, especially inner-city and rural ones, as well as low-income and first-generation college students. It would have been easy to tell if I fit into any of those categories.
As it happened, I did: I was a student at a large inner-city public school in Minneapolis. My high school was under-resourced, with high percentages of poor, minority, and immigrant students. It had a robust program for Native American students and a program to support teenage mothers.
But I am none of those things. I'm white and grew up middle class. Both of my parents graduated from college — from Princeton, to be exact. I attended a selective magnet program, a mostly white bubble within my school.
And yet, there in my files, I found a note from my an admissions officer: "She'd be a good admit for us from the Minneapolis Public Schools." The other officer's essay about me was even more explicit: "I'm in her corner," she wrote, "and would like to take one from the Minneapolis Public Schools."
Yale, apparently, wanted — even needed — a student to represent not just my high school but my entire 35,000-student school district, which is just 33% white, where 65% of students fall under federal poverty measures, and where almost a third of students are English-language learners. The admissions officers knew, I think, that it would look unfortunate to overlook a public school system as large as Minneapolis.
So they picked me, the white daughter of two Ivy League graduates. I was one of just two students from the entire system to be accepted to Yale and Harvard; the other, a friend of mine, was also the white, middle-class daughter of two college grads. (Two years later, the next student to attend Yale from my inner-city high school was also a white, middle-class friend of mine. Both his parents have master's degrees.)
In January, when droves of Stanford students began requesting their own admissions files, the school sent out a mass email trying to discourage them. It linked to a column in Time by Joel Stein, who requested his handwritten files back in the 1990s and had what Stanford called a "deflating experience": Stein's admissions officers wrote "he could drive you crazy," said he was in "hormonal overdrive," and, most crushingly, called him "not especially funny."
The records I saw, likely because they were digital, were much more clinical and much less exciting. They also weren't particularly revelatory. In most ways, what I learned in the basement of Yale's admissions office is nothing I haven't known since I got my acceptance letter. I don't know, of course, what was said in the committee room, but it seems clear to me that I got into Yale partly because I was smart, and partly because I was lucky, and partly because I played The Game well. But I also got in partly because of where I came from, and that was kind of bullshit.
Molly Hensley-Clancy is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Molly Hensley-Clancy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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