The Visible and Hidden Harms of the Elite University Admissions Process

One reaction some people had to my post on elite university admissions in a winner-take-all-society could be easily summarized: So what? Hundreds of thousands of families invest time, energy, hope and resources into attaining a child’s admission to Harvard, Princeton etc., most of them don’t make it, but life is tough, deal with it, nothing to fix here. I don’t agree with that, which is why I proposed a positional arms control agreement among elite universities that would reduce the pressure for adolescents to have a thousand extracurricular activities, SAT training camps, admissions coaches and the like.

The harms that I think do warrant some type of reform are of two types. The first, which is well-discussed by Frank and Cook in their book The Winner-Take-All Society, is mis-allocated resources. Certainly there is no damage done when students strive to improve their odds of elite university admissions by making sure that they become proficient at math and writing. These are investments that will likely pay off no matter what happens to them afterwards. If you become an excellent writer in the hopes of getting into an Ivy League school and you don’t make it, you are still an excellent writer, which will have professional and personal value for you forever.

In contrast, what use is knowledge of how the SAT is designed once you have taken the test? Kaplan is currently charging between $300 and $1300 to prepare students to do well on the SAT and its brethren. Families can spend even more money on an “admissions coach” who will help their child choose the “right” extracurricular activities (many of which also cost money), craft the “perfect” admissions essay and otherwise reveal the tricks of the admissions trade. As with SAT prep courses, virtually none of this has economic value that outlasts the moment when that fearful letter arrives from the elite university’s admissions office.

Meanwhile, the money required for all these services is a strain for many families, drawing down resources they need for other things. And of course countless families whose children will never get into an elite university (A key feature of winner-take-all markets is that they attract too many participants) will make the investment anyway and have their elite university dream crushed just the same.

These sorts of harms are fairly visible and I think most people can see them. But there is another type of damage I see when I work with elite universities on problems of mental health and substance use among students. Fair warning: I cannot prove with systematic evidence what I am about to describe, so take it as only as one person’s report from the front line.

In many respects, the undergraduates at our elite universities are some of the most remarkable people I have ever met. They have almost uniformly accomplished more at their stage of life than I had, and by no small margin. And at the same time, some of them remind me of Freddy Rodriguez’s character in The Lady in the Water.


For those who haven’t seen the film, Rodriguez plays a man who is running an experiment on himself. He exercises vigorously, but only on the right side of his body. The result is someone who looks extraordinarily powerful from one perspective and weak and vulnerable from the other. I think of this image often when I meet university students who can speak 4 languages, but cannot ask for a date in any of them. I think of it when I meet brilliant students who can debate the works of Aristotle with confidence and verve but do not feel comfortable going to a social event without a few shots of vodka in their belly. And I think of it when I see the occasional young person we have at Stanford who looks perfect — 4.0 GPA 1600 SAT 8 million extracurriculars perfect — when they arrive and within 6 months is flunking classes, struggling with depression or otherwise lost at sea.

The time and energy that young people now spend polishing their application package to such luster has to come from somewhere, and one of those places may be the normal process of growing up: Making friends, learning to deal with conflict, having fun, becoming aware of emotions and how to cope with them, learning how to relax, discovering who you are and not just what others expect you to be. When those things are neglected, some of the young people who ostensibly win the elite admission rat race end up losing, and losing badly.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

36 thoughts on “The Visible and Hidden Harms of the Elite University Admissions Process”

  1. This kind of thing was bad enough 20 or 30 years ago, when all that an incoming brilliant student had to contend with was the realization that they had gone from being the top or next-to-top student in their class to somewhere in the middle of the pack, and (typically) from having a parent or other authority figure at their shoulder almost all the time to having no real supervision or limits.

    But in today’s hyperdarwinian market, where even getting into and completing an Ivy-equivalent program (plus graduate degrees) won’t necessarily get you safe longterm employment, yikes.

  2. When my daughter was looking at colleges, most of them told us that they looked at things other than the SAT scores and were not forthcoming when we asked for a list of colleges that didn’t. Both of my children went to a high school whose admission was completely based on one three hour English-math exam. You could have been an axe murderer but they would not have taken notice. This simple, quick method produced a student body that possessed all sorts of other talents and were also generally very nice.

    It was not very racially diverse which is of course a problem. It would be just so EFFICIENT to just grant minorities extra points on the exam (sort of like Veteran’s preference on Civil Service) rather than making admissions so very complicated.

