How Colleges Really Make Admissions Decisions

Plus, news on pepper-spraying police, questioning science and accidental admissions

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Shrouded in mystery, the college admissions process often leaves students and parents puzzled as to why some gain admittance while others receive the dreaded rejection letter. Most colleges say they review applications holistically, taking into account a student’s grades, test scores, essays, recommendations and activities. But do they really?

A new study from Rachel Rubin, a doctoral student in education at Harvard University, sheds light on the admissions process at the U.S.’s elite colleges, which admitted record-low numbers of students this year. Rubin found that when it comes to selecting an incoming freshman class, some schools are much more holistic than others. Rather than whittling down the pile of applicants by GPA or SAT scores, Rubin found that admissions officials at some of the 75 elite colleges and universities she surveyed (which were granted anonymity) use a much vaguer measure called institutional fit to decide who gets in and who doesn’t.

This approach, used most commonly by liberal-arts colleges and competitive private universities, focuses on nonacademic qualities and favors underrepresented minorities and students who demonstrate exceptional talent, according to Inside Higher Ed. To a much lesser degree, colleges also consider recruited athletes, the likelihood a student will enroll and a student’s fundraising potential.

“Contrary to public opinion, selective institutions are highly systematic with regard to their admissions processes and practices within individual institutions,” Rubin wrote in the report. “However, there is a great deal of inconsistency across institutions, potentially creating the illusion that student selection is arbitrary.”

While the majority of schools Rubin surveyed did in fact make the initial admissions cut based on grades and test scores, 21% made the first cuts based on student essays, recommendations and specific questions on whether applicants were expected to thrive at the college. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Rubin said she thought the colleges made cuts based on nonacademic merit because the vast majority of applicants already had sufficiently high academic credentials.

Other education news for the week:

Tennessee Law Allows Teachers to Question Science
By not vetoing or signing a law passed by the Tennessee legislature, Governor Bill Haslam allowed a new law to take effect in his state that allows teachers to question controversial subjects like evolution, global warming, the chemical origins of life and human cloning. According to Slate, while teachers can’t present alternative theories on their own, they must discuss them if students bring up alternatives to mainstream scientific theories like Creationism. Read more here.

UCLA Accidentally Accepts Almost 900 Applicants
Last weekend the University of California, Los Angeles, mistakenly sent e-mails to 894 wait-listed students, congratulating them on their admission to UCLA. The university issued a statement apologizing for the error, noting they had not yet accepted any students on the waiting list. Ouch. Read more here.

UC Davis Slammed for Pepper-Spraying Students
A report released on Wednesday by a University of California at Davis task force charged with investigating the famously viral November 2011 pepper-spraying incident said the decision to douse seated Occupy protesters with the chemical was “objectively unreasonable” and not authorized by campus policy. Read more from the Associated Press here.

Kayla Webley is a staff writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kaylawebley, on Facebook or on Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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