Kelly Kleiman’s Letter to the New York Times

Here is her letter and I agree with her point about quirky admissions essay questions for elite colleges.   A quote;

“As a former admissions officer, I know that questions like these are a practice sport, and that the young people who’ve had practice have gained it at upper- and upper-middle-class dinner tables, sparring with parents already able to give them every advantage. So to an impoverished student’s burden of measuring up to competitors who have had fancy internships and expensive overseas experiences, colleges have added what purports to be a search for creativity but is in fact a preference for privilege.”

She describes my family as we debate everything and our pre-teen son sketches “his” views on a large number of subjects including Paul Krugman.

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

27 thoughts on “Kelly Kleiman’s Letter to the New York Times”

  1. Oh, I get it. White privilege and white guilt mean that you get to the make the cookies and decide who gets them.

  2. Thanks for posting this–apparently it’s all-Kleiman week in New York media, what with the profile of Mark in The New Yorker.

  3. There’s a story that the young McGeorge Bundy was faced the question “What did you do in your summer holidays?” in the Harvard entrance exam. He denounced the question furiously and at length, referring to the multiple crises in American society, the Cold war, racial integration and so on and so on. One assessor gave him 2 for irrelevance; the other 18 for class. The tiebreaker decided for the second.

    1. I knew a fella whose Yale Law application essay was a thorough parsing of the entire application form for style, content, and grammar. He got accepted.

  4. These “creative” admissions essay questions not only favor students from urban, educated, non-immigrant families; they also favor those who are verbally clever (as opposed to, say, clever in an engineering direction or a basic science direction).

    1. Admittedly my college experience is a few decades back, but most of my peers in the engineering curriculum regarded humanities courses as a relaxing way to pad one’s GPA. I wonder, is there all that much evidence for a large class of people “clever in an engineering direction”, and NOT clever at verbal exchanges? (As distinct from non-verbal social interaction, of course, where we were certainly at a disadvantage, and knew it.)

      Engineers tend to be good at symbolic manipulation, and language is just a sub-set of this.

      1. Yes. Engineers generally have a much higher opinion of their own communications skills than those they try to communicate do.

        1. Although I agree with you, there’s a certain irony to the ungrammatical typo in that sentence, no?

      2. Yes. Oh God, yes. Most of the engineering types I’ve worked with are average to below-average writers. Sometimes endearingly so, sometimes frustratingly. Language is a vastly-different form of symbolic manipulation from, say, math (as ought to be obvious – if an engineer’s skills translated so readily to the humanities, why not the other way around?)

      3. Obligatory xkcd.

        And yes, I know mathematicians who think of engineers what some engineers think of the humanities (with respect to GPA-padding).

      4. I’m not saying engineer/techie types can’t write, so much as saying that verbal cleverness for the sake of cleverness is less appealing to them and can even seem like a waste of time.

      5. I knew some. I helped tutor/edit for my girlfriend’s roomate, who was an engineering major. I also tutored a different roomate later on (not for writing, but studying for a test on WWII), but I forget her major. She might’ve been humanities but not great at history.

        Anyway, I’ve definitely encountered engineers who are obviously good at what they do but aren’t great at communicating via the written word. Enough to think it really is a thing. YMMV.

      6. I’ll also add that GRE scores don’t seem to bear out the claim that engineers are good at language. I suspect that the Dunning-Kruger [1] effect may be at play here.

        [1] I’ll note [2] that I’m not particularly convinced by Dunning’s and Kruger’s explanation of how the effect comes to pass. There are more convincing explanations than “incompetence [robbing] them of the metacognitive ability to realize it”. In essence, the effect shows a compressed perceived scale compared to actual test scores, but that relative ordering largely remained intact. Anchoring in particular may play a role here in that self-assessment is guided by expectations how a normal person should perform, but lacks an objective reference point (this would be compatible with perceived performance dropping across the board when tests become harder).
        [2] And yes, I added the above, because “Dunning-Kruger effect” is often used as a gratuitous insult on the internet when in fact it’s a complicated story about the difficulty of accurate self-evaluation.

        1. I’ll note that I was talking about when *I* was in college, which was thirty or so years ago, when a considerably smaller percentage of the population went to college. So current engineering students may not be representative of engineering students way back then.

          Then again, I was a member of the campus SF club, so my acquaintances might not have been all that representative of the student body, either… I should keep that in mind.

          “and discovered that symbolic manipulation is to real language as the vibrational modes of strings are to the Goldberg Variations.”

          Reminds me of my futile effort to convince the humanities department that I should be allowed to take their logic course as one of my humanities electives, despite having already taken the computer science “logic” course. I thought they’d complement each other, they thought it would be redundant.

        2. Those numbers are probably skewed by engineering students, especially at the graduate level, rather often having English as a second+ language.

          I studied engineering, do programming, and my writing skills are decent enough according to the various evaluations my schooling has put me through, but sometimes I do have to stop myself from applying the wrong type of symbolic manipulation. (E.g. I don’t think English allows nested parentheses. (But maybe it should.))

      7. I once thought that way, too. (Physicist, but my business cards say “engineer”.) Then I married someone who was really good at reading and writing, and discovered that symbolic manipulation is to real language as the vibrational modes of strings are to the Goldberg Variations.

    2. I agree with Brett’s take here. I’ve been on both sides of the fence (physical science-law school), and I agree with Brett that techies tend to be deficient in social skills, not verbal skills. The physical scientists as a group do quite well on their LSATs.

      I’m not arguing with the perceptions of those who disagree with Brett. I think that their perceptions are okay, but their interpretations are not. My argument can be explained by a 2×2 box:

      Techie Non-Techie
      Reader Smart Smart
      Non-reader Anomalous Dumb

      1. (The formatting ate my argument box. Let’s put it in words. Readers–whether techies or non-techies–are perceived as smart. Non-reading non-techies are perceived as dumb. Non-reading techies are the source of the anomaly.)

  5. Didn’t it used to be more than that? IIRC such questions were used as additional handles to filter out applicants who were too Jew-y, but where the name didn’t give it away. I wonder if there are similar purposes under the hood nowadays.

    1. Prasad – when I was a member of First Parish Unitarian in Cambridge Ma, we had a member who had worked for Harvard admissions in the 20s. He told me about requiring photos on the application, and he said is was to id the Jews – “They can change the ‘Moses’, but they can’t change the noses”.

      I am grinding through Thinking Fast and Slow, and Kahneman suggests strongly that numerical algorithms for admissions criteria do a better job than unconstrained human judgement!

    2. Reminds me of a story I heard once about Harvard Law immediately after WWII. They had a strict quota for Jewish names: Cohen, Finkelstein, etc. It kept the alumni happy. But they pointedly looked no further–Isidore Coleman or Howard Finchstone was just fine by them.

  6. A smart high school classmate with lousy grades wrote his Brown application essay on why grades were a misleading indicator of academic potential. On one hand, he didn’t get in. On the other hand, he has achieved professional success (in an intellectually demanding field) that far surpasses that of the vast majority of high GPA folks in our class, including me.

  7. Great idea: that the questions, being complete tests of Yiddish-keit, are actually designed to screen out Jews, i.e., “If you can answer this meaningless question and do so persuasively, you must be Jewish.”

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