Recently I spoke at an event organized by the Oxford University North American Office and held at the Washington International School. Intended to recruit U.S. high school students, several alumni were asked to talk about their time at Oxford.
A week before, we were sent a list of Oxford’s “selection criteria,” which was also given to the audience of 160 prospective applicants and parents. I paraphrase some of the criteria below, which some may find surprising:
- Oxford looks for academic achievement and academic potential. Although we take many all-round students who captain sports teams, run volunteer societies, and write plays, we do not select students for their extra-curricular achievements or their leadership.
- Oxford does not consider high school Grade Point Average (GPA) for admissions, and relies instead on standardized test scores.
- Oxford does not reserve “legacy” places. Many prospective students from the U.S. will be used to the culture of giving and the strong respect for family links often present in U.S. universities. Giving to Oxford and admission are entirely separate; places are not offered on a “hereditary” basis or in light of a gift from a relative.
- No sports scholarships, which are very common in the U.S.
- Oxford does not accept extra letters of recommendation, videos, CDs, or other materials that often appear in U.S. applications.
Hallelujah, I thought: What an admirable emphasis on academics over “soft” qualities that dumb down U.S. college admissions and, in the case of “legacies,” can reflect outright bribery.
And sometimes absurdity. As noted by the New Republic in 2013, Harvard College claims to seek “maturity, character, leadership, self-confidence, warmth of personality, sense of humor, energy, concern for others and grace under pressure.”
Wow. I can hear the anxious parents: “Junior, take a break from SAT review and figure out how to convey warmth!”
There was an elephant in the room at the Oxford talk that went unmentioned: race. My observation while at Oxford and in keeping up with its admission policies since graduating in 1994: the university does not consider the race of applicants. To its immense credit, Oxford appears colorblind, while racial preferences are of course institutionalized in the concept of “Affirmative Action” at elite U.S. colleges.
But what about “legacy admissions?” You mean if an old alumnus paid to have a library built at Oxford (or merely made consistent donations), this generosity won’t enhance admission chances of his underqualified offspring? Sorry, not at Oxford…at least not under the current meritocratic regime.
Legacies in the U.S. are even more problematic than racial preferences, inspired mostly to encourage alumni donations: Cold cash to triple or quadruple Junior’s chances…at top colleges, 35 percent is a common admissions rate for legacies, versus less than 10 percent for non-legacies. This long has been the dubious American way.
Skimming publications of my U.S. universities, Columbia and Penn, I now look suspiciously at annual lists of recently accepted alumni children. Though Oxford had legacies in the past, I have never seen its magazines boast about “generations of Oxonians” and, while there, knew of no one admitted based on “heredity.”
No athletic scholarships at Oxford?
Sports are popular there, ranging from the dilettantish to the demanding (rowing, rugby, soccer). The latter were played seriously, but by students whose primary prowess was academic. Nonetheless, it clearly doesn’t hurt admissions chances at Oxford to be an outstanding athlete, particularly in a high-profile sport.
The situation is similar in the Ivy League and academically elite Division III schools: ostensibly no sports scholarships, yet superb athletes still have a decided admissions edge as long as they are academically gifted. This appears fair; if someone has a first-rate brain, other abilities add to their luster.
No high school GPA?
It seems narrow that Oxford is indifferent to what applicants achieved over a decade at school, preferring to rely on exam scores. To judge British applicants, Oxford also uses exams. In some ways, performance on these or SATs reflects skills that schools develop. But I think a student’s record there also matters, because getting top grades usually indicates diligence…a crucial quality for college that some excellent exam-takers lack.
One clear Oxford strength: Depending on the subject applied to, Oxford invites from 30 percent to 90 percent of candidates to be interviewed by faculty. Why shouldn’t U.S. college applicants be asked to do the same? Consider how vital interviews are for getting a job or other desirable place almost anywhere. Indeed, at age four, my daughter was assessed in person on how well she interacted with other children and potential teachers at a private Kindergarten to which she was applying.
Despite the time and effort involved, elite U.S. universities could invite in their stronger applicants. (Some already conduct occasional interviews, but these are rarely critical for admission.)
In-depth interviews would allow admissions personnel to do the following:
- Assess how students think (rather than what they know); Oxford maintains that this is the most important point of interviews, and is far easier to do in person than via highly polished written material submitted by applicants.
- Ask questions that demand applicants stretch their minds and reveal their academic potential.
- Get a feeling for intangible but crucial intellectual qualities that cannot be conveyed in written submissions.
- Refine their opinion of borderline candidates.
- Determine if applicants have done adequate research to know that the college is a genuinely good fit.
Perhaps most important: A frequent concern among U.S. admissions officers is that parents or hired experts help applicants write their personal statements and other parts of applications. Such outside help obviously isn’t available during one-on-one interviews, where puffery and phoniness can (gently) be exposed.
I encourage university gatekeepers to consider the issues I’ve raised. Discussing them can only improve U.S. admissions policies and the quality of incoming college classes.
Thomas Dineen lives in Baltimore and works as a securities regulator near DC. Since graduating from Columbia, Oxford, and Penn Law, he has been fascinated by the contrasts of U.S. and U.K. universities. His interests include martial arts (iaido, jujutsu), triathlon (slow), recording music, and trying to prevent his c. 1870s house in North Baltimore from falling apart.