Knitting Societies and Pot Plants: Why UK university admissions are holding us back

Knitting Societies and Pot Plants: Why UK university admissions are holding us back

Applying to university (or college) is one of the most exciting and most stressful parts of being a young adult - it certainly has been for me. This stress and excitement is largely caused by one thing: the wait. After submitting your application, it could be months before you hear back from your dream college or university, and so the admissions process is probably one of the most stress-inducing processes you'll have to go through as a student - behind exams, of course.

Both the UK and the US are renowned for having some of the finest institutions of higher learning on the planet, known for cultivating the minds of future leaders and citizen-leaders with programs and courses ranging from African Studies and Anthropology to Physics and PoliSci. Yet, the admissions process for these could not be more different.

In the UK, the application process is relatively simple. After choosing what courses you want to apply for and having filled out your information on your UCAS application, you can begin writing a personal statement. This is an opportunity for you to explain why you want to study your chosen degree, and why you think you should be given the opportunity to do so. What you write about is up to you, but many choose to write about extracurriculars, coursework, or anything that relates to their chosen course of study - which can be very little, I mean, how can you demonstrate your interest in biochem at the age of 17? The prime considerations for UK admissions officers, however, are candidates' academic achievements and grades.

The UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) logo.
UCAS is a UK centralised service for applying to undergraduate courses at universities and colleges.

Across the Atlantic, however, the story is different. Selective colleges practise what is known as 'holistic admissions' - where they take into account a broad range of factors, not just grades and academics. Some of these factors can be anything from socioeconomic background, volunteer history, extracurricular leadership positions, sports team membership and, controversially, race. Universities that practise this form of admissions claim that it allows them to choose between pools of highly qualified applicants, build diverse campus communities and, as Harvard Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzimmons says 'apply a more expansive view of excellence'. Applying to an elite college in the US does not simply mean having perfect test scores and an outstanding GPA, it means building a candidacy on the back of your passions, commitments and character.

This is what most surprised me when I was making my application to Harvard. Having experienced both the UK and US application processes first-hand - here is a cringe warning - the latter made me feel like I was being valued for more than just my grades and my GPA. It made me feel I was being appreciated more for what I enjoy, what I'm passionate about and what I want to do. And that's what makes me unique right? That's what distinguishes me from my fellow applicants - all 60,000+ of them.

One of the key parts of my application was my essay. This was nothing like the UCAS personal statement I had written just weeks before. Through the Common App Portal (from which students can apply to as many colleges as they want, another massive difference to the UK), applicants have to submit an essay in response to a prompt. This essay is more an exercise of personal expression than any academic work, and allows students to fully celebrate what they think makes them great. My prompt was 'Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realisation that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others', where I talked about the pandemic, my bibliophilic passions, philosophy, and my ambitions for politics. These essays provide a snapshot into the emphasis that holistic admissions processes place on a broad range of factors, such as what applicants think their future will look like.

So, what are the advantages?

Well, it creates a more equitable system for assessing the worth of each applicant, because, let's face it, we'd all rather be valued for something more than test papers and essays. The US Supreme Court has said that such a process appreciates 'all the ways an applicant might contribute to a diverse educational environment', and that may not be just by pushing class averages up, it may be that your character makes you a valuable member of a campus community, or that your passion for the environment can help the college's efforts to become greener. Regardless of what it is, there is no room to be green with envy of someone else under holistic admissions, because such a process allows everyone to appreciate and capitalise on their unique qualities. Additionally, how do schools such as Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and Princeton distinguish between equally dazzling applicants? Because A* grades and 4.0 GPAs are just assumed of applicants to Ivy League and other selective institutions, these colleges need a way to assess different aspects of applicants - perhaps you have an amazing pot plant collection that represents your love for biodiversity?

Five plants and a blue watering can placed on a windowsill.
Holistic admissions is a comprehensive evaluation process used by some colleges that considers multiple aspects of an applicant's background and experiences, beyond just grades and test scores.

By taking such an individualistic approach, colleges are also considering diversity. This is a controversial issue, however, as racial quotas - setting aside a proportion of spaces for ethnic minorities - are unconstitutional. Universities, however, are still allowed to consider race in their admissions process, as long as this isn't the sole deciding factor. Many of you may think this absurd. Why on earth would someone's race or ethnicity influence where they study? You'd be right, but remember, we're not on earth, we're in the United States, an inequality basket case where if things like race were not considered, then institutions such as Harvard would look just as they did in their founding nearly 400 years ago - scarily out of touch with the reality of the rest of the world.

An ongoing lawsuit brought against Harvard, however, alleging that the university practises something called 'racial balancing, threatens to make race-conscious admissions unconstitutional in the US. Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a right-wing legal advocacy group behind the lawsuit, represents Asian American plaintiffs who were rejected from the university and believe that this was on the grounds of 'racial balancing', i.e., deliberately keeping the proportion of Asian Americans at the college down to ensure space for other ethnicities and groups. Whether Harvard does this or not will be realised when the Court makes its decision later this year. But their reason for perhaps doing so would be because there is an expectation that Asian American applicants will be high test scorers, due, in part, to the Asian culture that holds education as being the path to success - an idea perpetuated through the parental pressure put on children.

Harvard argues that this is a good thing, as it allows them to build a diverse campus community from which all students benefit. Indeed, President Lawrence Bacow holds that 'each student's learning experience is enriched by encountering classmates who grew up in different circumstances'. The world-renowned, Ivy League institution believes that campus diversity is not an accidental phenomenon and without factors such as race being considered in a holistic admissions process - which it calls a 'whole person review' - it would not exist at all.

For me, however, the most important thing is not race, but ECs, or, extracurriculars. Holistic admissions takes an interest in your really riveting experience as chair of your school's knitting society, that you have an investment portfolio that outperforms billion-dollar hedge funds, or that you write for this really amazing publication called The Fledger. Whatever it is, holistic admissions want to know, and so that's why they are so much better than the evaluation methods of UK universities. Focusing solely on test scores and classroom performance, in my opinion, is a massive blunder. UK admissions take no, if very little, interest in how extracurricular, creative and elective pursuits can contribute to a student's academic career. I mean sure, they consider your role in school clubs and all that, but they don't take a look at the really amazing things students may be doing outside of the school halls. William R. Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions at Harvard, shared my sentiment when he wrote for the Irish Times back in 2013: Every country must do everything in its power to make the most of the talents of all its young people. Right now the UK is not doing that.

In fact, such a narrow, or, dare I say it boring, view of applicants is exactly the reason why students end up studying for degrees they wish they hadn't, and land in careers that they don't enjoy. The focus of UK admissions processes on grades pushes students into thinking that they must play to their strengths in order to succeed at uni, and not follow their passions. This is far from what we ought to be doing. Instead, admissions processes should encourage students to take on higher education that suits their passions and what they actually enjoy. Creative, passionate and excited students can be cultivated into diverse, versatile and thriving citizens later on. We have yet to recognise this.

This is why holistic admissions are the way forward for us. We must appreciate the full diversity of talent that is on offer in our country - that which we are not exploiting through our current admissions processes. We must see students as not just that, but people with a broad range of interests, passions, experiences and futures. After all, they are our future, and they will lead us into a greener, more progressive and brighter world. Here's to them, the future.

Archie Rankin
Archie Rankin

A young, pen-wielding Liberal with intellectual curiosities in all things politics, with huge appetites for history, philosophy and economics. Committed to making a positive difference for young people in my role as Associate Editor & Innovation Lead, constantly seeking out new ideas and approaches to drive innovation and progress.

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