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> With the boom of the "college consultants" industry, professionals are essentially "forging" entire high school careers on behalf of their clients - telling them what classes to take, which clubs to join, where and how many hours they should volunteer, etc.

I don't really get this perspective. If colleges are going to base admissions on amorphous things like what clubs someone joined, or what organizations they volunteered for, why shouldn't a student hire a consultant to navigate those waters? Is the student who hires a consultant to tell them what classes to take, or what clubs to join, or what organizations to volunteer for, and then follows through with those, less deserving of a spot than someone that happens to randomly fall upon the right combination of activities? Or, more to the point, has an uncle who went to an Ivy-league school that can give them the same advice?

If anything, admissions consultants level the playing field. Who else is going to tell a bright midwestern student that Ivy-league schools don't respect locally popular clubs like Future Farmers of America? Who else is going to tell a bright lower-income student that they should spend their summers "volunteering" in Africa instead of working all summer to make some spending money? The families with Ivy-league alums already know what boxes to check.

Idealistically, these aren't things that you're "supposed" to do. You're not supposed to live your life to get into good schools. Admissions counselors will tell you this explicitly. They want you to what you would normally do, and if you happen to be exceptional, they'll pick you. You should also never assume that you or your child actually has any business being academically exceptional. That's just statistical fact.

You're not supposed to prep for standardized tests, either. They're trying to function like IQ tests - a measure of who you are and your education as a whole, not how you studied. ACT and College Board have a wealth of data available, and have concluded that engaging in prep activities between sittings moves your score by at most a few points.

Of course, once it's a social expectation that children of elite parents will go to elite schools, they're willing to throw money at gaming the system. Though a natural consequence of the free market, it still feels distasteful.

Providing these sorts of services freely or cheaply as a charitable organization trying to help rural kids/new immigrant families get on their feet is one thing; charging many hundreds of dollars per hour to a clientele of investment bankers who need to impress their colleagues with their children's admissions is different.

That is absurd on at least two levels. First of all, I really do not get "you are not supposed to prep for standardized tests" attitude. You prepare for graded exams in school, if you prepare for them you get better grades. But, for some weird reason, I should not prepare for ACT, although that one is much more important for future? If I will train writing essays within 20 minutes I will get better score then if I do not. Why is a student that does not care about it in advance behaving "as supposed to" then the one who cares?

Is there any other culture in the world where you are "not supposed to" study for an important exam?

The clubs thing is ridiculous too. If my "natural" selection of clubs makes my admission to good school less likely, it is my natural response to adjust clubs selection. The ridiculous thing is basing admissions on fluff like that.

A school that explicitly stated they only want the kids of the upper classes could just say they want rich white kids, but they'd be savaged in the media for admitting the truth.

So instead there's tons of handwaving about how the most important predictor of success in life and in education is experience in the sailing club and the polo club and the chess club. Not because its true, but because mostly rich white kids are in those clubs so if you select those groups you'll get the "right" people wrt race and income.

The problem is someone fakes their social life and interests to get into school, if they make it they're going to be surrounded by a weird mix of genuine upper class kids who really did grow up enjoying sailing and playing polo, and a subgroup (perhaps too small to be self sustaining and supportive) of poseurs who don't care about that stuff other than a means to an end.

There is an analogy in software hiring practices. Obviously everyone knows from studies that higher IQ people are more successful. But implementing IQ tests is a legal minefield. Smart people can learn algos. So google does or used to torture applicants with algo questions. They're not looking for people who know all about red black trees or implying that all jobs there use algos, but are selecting people who passed the "IQ test that isn't an illegal IQ test" filter. "cargo cult" copycat companies who do almost the same but miss the intelligence test part, perhaps by asking brainteasers or similar tasks that don't require intelligence, are comical.

The moral of the story, is if you want to do something wrong or immoral or highly politically incorrect, you can get about the same outcome by playing games with overlapping venn diagrams and pretend that a right, moral, popular activity with a large overlap is what you "really" want. A large part of adult/older human cultural interaction is understanding when someone's talking exoterically or esoterically in order to respond correctly.

It's hard to see how this levels the playing field in practice. The "bright lower-income students" you mention don't have access to these expensive services.