    1. I believe it is well-established (as in: numerous studies, well-cited books, magazine articles, etc) that the origin of the “extracurriculars” requirements was to keep out the Jews, back in the day. And then it was updated to keep out the Asians. It -never- had anything to do with “helping minorities get in”. Quite, quite, quite the opposite.

      1. Interesting, can you tell me more. My impression when I was in college was that a push for “geographical diversity” kept out the Jews and to some extent the Catholics, basically city people. The school down the street had lots of people from fabled places like Oregon, my school prided itself on not having geographical quotas. We seemed to have picked up the graduating classes of Great Neck, Teaneck, Stuyvesant and Bronx Science. I did find it a bit tiresome when they replayed high school feuds.

  3. “In contrast, what use is knowledge of how the SAT is designed once you have taken the test? Kaplan is currently charging between $300 and $1300 to prepare students to do well on the SAT and its brethren. Families can spend even more money on an “admissions coach” who will help their child choose the “right” extracurricular activities (many of which also cost money), craft the “perfect” admissions essay and otherwise reveal the tricks of the admissions trade. As with SAT prep courses, virtually none of this has economic value that outlasts the moment”

    These are strong assertions, Keith, and I think they deserve more proof than a claim that they are “obvious”.
    Knowledge of how the SAT is designed, and similar issues (“guess rather than leaving a field blank”, eliminate the obviously wrong choices, etc) may have no use outside SAT testing, but they also take no more than five minutes to learn. For more damage to be occurring, you have to show that the real learning that is done for the SAT (eg studying vocabulary, learning how to write an essay) is worthless, and that’s a strong claim. Yes, it may lead to a suboptimal balance of what is learned, and that’s an assertion I’d happily endorse; but that’s a much weaker claim. (And a much more problematic one, given that we ALL have opinions about how what kids learn in school is suboptimally balanced, regardless of issues of SAT and other testing.)

    One could say the same thing about the other extra-curriculars. Leaving aside the money issue, the work that is done here (helping build houses or protect polar bears or whatever) is valuable in its own right, to the world and to the performer — heck, throwing my opinion in the ring, it’s time more usefully spent than pretty much all the time spent on sport.

    If you want to force the Feds or the Ivies to create a ceasefire in this arms race, I think you’re going to have to provide more serious evidence of actual harm than what’s been done here.

    I stick by my earlier assertion. What I see in most of the complaining here (on RBC and in the wider culture) is a desperate fear that MY KID won’t make the cut, along with a substantial unwillingness to give up on the culture of belief that a “best” exists when it comes to tertiary education, and anything less is worthless. What needs to be changed here is the belief that a winner-take-all culture is a sensible way to structure society; what is being offered in actuality is NOT that, it’s the idea that the winner should be chosen by some mechanism other than the one currently in place.

    1. What needs to be changed here is the belief that a winner-take-all culture is a sensible way to structure society…

      I am of the same opinion. But where better a place to begin deemphasizing winner-take-all then Keith’s suggestion to do it at the Universities?
      After all, most Uni professors and deans are liberals. If they can’t see the need for this adjustment, who will?

  4. There’s no mystery here, and it’s not confined to students admitted to “elite” institutions. Here’s what the kid experiences, more or less:

    Intensively structured + unrelenting external motivation => Moderately unstructured + inchoate internal motivation.

    If you want a higher percentage successful transition into the second state, better get some experience beforehand with the secondary state’s characteristics.

    See Andre Agassi’s autobiography.

    I don’t see how Stanford or any other institution can fix this, as it’s the transition that causes the problem. You’d have to somehow reach back into the past. And there’s nothing you can measure that will look good on an application that would indicate an awareness by the applicant of the issue. The students are supplying what you demand.

    1. I think this is related to the more general problem of helicopter parenting having gotten out of hand (in lieu of teaching your children self-reliance and a sense of responsibility).

      Admittedly, just getting rid of helicopter parenting and replacing it with lack of parenting is just going to make things worse. “Good luck, honey, sink or swim, you’ll figure it out” isn’t a great idea, either. But I’m seeing more and more parents micromanaging their children’s lives to a frightening degree (this includes tiger parenting), so that the kids can’t possible learn to do so themselves, and without their parents considering the possibility that eventually their sons and daughters will have to learn to stand on their own feet.

      I still remember the howls of outrage over Lenore Skenazy letting her 9-year old son ride the New York Subway on his own a few years ago. A few decades before, it would have been a non-story.

