The Relevance of Mission to Admissions Decisions

A student’s academic record will always be the most important qualifier for admission to an elite institution. But applicants aren’t accepted solely because they have excellent academic records because more students have these qualifications than can be admitted. Therefore, attention is increasingly focused on nonacademic indicators, as revealed in the personal statement, essays, and interviews, in selecting the small percentage of applicants who will be accepted.

At IvySelect, we assist our students in selecting 12 or 13 elite institutions to which to apply, all being desirable from the student’s perspective. We help students understand the unique aspects of each university to which they apply and how they “fit” at each school. This, in turn, demonstrates to a specific college how the student will contribute to the lifeblood of the university, satisfying the school’s institutional priorities and its mission.

The mission statements of top-tier institutions differ. This means that they don’t all have the same profile of an ideal applicant. As the legal scholar Ronald Dworkin put it, there is “no combination of abilities and skills and traits that constitutes ‘merit’ in the abstract.” The admissions office of each institution decides what combination of academic qualifications and ancillary attributes constitute sufficient merit in their ongoing efforts to improve their student body.

Let’s consider the mission statements of two Ivy League schools, both among the nation’s top universities. Yale states that its mission is “To seek exceptionally promising students of all backgrounds and to educate them, through mental discipline and social experience, to develop their intellectual, moral, civic and creative capacities to the fullest.” The mission of Harvard College is “To educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” Obviously, it would be difficult for an applicant to satisfy both missions with identical applications.

A school’s admissions policy flows from its mission. A mission statement doesn’t enable you to understand the complex mechanics of admissions, but it is essential that you demonstrate that you understand what makes each school unique and how you will fit within the campus culture. This demonstration can have a real impact in helping you standout from your fellow applicants. IvySelect can be instrumental in solving this puzzle for each of your target schools.

In developing an application that demonstrates that you understand the strengths of a particular school and how you fit within it, reading a college’s mission statement can provide a jumping off point. For example, Harvard states the following on a page titled “What We Look For” in the admissions section of their website: “We seek to identify students who will be the best educators of one another and their professors—individuals who will inspire those around them during their college years and beyond.” They then list 21 questions that applicants should ask themselves to determine if they’re a fit for the school. Although a few of the questions may provide helpful guidance to an applicant, others are too vague to be answered, such as:

  • Have you been stretching yourself?
  • How have you used your time?
  • Where will you be in one, five, or 25 years? Will you contribute something to those around you?
  • What sort of human being are you now? What sort of human being will you be in the future?
  • Are you a late bloomer?

Officially, these aren’t questions that applicants need to answer in their application; they’re among the questions that the admissions officers ask themselves about prospective students. It’s always a good idea to make your key points so clear that admissions officers, who have many applications to review and limited time to do so, will pick up on them.

Even those who have a role in making admissions decisions can find this frustrating. According to Rebecca Zwick in the New York Times, a former Berkeley applications reader told her that because of the lack of explicit rules for judging candidates, “The process of detecting objective factors of advantage becomes tricky.”

Sociological research suggests that the fuzzier the admissions criteria, the greater the disadvantage suffered by those unfamiliar with a particular school’s culture. If you lack an understanding of what drives the selection process at an elite school that appeals to you, reliance on the expertise of IvySelectmakes sense. We help lift the veil of secrecy from what most students and parents regard as an impenetrable mystery.