These admissions consultants are a lot more attainable than the Ivy-league family members that would be able to give the same guidance.

The real problem is that they don't know the game, which is most of the battle.

Not necessarily true. I personally know 2 Ivy League grads from low income families who, through a combination of luck and high standardized test scores, lucked into a position of getting this kind of counseling. Lots of consultants do some amount of pro bono. Most poor kids wouldn't know to ask, though.

I would imagine it's a heck of a lot cheaper to hire a consultant than it is to live in an area with public schools that will "naturally" provide the opportunities required for a bright student to get into a great school.

Is the student who hires a consultant to tell them what classes to take, or what clubs to join, or what organizations to volunteer for, and then follows through with those, less deserving of a spot than someone that happens to randomly fall upon the right combination of activities?

Yes, I think that's the general idea. Ideally the criteria are kept secret of course. It's the same as picking employees who do open source or learnt Haskell in their spare time. You want people who independently make certain choices for reasons unrelated to getting a college place or a job, but the signal is much less useful when everyone knows that you are looking for it.

I think that's stupid, and gives an unfair advantage to people from more educated and/or connected backgrounds. Instead of blaming admissions consultants, I'd blame the colleges using these bullshit proxy metrics.

But that's really the case either way, it's possible that having known metrics gives an even greater advantage to those who are economically well off as violin tuition gets more expensive due to rising demand.

The most equitable solution would be to base admissions purely on grades but that isn't possible when you have grade inflation, because more people get straight As than there are places at top universities.

It's more than just grade inflation -- in high schools across the united states the quality of courses vary so much as to be incomparable. Suppose you and I are both taking the most advanced English classes our schools offer. If I get an A and you get a B, but you're in a high school with just 300 people in it and I'm in a high school with 3000 people, I have no idea which grade 'means' more.

Theoretically, those grades should "mean" the same, because they should be measures on an absolute scale. What matters ins the quality of the school, which is not directly tied to the number of students at it.

Agreed that the quality of the school is really the fundamental determiner of grades. In the original comment I considered adding in a suggestion that a larger school could support more levels of classes, but it felt clunky so I just left it out. Of course, schools can be good and bad for many reasons orthogonal to their size. A small school might be a magnet school drawing the top students of a larger area. Or it might be a rural area which has a hard time recruiting teachers.

That, and because public school populations aren't nearly homogenous enough. See Canadian schools and UT for examples of grades not doing a good job keeping incoming student quality uniform (and necessitating remedial programs, which have their own issues).

"I'd blame the colleges using these bullshit proxy metrics."

And your alternative to this is? They're metrics for assessing candidates for a reason, you know. Sure, once they start getting gamed, they're no longer accurate, but that's a different discussion.

The metrics are bad even before the gaming. Take volunteer work, for example. In theory, they're selecting for people who show a concern for others. In reality, they emphasize organized, secular volunteer work. So they give points for the sort of stupid, futile service projects upper middle class kids do for photo-ops in Africa, but not points for taking care of aging family members, community involvement through the church, etc.

Moreover, they create a huge bias in favor of kids who can afford to spend their free time doing unpaid work, and against kids that need to work to earn a little extra spending money, or kids that need to help with the family business. We're not even talking about "poor" people here. The people hardest-hit by these policies are first-generation middle class people, who don't stand out with a sob story about how they grew up in poverty, but aren't in a position where they can do volunteer work and also have their parents buy them a car. Emphasizing these factors also creates a bias against immigrants. A lot of first-generation Americans just don't feel comfortable engaging in the community in that way.

I'd say it's part of the same discussion if colleges continue to use metrics after they have been gamed of predictive value and now measure something else.

Blame is not exclusive. In a chain of idiocy, you can point fingers at every idiot.

Hate the player and the game. Without players, there is no game.

I find these admissions games silly too but what process could you use that is ungameable and can filter or rank candidates?

Standardised tests administered in exam conditions.

Admittedly it's not a perfect system, but if the existing system is admission essays written by ghostwriters, I'd say it'd be an improvement.

Most kids still think the SATs are an IQ test. Rich kids know how much you need to prepare and often start years in advance.

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