by Rob Henderson
Tuesday, 25
January 2022
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13:00

Elite universities should stop prizing victimhood

Embroidering stories about hardship is easier for affluent candidates
by Rob Henderson
Credit: Getty

As a former foster kid myself, I felt a strange combination of emotions while reading a recent story in The Chronicle of Higher Education about a student named Mackenzie Fierceton, at the University of Pennsylvania.

Fierceton apparently embellished her background in her application to the Ivy League university and, later, for a Rhodes Scholarship. Fierceton described herself as a first-generation college applicant who came from a low-income, foster-care background. The Chronicle reports that although she spent her final year of high school in foster care, the student had grown up in an affluent suburb of St. Louis with her mother, a radiologist, and attended private schools. The story detailed how in her Rhodes statement, Fierceton wrote emotionally about the turmoil that she and her foster siblings had to go through. “Now, Chandra is institutionalized for the seventh time. Darren and Will are incarcerated. Casey is terminally ill,” she writes. “Why does this keep happening to us?”

I don’t want to contest the truthfulness of Fierceton’s story. Though for what it’s worth, the University of Pennsylvania has decided to withhold her degree and she has subsequently withdrawn from the Rhodes Scholarship. Instead, I want to highlight an overlooked problem that arises as a result of college admissions offices increasingly prioritising victimhood narratives in their admissions decisions.

I was a genuine first-generation college student from a low-income background who spent years in foster care. When preparing my college essays, I wrote about my unstable childhood — if nothing else, it was a chance to explain why my grades in my high school transcript were so abysmal. I sent early drafts to people who had already managed to get into college for feedback. They urged me to add more “colour” and “creativity” to my writing. Gradually, I got the point: I couldn’t just relay what had happened in my life. I had to write about how these experiences affected me, what I did about them, and what they said about my character.

In her fascinating 2013 book Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs, Northwestern University Professor Lauren Rivera documented hiring practices at top-tier firms. She wrote that employers seek out compelling stories involving adversity, with “personal experiences as a series of progressive decisions driven by intrinsic motives and the pursuit of personal passion and meaning.”

In other words, the story must be propelled by the candidate. Things can’t just happen to you —you have to make things happen. Moreover, adversity isn’t enough. Elite employers want to see how such suffering reveals or cultivates desired qualities like resilience, curiosity, or empathy.

Though Professor Rivera’s book is about top firms, her observations could easily apply to top universities. Some might ask why universities don’t just select students on merit, but the fact is, Fierceton had a stellar academic record (“one B-plus in chemistry short of straight A’s” according to The Chronicle), as do most students at Ivy League colleges. Yet in today’s hyper-competitive admissions cycles, academic excellence often only gets one’s foot in the door. In 1990, the acceptance rate at Harvard was 18 percent. In 2021 it was a mere 3.43%.

And so universities have decided to focus on adversity as a way to identify talented or extraordinary applicants. But this strategy gives affluent people an advantage. Ironically, the most well-off can figure out the ways they are marginalised and communicate their supposed disadvantages more fluently. Marginalised people often have difficulty detailing their hardships in a way that affluent people can understand.

As colleges continue to ditch standardised testing requirements, victimhood narratives in college essays will further proliferate because applicants will aim to stand out amid all the undifferentiated academic excellence.

Naturally, applicants from the most affluent families will excel at this game. They already do. In fact, a recent study at Stanford found that family income is more highly correlated with admissions essay content than with SAT scores. Presumably, applicants from well-to-do backgrounds are especially adept at crafting their essays in ways that please admissions committees.

The emphasis on victimhood backfires, creating more obstacles for truly disadvantaged applicants. After all, essays are subjective and their evaluation relies on subtle class-coded markers of culture and taste. Test scores and grades, in contrast, are more objective. Embroidering stories about hardship in the “right” way is easier for affluent candidates than for those less fortunate.

If the aim of adversity narratives is to identify disadvantaged individuals and help them excel, then we should bear in mind that such individuals won’t necessarily write about their lives in ways that conform to our expectations. If someone discusses their disadvantages in an understated manner, or in ways we aren’t used to, then perhaps those are exactly the individuals we should pay more attention to. And if someone is especially adept at accentuating their marginalisation, then that person may not be as marginalised as they claim.

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George Glashan
George Glashan
8 months ago

great wee article. i think universities have always been finishing schools for the elite, the meritocracy bit post world war 1 & 2 was the exception rather than the rule, it only happened because so many died in the war these institutions had no choice but to expand their criteria of entry to the capable rather than just the rich. Things are just going back to they way they were before.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
8 months ago
Reply to  George Glashan

Historically the Church and aristocrats sent bright boys to university such as William de Wykeham and Cardinal Wolsey who was the son of a butcher. Many public and grammar schools plus universities had scholarships which enabled people to obtain degrees. Post WW2 many people from poor backgrounds entered grammar schools and went to university. The problem is that many primary schools are run by left wing teachers who do not teach to high enough standards for pupils to pass 11+ exams to enter grammar schools or win scholarships to public schools.
Historically many Direct Grant Grammar schools such as Manchester and King Edward VIth Birmingham had junior departments which enabled pupils to enter at the age of 8 or 9 years. A friend who attended KEB in the 1950s was taught maths by a Cambridge Wrangler!
Historically about 25% of the population attended grammar schools and 7- 10 % public schools. The lie was that every secondary modern could be turned into a comprehensive school which could provide the same high level of scholarship as Winchester or Manchester Grammar.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
8 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

