Ivy League dean: We can’t admit students by random lottery

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

In a guest column, Whitney Soule, vice provost and dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, demystifies a process many Georgia high school seniors are going through right now — trying to earn a spot at a selective campus.

According to Penn, 54,588 students applied last year, leading to a first-year class in 2022-23 of 2,417 students.

By Whitney Soule

“You should just make admissions decisions by lottery. It would be less stressful because it would be random. It wouldn’t be about them.”

You would be surprised how many times friends, colleagues, parents, even current students have suggested this concept to me. As the dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, I still sometimes take the bait and talk with them about what admissions entails. After one of these exchanges, most walk away understanding that the process we use to build a community of learners is the opposite of arbitrary or random.

It is not a dart-throwing exercise, I promise.

For more than 30 years, I have worked in college admissions at four different schools, each unique because of its size, mission, location, and degree of selectivity. Despite these differences, each is aligned in seeking students who will challenge each other — and their faculty — with the perspectives they bring, their assumptions, the questions they ask, and how they approach solving problems. What would they be like as a roommate, a lab partner, a teammate, a friend? How will their current interests inspire them to pursue future areas of study and apply these back to the world?

Credit: Lisa J Godfrey

Credit: Lisa J Godfrey

I’ve looked through the lens both as an admissions leader and as a mother with grown children who have pursued different interests and different college experiences to support their aspirations. Like any parent, I had pangs of anxiety watching my children work through their own college applications. But knowing their work would be read with purpose and care by admissions professionals minimized that tension. And witnessing their unique selves match to individual college environments reinforced what I see in my work: admissions teams designing questions and reading the answers with intention, looking to create the matches that make our communities hum.

To do this, we ask for what we know we need. The reason is twofold: 1) The application volume has increased and the window of time to comprehensively review applications has not. We need to move quickly through application review and an application must somewhat quickly reveal the information we can use to make a good decision; and 2) we must always consider the context and resources of our institutions, and work to understand how our requirements are shaped by a student’s access to resources of support, finances or geography.

We ask for the transcript to see the courses available, the courses chosen, and the outcome of those choices. We learn whether the student has mastered the content we know they’ll need to get started in our curriculum.

We look to their activities to see evidence of responsibility, exploration, and focus through jobs, and what they want to study or experience in our schools. We learn how they express themselves through writing.

We ask for recommendations to learn how others view their ability to negotiate, challenge, inspire, compromise and resolve.

We also know that noticing and challenging the influence of others is central to the learning experience. It’s what stretches curiosity. It inspires self-reflection and action. It positions thinking to include more than the perspective of one’s own self and expands the opportunity to solve problems at scale.

As an example, this year at Penn, we included a prompt that asks applicants to write a thank-you note to someone they want to acknowledge but have not yet thanked. At first, this may seem like an extraneous ask in a college application but it’s actually quite direct. Answering the prompt requires every applicant to think of a time when someone has influenced their experience and this elicits gratitude. It provides the specific frame for a student to do so and calls on sharing a human experience that is equally accessible without regard to resource or environment. There are no wrong answers and, scientifically, the practice of thanking someone actually makes you feel good (i.e., brings a moment of positivity into a process that we know creates anxiety).

All the application questions are important but none of the answers are enough to tell the student story on its own. We use the combination of all the answers to find alignment between how a student presents their skills and aspirations to what we provide and what we will ask of them in our schools.

So, we don’t select the incoming class of Penn by lottery. These students have put passion, time and effort into their applications, and we respond using processes designed with intention and care.