Brown prank incites admissions questions

The faculty in the math department at Brown University received an e-mail April 1, just revealed to the media, that suggested a random admissions policy for 6 percent of the incoming first-year class. Professors were so amazed by the news that many of them failed to see the link at the end of the e-mail that led to an April Fools message. The fact that a number of professors believed the e-mail, and even praised it, is significant in that it brings up many questions about today’s admissions policies, particularly at a year when Ivy League and other top-tier university admissions rates are at an all-time low.

Richard Schwartz, a professor of mathematics at Brown, was the source behind the e-mail, according to Inside Higher Ed. Calling himself part of a University Admissions Advisory Committee, Schwartz was curious how his colleagues would react to an implementation of merit-blind admissions policy for a portion of first-years. Schwartz’s e-mail cited an existing policy at Harvard University that had allowed for the admission of 3 percent of its first-year class.

According to the e-mail, Harvard would be expanding the policy to 6 percent of first-year in the coming admissions year, and Princeton and Columbia Universities would be following the trend. Thus, Brown would be as well. All of this information was completely false.

Schwartz justified such moves with a made-up internal study in which he measured the college achievement of first-years in his introductory math class in comparison with their SAT scores and high school GPAs and found a lack of correlation.

However, although the end of the e-mail included a website where more information could be found, it appears that many professors stopped reading at this point, and thus failed to go the site and see Schwartz’s message revealing the e-mail as an April Fools joke.

Schwartz received a number of e-mails with comments about the supposed new policy, according to Inside Higher Ed.

What surprised Schwartz the most was that not all of the comments were negative ones.
According to student newspaper The Brown Daily Herald, math professor Jeffrey Brock, who had been rejected from the university as an undergraduate, said that such a policy might have actually allowed him admission.

Brock was only one of many professors to be fooled by the news.

According to the same source, another professor of mathematics, Thomas Goodwillie, said he was fooled by the use of the big names Harvard and Princeton — he felt that because they were doing it, it was more acceptable.

Ironically, it is these same Ivy League colleges that currently have record low admission rates, with neither of them breaking double digits.

Harvard’s and Princeton’s admittance rates this year were 7.1 and 9.25 percent, respectively, according to The New York Times.

The trend has not been unique to the Ivy League schools, however.

This year at Carnegie Mellon, 22,027 students applied, and only 6502 were accepted, representing a record-low admissions rate of 29.5 percent.

“It’s a joke, but I sort of feel like there’s some truth to it,” Schwartz said in the Herald of his motivations behind the e-mail. “I think that’s why it fooled people.”

Schwartz had first come up with the idea when discussing the difficulty of graduate school admissions with a colleague; both felt that there are just too many talented students to choose from.

According to Schwartz’s e-mail, applicant pools are so filled with talented students that it is impossible to choose between them. Additionally, Schwartz argued that admissions judging categories such as SAT scores and high school grades are not indicators of college success.

While Michael Steidel, director of admissions, was amused by the joke pulled by the Brown professor, he does not think any similar plans will ever be seriously considered at Carnegie Mellon.

“While it’s true that above a certain quality level, any applicant can be academically successful here, what we’re looking for is a match: students who will thrive academically and make a difference in the community. That’s not so random,” Steidel explained.

Steidel spoke of the many initiatives established by the university to ensure that students are not here by some random choice of their own or their families’, but rather by a well-thought-out personal decision.

A new volunteer program, Carnegie Mellon Ambassadors, is a group of students charged with interacting with prospective first-years, showing them the different aspects of life at the university. Ambassadors host overnights every weeknight during April, in addition to sleeping bag weekends, and have a program called Take a Student to Eat (TASTE), in which current students take admitted students out to lunch, giving them a forum in which to ask questions and learn about the university.

“Ambassadors show admitted students the best of Carnegie Mellon, using student volunteers to show the wide variety of students and student activities here,” said Mallory Elbert, a first-year mechanical engineering major and vice president of admitted student events for the Ambassadors.

Elbert says that feedback for the Ambassadors program has been positive; the admitted students are curious about different aspects of student life, and they feel it is helpful to get the information from current students.

Steidel insisted that such programs ensure that Carnegie Mellon is the right match for the student.

“There’s no doubt that we’ve got the right paradigm here at Carnegie Mellon to help make Carnegie Mellon one of the most interesting and exciting places in the world to have an undergraduate experience,” Steidel said.

According to Elbert, a visit to campus or overnight trip can show prospective first-years that they were chosen to be admitted because of their merit and specific characteristics, not just because their names were picked out of a hat.

If you are interested in working as a Carnegie Mellon Ambassador, contact Mallory Elbert at melbert@.