Princeton receives more than 35,000 applications for admission annually. “How many unsuccessful applicants,” I have asked Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Karen Richardson, “are so good that you could substitute one of them for an admitted student without any loss of quality to the entering class?”
Around 18,000, she tells me.
Eighteen thousand well qualified applicants: that’s roughly nine times the number of offers the dean can make.
When alumni hear these numbers, they often say, with amusement or regret, that they would never get admitted today. That’s not quite true, I reply. It is probably more accurate to say that if nine of you applied today, one of you might be admitted, and the other eight would likely be turned down.
One of the questions that I hear most often when discussing admission standards is, “Why don’t you just choose students on the basis of merit?” People ask this question with different targets in mind. Some object to affirmative action. Some do not think we should give any weight to athletic prowess or legacy status or to residence in underrepresented states and regions.
My answer is this: Princeton admits all students on the basis of merit, and we judge merit, as we must, on the basis of the institution’s mission.
We seek students who have the exceptional academic ability necessary to benefit fully from a Princeton education, who will contribute to the education of their peers while they are here, and who will use their education to make a difference for the better in the world. And every one of our admitted students meets this rigorous and high bar.
When merit is evaluated according to Princeton’s mission, many things matter to it. Test scores, for example, are one source of evidence about academic ability, but they are at best imperfect indicators of a student’s capacity for discovery, creativity, insight, scholarly or other achievement, leadership, or service.
Life is not a test-taking competition, and neither is college. Princeton would not do much for the world by producing graduates whose chief distinction is their test-taking skill.
That is why Princeton takes a holistic approach to admission, one that insists on academic ability but also values many kinds of merit — such as, to name just a few, a commitment to service and citizenship; the discipline to excel at school while also holding down a job; the persistence to develop artistic or athletic talent; a capacity for teamwork or collaboration; the fortitude to overcome prejudice or hardship; the courage to do right; the honesty to admit fault; and the compassion needed to understand and help others.
Most people concede the benefits of this holistic approach and the multifaceted view of merit it involves.
Yet, many people nevertheless assume students can and should be ranked on some all-things-considered metric. On this view, college admission decisions are a contest, and the “winners” have a presumptive right to a slot at Princeton.
This myth of merit-based ranking infects and distorts discussions about affirmative action, including in the cases now pending at the Supreme Court. People mistakenly say that the cases are about whether colleges should choose students on the basis of “merit” rather than taking race or other factors into account.
Race and ethnicity are among the many factors that help us to understand the challenges that applicants have overcome and the perspectives that they can add to our campus. Those are components of merit, ones that matter to this University’s mission along with the other excellences of comparably qualified applicants.
In this domain as in others, the notion of ranking is a destructive error.
We can ask which students have the academic ability and commitment to benefit from Princeton’s rigorous curriculum. We can ask what other excellences these students bring to the University. We can ask how they might collaborate with and strengthen one another at Princeton and how they might contribute to the world beyond our campus after they graduate.
These questions are meaningful ones, if also very hard to answer when assessing teenagers still on the path to adulthood.
But asking which applicants are “best?” That is a fool’s errand.
When our admission office reviews applications from more than 18,000 well qualified applicants, it is not, and cannot be, picking the “most deserving.”
Instead, our admission officers seek to assemble a class of students who will make a difference for the better at Princeton and in the world.
All the students here are talented and accomplished people who fully deserve their places on campus. But they are also lucky people, because each year we must say “no” to thousands of comparably excellent students who are equally deserving of admission.
That is one of many reasons that I am thrilled about the opening of Yeh College and New College West last August. Dean Richardson and her staff still have an impossible task, but the new residences have enabled them to add another 125 students each year who will make our campus and our world a better place.
Originally published in Princeton Alumni Weekly.