  5. “The time and energy that young people now spend polishing their application package to such luster has to come from somewhere, and one of those places may be the normal process of growing up: Making friends, learning to deal with conflict, having fun, becoming aware of emotions and how to cope with them, learning how to relax, discovering who you are and not just what others expect you to be. ”

    Speaking from my own experience, I think you have the cart before the horse here. Yes, there are some people who sort these things out in high school. And there are some who sort them out after age 25. This is not a function of being forced to spend their time playing violin rather than hanging out at the mall; it’s a function of some people being naturally shyer and less confident, and of teenagers being viciously cruel while adults post-25 are rather less so. The environment changes, and shy people function better in the changed environment.

    Look, it’s POSSIBLE that this is a real problem that is getting worse. But I’ve have to see numbers to believe it. Going on vague anecdote and impression is meaningless for at least three reasons
    (a) Is there a real problem? If someone starts dating at age 22 rather than at age 16, does that result in any real harm?
    (b) Growing older bias. The older you get, the harder it is to remember what it was like as an 18 yr old, the insecurity and worry over such stupid things. Which means its easier to see every year as less and less socially adjusted without any change actually taking place.
    (c) Perhaps all we’re seeing is a fairer world. The freaks and geeks were always there in the high school population but had less of a chance to get into elite colleges thirty years ago than they do now?

    1. It’s not clear to me that people who disdain or fear social interaction do especially well in the post-25 adult world when they are competing for attention from employers, prospective romantic/sexual partners, or even just friends to spend time with at the weekend. They’re less likely to be forcibly ostracised, certainly, but they can still find themselves overlooked and undervalued. Adults can still be very judgmental about who they let into their in-group.

      Whether an obsessive focus on achievements to put in your college application is a cause or a symptom of such social withdrawal, well that’s another matter.

    2. Speaking as someone who saw her valedictorian friends crash and burn way back in the early eighties, I think it is a real problem. It shocked me to hear from one of my high school classmates, now a professor at UCLA, that it takes better than a 4.0 to get in to UCLA these days. My solution, such as it is, is to not push my daughter too hard and give her the space to be a teenager. Ultimately, I am not sure it matters so much whether she goes to UCLA (as I did) or Cal State Fullerton or some combination of community college and UC, so long as she is engaged and happy on her own terms. But I still worry.

  6. My own quibble with this educational market is somewhat different from Keith’s. As a (somewhat senior (== “older”)) researcher in a technical field, I see and work with lots and lots of young folk. And sure, lots of them know lots of things that I didn’t know at their age.

    But they aren’t any better at getting past the store of facts to actually reasoning, than we were at their age. They’re no worse, either. Things haven’t changed much. So from where I sit, it seems like all the -investment- being made just isn’t getting much return. It sure seems like, for the kids I work with, they could have spent half of high school just having fun, instead of learning how to admister their school’s computer network, etc, etc, etc, and been -just- as productive, -just- as valuable, -just- as insightful.

    And sure, maybe they could have spent that time learning to handle rejection by their latest love interest. But hey, we didn’t figure that out in high school either, so I’m not sayin’ that that’s what they’d spent their time doing. Just …. the frenetic pace of today’s kids … doesn’t seem (by the time they reach, say, 25yrs) to be getting them anything other than (as Keith has pointed out) improved ranking in a purely positional game.

    It really -is- just deadweight loss, overall.

    1. An addendum. Maybe a way of thinking about it is: we’re manufacturing child prodigies. And (at least from my observations) most prodigies top out. And when they top out, you find out what their -intrinsic- abilities are, not what they can do by dint of their ability to (say) solve math problems at age 10 that stump 25-year-olds. Eventually, they top out. And I’ve rarely seen somebody who topped-out in their twenties, who had a leg up on the competition in their thirties.

      Again, it just seems like deadweight loss.

  7. Russell Carter and Katja are going where I’d go on this. Most of the college-bound high-school cohort, and particularly these kids, have their lives structured for them in ways that go far beyond social-relating issues (though those can be pretty tough). Some have a lot of initiative and come up with positions and plans on their own, but they’re the ones with either exceptional resistance or exceptional parents. Add to this the NCLB pressures to teach to the test and hand out the answers, and you get lots of students who are afraid of their own shadows intellectually, simply lost if they don’t have a very specific task to perform or conclusion to reach. They can’t handle less structure than they’ve been trained to. It’s pretty tragic.

    Incidentally, something close to it happens at other places on the s-e spectrum. We get a fair number of veterans and I’ve seen more than one who did well in the regimented military life but couldn’t handle that moderately unstructured undergraduate life.

    I know you’re focused on winner-take-all as the framework here, Keith, but could there be a Veblenian element of keeping up with the Joneses that motivates parents like this?

