This is the time of year when high school students in the US await anxiously the results of the college applications. Since I work in a university and have had two children go through the college application process, I am well aware of the anxiety that it produces in young people as they wonder if they will get into the college of their choice and what failure to do so might say about them.
It is no good telling them that universities, especially the highly selective ones, get far more applicants who meet their criteria than they can possibly admit, and so who gets selected and who gets left out can be based on factors that are not a reflection on the applicants’ worthiness but instead serve the needs of the college. Once you have reached a certain baseline level of achievement, it is pretty much a matter of luck whether you are selected or not.
But this advice rarely helps to soothe anxieties. Within the affluent, there is a sense that the ranking of the college that you get into is also a measure of your worth which is why so many parents go to extraordinary lengths to get their offspring into prestigious colleges, even if it means donating millions of dollars to the school so that they get preference over others. Of course, this does not generate anywhere near the outrage that we see when a student who is poor or otherwise disadvantaged is admitted partly based on the recognition of the hardships they needed to overcome.
In his book Justice (p. 180), Michael Sandel says that colleges might create a better awareness of this if they sent out more honest letters to both successful and unsuccessful applicants, He describes the kind of honest letters that might be sent.
To an unsuccessful person:
We regret to inform you that your application for admission has been rejected. Please understand that we intend no offense by our decision. We do not hold you in contempt. In fact, we don’t even regard you as less deserving than those who were admitted.
It is not your fault that when you came along society happened not to need the qualities you had to offer. Those admitted instead of you are not deserving of a place, nor worthy of praise for the factors that led to their admission. We are only using them – and you – as instruments of a wider social purpose.
We realize you will find this news disappointing. But your disappointment should not be exaggerated by the thought that this rejection reflects in any way on your intrinsic moral worth. You have our sympathy in the sense that it is too bad you did not happen to have the traits society happened to want when you applied. Better luck next time.
He also provides a sample of a letter of acceptance that a law school should send to those it admits, if it honestly admitted what it was doing.
Dear successful applicant,
We are pleased to inform you that your application for admission has been accepted. It turns out that you happen to have the traits that society needs at the moment, so we propose to exploit your assets for society’s advantage by admitting you to the study of law.
You are to be congratulated, not in the sense that you deserve credit for having the qualities that led to your admission – you do not – but only in the sense that the winner of a lottery is to be congratulated. You are lucky to have come along with the right traits at the right moment. If you choose to accept our offer, you will ultimately be entitled to the benefits that attach to being used in this way. For this, you may properly celebrate.
You, or more likely your parents, may be tempted to celebrate in the further sense that you take this admission to reflect favorably, if not on your native endowments, then at least on the conscientious effort you have made to cultivate your abilities. But the notion that you deserve even the superior character necessary to your effort is equally problematic, for your character depends on fortunate circumstances of various kinds for which you can claim no credit. The notion of desert does not apply here.
We look forward nonetheless to seeing you in the fall.
Sandel says that, “Such letters might lessen the sting for those who are rejected, and dampen the hubris of those who are accepted. So why do colleges continue to send (and applicants to expect) letters replete with congratulatory, honorific rhetoric? Perhaps because colleges can’t entirely dispense with the idea that their role is not only to advance certain ends but also to honor and reward certain virtues.”
I found this amusing and thought-provoking but I cannot see it catching on. Colleges will continue to send out letters containing fulsome praise to successful applicants and equally fulsome praise for the unsuccessful ones, with the latter being told that alas, it was not quite enough.