The lowest IQ which can realistically manage education from University is 115. This means the universities have been lowered to fit the average – If sports had to take in anyone in the top 50% of the able – imagine what a farce watching sports would be.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
8 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

In 1997 in the UK Blair decided that 50% had to go to university, but until 1989 we had had two school qialifications sat at 16. One, the GCE, took you to A-Levels at 18 which were the admissions requirement for university. The other, CSE, was a lower standard intended to ensure that you at least had passes in something even if you weren’t up to a GCE.
Until they were merged into the GCSE, more than 50% took CSEs rather than GCEs. So in 1997 Blair was saying that people who 8 years before were not considered A Level material were going to be attending university. They couldn’t pass a GCE but they could get a degree.
You 115 IQ point is interesting. In IQ one sigma is about 15 points, so if you need to be above that to take a degree, that’s only about 16% of the population, rather than 50%.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
8 months ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I thought to enter a Red Brick it was an IQ of 135 or is that pre 1960 standards?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
8 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

No idea, Charles. But for IQ, one standard deviation is 15 points, so if the mean is 100, 115+ would be into the second, 130+ into the third, and so on.
The first standard deviation is around 67% of the sample, the second takes in 95%, the third 99.5%. So on the right hand side of the distribution, 135 would be the top 0.25% of the population. That sounds perhaps a shade too exclusive, although if the mean is (as I have read) now about 105 rather than 100, it’s the second sigma and hence the top 2.5%, which sounds more plausible.
IIRC about 4% of the population went to university before universities were wrecked. That would include the 6th, 5th, 4th, 3rd and the top of the second sigma. Your figure of 135 could perhaps be the average undergraduate IQ, rather than the minimum? It would mean that quite a few people with an IQ of “only” 130 or so would get in, which is still high and which, averaged with the handful – one or two per year I guess – with IQs of 190+, would get you to your 135 value overall.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
8 months ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Do not have enough details. The 135 figure came from a comment someone made. Just taiking with my Mother who sat Ordinary Leaving Certs in the late 1940s and her friends who went to university, what is noticeable is the massive decline in subjects such as Latin and French. A family freind who taught History at school, not university, could translate from Latin, French ( early ), Anglo Saxon and Celtic.How many History graduates after three years could translate Tacitus or La Morte De Arthur ?

Tom Krehbiel
Tom Krehbiel
8 months ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Is a sigma the same as a standard deviation? I’ve read the word “sigma” a few times recently, and am not sure what it means.

Tom Scott
Tom Scott
7 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

So everyone should have their IQ tested before applying to university?

Last edited 7 months ago by Tom Scott
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
8 months ago
Reply to  George Glashan

The entire university system has been wrecked by bringing in the masses. Student Loans are the worst thing ever done to the young. First they injected $ Trillions into the system so the costs of university inflated 3X – then young leave with huge debt which stops them getting married, buying a house, and having children. We are making university graduates give up children – WHICH are vital, they are the ones who need to be having children – not unskilled foreigners being allowed in as there are not enough workers being raised.

Also grade inflation – most teachers now days are the ones who cannot get real degrees – as half young people go to university the teachers are the bottom of that group – and so education is destroyed.

Universities should take in less than 20% of the population, and give them a real education at low cost. The rest can go to trade schools and get real skills.

Tom Scott
Tom Scott
7 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Trade schools? Is this a new idea?

D Ward
D Ward
7 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Ironically, one of the sons of the architect of this disastrous policy (Bliar) earns a fortune advising potential students NOT to go to university. You couldn’t make it up.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
8 months ago

Broken families, single parent households…..

This is my constant refrain about the destruction of the Western civilization, the breakdown in family.

No men controlling boys – the system does not work without men keeping boys in check, otherwise they just learn from each other and never really grow up – every study shout this – but it is too wrong to actually say and act on – because wokeness.

I work construction and the old guys who keep the young guys in line, teaching them work and of life – I see how vital this is. If the construction site was run by liberal women it would be ‘Lord of the Flies’.

Andrea X
Andrea X
8 months ago

Fantastic article. Thank you!

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
8 months ago

Why don’t these universities just get the names of all the potential students who meet their acedemic criteria, write them on bits of paper, put them in a hat, and pull the names out one-by-one? This way no-one is given preferental treatment – the disadvantaged and the advantaged, male and female, all ethnicities, all sexualities (and whatever other identities there are) atre all served the same. Job done.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
8 months ago

same with job applicants – just names in hats, and the one picked gets the job.

Will be a disaster, but fair.

Tom Scott
Tom Scott
7 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Based on what criteria?
This assumes more names in the hat than there are available places, and that everyone in the hat will have the appropriate entry qualifications?