  8. I don’t know whether all the stuff that high-school students have to do these days is unproductive, but as the father of a high-achieving 16-year old, I can say that I find the process of positioning one’s child as a plausible elite college applicant to be excessively time-consuming, both for the student and for parents. It has also seriously stressed my wife and strained her relationship with our teenager. The people I know who appear to have reasonable lives with their kids are the ones whose children are not pursuing that track. Maybe the benefits from this system justify this, but I am skeptical.

    1. I am retired software engineer. In my career I frequently was in the position of hiring new employees either as the decision maker or an interviewer. Based on that experience and my personal college experience decades ago I seriously doubt, as you do, that the benefits are worth the angst. Broadly generalizing, five years out of college where you got your degree matters little. Your work experience is more determinate.

      The main advantage of a degree from top schools is the running start after graduation.

      My advice for students is get a degree from a good school and excel there instead of being either mediocre in a top school or, as happened to me, get totally bummed out by no longer being easily in the top ranks.

  9. Wrestling with affirmative action debates as an ACLU board member, I long ago concluded that the only thing that makes sense from a social health and justice perspective for any school that takes federal or state money is lotteries, with all students who apply entered if their admissions qualifications exceed the qualifications that were present at application for any successful alum of the institution, with extra lottery tickets for underrepresented folks, but admissions offices close, and the admissions job becomes drawing names and offering a predesigned aid package based on the FAFSA and the students’ incomes.

    No more “sculpting” classes if you take any federal or state money or your students do …

    1. That might be more efficient, but I think it would be illegal to give extra tickets to underrep’d folks. It’s too mathematically precise and would seem like a quota. Certainly you’d get sued inside of 5 minutes. Thus, all the gyrations. Though, some places do it by geography/high school, which also works because we are so segregated by race and class. Personally I think it is worth some “inefficiency” if that’s the only way to get diversity. But we could still become less obsessed with individual “achievement.” (Sorry but I think there’s a lot of hype going on …)

  10. I don’t disagree much with Keith, but this is pretty low on my list of problems. The stingy funding of state schools is far more significant.

    1. Yes and no. If you look at the pedigrees/CVs of people in top and near-top positions these days, it becomes clear that a large chunk of the people structuring our society are from the “elite” institutions. That’s bad enough as it is, but guaranteeing that most of those people are psychologically damaged overachievers will likely make things worse.

    2. It’s actually the same problem. Part of the reason for the huge increase in applications to elite schools is that Americans understand that these are some of the few schools that are well funded and actually affordable for low and middle income students. That’s what makes them so attractive.

    3. I’d say that both are different sides of the same coin, namely the increasing social stratification of American education. I’ll agree that one can probably classify Keith’s post as describing a symptom rather than the disease, but I think they are still related.

  11. The opportunities for all are more restricted than ever in the USA. People who say everything is going to be all right or it doesn’t matter where you go to school simply haven’t been paying attention to how much more insecurity there is in this country for everyone from college students to middle managers to new graduates to those only a few years from retirement. In the last 5 years, new grad RN programs have closed across California. In the last 5 years, the ranks of the permanently unemployed have shot up. In the last 5 years, the percentage who have delayed retirement is historical. In the last 5 years, the employment/population ration just keeps going down. We are f**d as a society and many of the parents who are working so hard realize this and are simply paddling like hell to get upstream of the waterfall.

  12. As a land-grant college alum, too lazy to much bother with ambition in high school or since, I recall lots of students at the University Near Mom who burned out, struggled with dormitory psychological crises, drank and drugged themselves into oblivion, etc.

    The potholes on the road to adult — aren’t they universal? Perhaps it just seems more of a shock when the type-A kids hit them.

  13. But this all seems like the wrong focus. Who cares who goes to elite colleges? It’ll always be a tiny portion of the population. I better solution to this is to restore the affordable public university, which would provide a compelling alternative to fancy schools.

    1. Daniel — I will direct this comment to you but it applies to a number in this thread. I wrote about two types of harms, one, which most comments seem focused upon, is the harm to the small number of people who get admitted. But there is also the harm the far larger group of people (hundreds of thousands of people) who are not, but who waste financial and emotional resources on the chase for the prize. Hence, even if you don’t care about those who get in, you could still want the admissions process reformed for all those other families.

  14. We need desperately to get away from the idea that people not admitted to the dozen or so elite Ivies are doomed to poverty and failure. It’s simply not true and never has been. (It’s also not the case that those who get into those few elite schools always succeed.)

    1. Kids who attended Ivies/elite schools were always a small percentage of college graduates.

    2. Many of those kids were already members of the elite; they didn’t get into the elite because they went to those schools, they got into those schools because they were already in the elite.

    3. the “people who structure our society” are and always have been a very small percentage of the population.

    4. I also had this odd impression that a lot of the social movements that change society’s have a lot of members who did not attend elite colleges. Some of their leaders didn’t even go to Ivy/elite schools.

    Yes, we have immense economic problems. But I also see a lot of new grads who are creating new businesses or doing new things in old occupations and thinking outside the box to do so. This is certainly stimulated in part by closing of old economic opportunities but it’s also because these young people don’t want the kind of career track envisioned when I graduated in 1977. I think creating new ideas and new work structures is a good thing. Also, none of these young people has any desire to be “part of an elite” or be someone who structures our society.

    5. Just for fun, I looked at the backgrounds of the 19 judges on a state court of appeals — all, of course, successful attorneys before they became judges. Three of the 19 had been to “elite” schools. Three. These people became lawyers at a time when many law firms would not even look at resumes from applicants who hadn’t been to a Top Ten law school, but somehow they built successful careers. I know this is a very small sample but I would bet if you looked at a wider sample you’d find similar results.

    6. And yes, I do know the President and First Lady went to Ivies. But if “becoming President and First Lady” is the only definition of success, then less than 100 people in the history of this country have been successful.

    By the way, the current Chief Justice of the State of California did her first two years of college at a community college, transferred to a state university, and went to law school at UC-Davis, which is a good school but not regarded as an elite law school.

  15. I went to an elite state school in the 1980s and got mediocre grades in an unemployable major. My wife dropped out of a less prestigious state school. Now we’re 50ish and both making six figures in IT and living in the awesomest place in the USA. Your mileage may vary.

  16. Your mileage may vary.

    Indeed. For people who are in that situation today versus 30 years ago their mileage would almost certainly vary and not in a good way.

  17. Many of the comments are what are called mother-in-law statistics (“my mother-in-law smoked 2 packs a day…”) and others are too general. Keith writes of the “hundreds of thousands of people” who are spinning their wheels looking for the pot of educational gold. That I question: in most high schools (not the Bronx Sciences, etc.) I would guess that the number who apply to the top-ranked schools is pretty small. Of the about four million high school seniors, do you really think that over 2.5 percent are running on that treadmill? Or is it that those who read this blog already have a bias favoring intellectual pursuits, and therefore think that the rest of the country does as well?

    I remember when parents of that (our) ilk were bemoaning the fact that their kids wanted to drop put and become candle-makers in Vermont instead of aiming for a corporate job.

    1. There are about 2 million new college freshmen each year. The Ivy League and its peers get 300,000 applications a year. Some of those are multiple applications so that’s fewer people than that number suggests, but there are also people who did all the prep and realized they would not cut and did not apply, so that’s more people than that number suggests.

  18. Having taught high school for 15 years, I have seen little evidence for a correlation between high levels of resume-boosting and low levels of social competence.

    However, the point re: wasting time on “how to pass the SAT” lessons is very well taken. In addition, I have repeatedly seen universities make horrible mistakes in admitting student X and rejecting student Y, because they (the universities) are so enamored of student extra-curricular activities, “leadership” positions, etc. Meanwhile, kids with 99th percentile-level intellectual curiosity, who spend their spare time reading books or the like, are ignored.

  19. Isn’t part of the problem that we’ve “reformed” the current standards for secondary education so that “everyone” takes a college preparatory curriculum and must pass that curriculum to be awarded a degree, and then have it drummed into them from middle school onward (at least in my kids’ large urban public school system) that this is what is necessary to get into a “good” college. Then we define “good” to mean selective, in the sense of hard to get into odds. If a college educated citizenry is a worthwhile policy goal (I’m not necessarily conceding that point though), why do we only value what by definition is only available to a small portion of the population? If the value of a college education lies in the education, rather than the brand credential or the connections made at the college, why not make it available to everyone and let the sorting process occur IN (and not at the admissions stage for) college?

    I see the same thing playing out in the charter school movement as exemplified by Waiting For Superman. Charter schools are seen as better than public school BECAUSE of the admissions lottery, not in spite of it. It makes it more appealing to those inside the school that some are excluded from it, just as public school is seen as inferior because it is available to everyone. Part of the admissions rat race is designed to convince those rats who get on the treadmill that they are lucky to be where they are because everyone else wants to be them.

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