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
8 months ago

Because they’re not trying to do what you think they’re trying to do with their admissions systems.

Keith Jefferson
Keith Jefferson
8 months ago

I was also a first-generation university applicant from a low-income background, though not from foster care – just from a poor family. A provisional place was offered based on expected A level results supplied by my teachers, although my teachers would have had little knowledge about my home life (this was early 1980’s, when the state didn’t interfere in family life). My place was only confirmed once my A level results came in. The whole process was based on objective data – exam results. There was no need – or mechanism – to plead a special case; the idea that special consideration should be given to applicants based on their social or economic background did not exist. And that is the way it should be. Quite frankly, I would have felt insulted, and even ashamed, if my place at university was obtained just because I was a poor kid. Why do young people today not see such shame? I half suspect that the genuine poor kids that are trying their best would actually feel a little shame if they knew that they were let in based on their background. As for the richer kids that are swinging the system by claiming ‘victimhood’, I have nothing but contempt.

Saul D
Saul D
8 months ago

Companies are looking for are decision makers and fighters – people who create change. Adversity and over-coming-it proves mental capability when everyone has the same stellar academic ability. By contrast, conveyor-belt students have never had to take a decision, or to overcome anything.
Your ability to climb out of the hole is then more important than the hole. Unfortunately, some people are so fixated on shouting about their hole, they never find a way to get out.

Sean Penley
Sean Penley
8 months ago

The emphasis on victimhood backfires, creating more obstacles for truly disadvantaged applicants.”
That assumes helping disadvantaged was the true intention, rather than simply looking like they were helping them.

James Joyce
James Joyce
8 months ago

This guy is a really smart and interesting guy. I would encourage the UnHerd crowd to listen to his podcast on HONESTLY, entitled “Luxury beliefs.”
Although I agree with his points, this article just doesn’t do much for me. I don’t disagree with him, but I find the article less than brilliant, perhaps because of space concerns. But the podcast really is brilliant, and goes into great and needed detail.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
8 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

So this guy tells us how he was able to explain his childhood adversity, and gain some advantage as a consequence, but he then describes how it’s wrong to do so. Isn’t that just pulling-up-the-ladder type hypocrisy?
Like those wealthy socialists who have benefitted from private education but, for the ‘good of society’ think this was wrong and that all private schools should be closed down?

James Joyce
James Joyce
8 months ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

The difference is that he really suffered and pulled himself up by his bootstraps. He earned it, didn’t fake it.

Sean Penley
Sean Penley
8 months ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

It comes to me like he’s pointing out that he did that because he had to, but he doesn’t think this is really what universities should be encouraging. So yes, he used a flaw in the system to succeed, but he’s acknowledging it is a flaw that should be fixed.

DA Johnson
DA Johnson
8 months ago
Reply to  Sean Penley

I agree, and I admire Mr. Henderson’s honesty in admitting how he gamed the system. He did indeed come from the background that he described but was lucky enough to have the writing skill to present this in a compelling way to his Admissions office. It’s an accurate and important insight that “Marginalised people often have difficulty detailing their hardships in a way that affluent people can understand.”

Andrea X
Andrea X
8 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

Just looked it up. Thanks.

George Glashan
George Glashan
8 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

do you have a link?

Andrea X
Andrea X
8 months ago
Reply to  George Glashan

Just google it. I found it straight away.

George Glashan
George Glashan
8 months ago
Reply to  Andrea X

Thanks Andrea, i don’t use google and its not showing on the search engine i do use. So i asked for a link, its good form to provide a link to things that are being recommended.

James Joyce
James Joyce
8 months ago
Reply to  George Glashan

Here you go. Excuse the bad form please….

George Glashan
George Glashan
8 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

thanks James

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
8 months ago

In my generation or just older, it was possible for people to have lost one or both grandfathers in the First World War and fathers in the Second. I know of at least one member of my extended family who did but was able to go to university via a grammar school.
Many of my contemporaries who attended that boy’s’ grammar school, founded in 1492, are now living in it; a listed building, it has been turned into an upmarket retirement village. My old school, the girls’ equivalent, has been obliterated.
Rather than giving people special treatment because of their ‘victimhood’, they should be enabled to succeed and overcome challenges because of their abilities.

Douglas H
Douglas H
8 months ago

Great article, thanks!

Lee Jones
Lee Jones
8 months ago

The rich and the powerful have always manipulated the system to give their children preference, this will not change. Revolutions and post war social upheavals often instigate a temporary change, but it never lasts long, human nature always triumphs.

Andrea X
Andrea X
8 months ago
Reply to  Rob Wright

That is a very interesting read. Thanks!

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
8 months ago

I’m sure there is a thriving business writing compelling essays for these applicants.

Dominic A
Dominic A
8 months ago

I miss the days when good ideas came out of the USA.

Rob Wright
Rob Wright
8 months ago

The Bar Weiss podcast. ihttps://open.spotify.com/episode/6PfE2zsg7SWI27vBjsZBPT?si=ushb-5kRQbCupz46Fs1BRg&utm_source=copy-link