Meritocracy through the Lens of College Applications

Leina Pham-The & Dahyun Oh ('25)

As the university application submission season is upon us, the class of 2022 is currently  navigating, what is in many cases, a nebulous and bewildering process. Alice, one of the Seisen seniors, has shared that it is a very stressful experience, especially when preparing personal essays that will be read by college admissions officers. However, as much as the seniors are putting their best effort into their college application, a question arises: is this arduous application process really fair when selecting the most appropriate candidate from the vast number of applicants? According to a study conducted by NYU, only 5~6% of the applicants get accepted into top-tier institutions. This leads us to a question: what kind of information do universities use to select the applicants? In this article, we will explore the pros and cons of this process and whether it fairly assesses the potential of students; the merit and demerit of having standardized tests; and the roles of affirmative action, legacy admissions, and socio-economic background in determining where students ultimately end up.  


The Case For Meritocracy

The word “Meritocracy” itself comes from the Latin word “Merit,” meaning to earn, and the Greek word “Kratos,” meaning strength or power. Meritocracy is a belief that society should be governed by people with talents and wisdom, not by their economic status. Just like the words define itself, meritocracy is present in our current society as a system where people acquire their economic status, or get accepted into a university based largely on their assumed skills and talents demonstrated in high stakes examinations. The most common methods to determine such social positions are the standardized tests such as the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) or ACT (American College Test), although they are gradually being phased out.


Why does the meritocracy get a bad rap? 

In theory, we consider meritocracy to be an ideal that is supposed to fairly promote individuals to positions of influence and esteem based on their talents and abilities. However, in reality, many experts contend that it is the economic elite that perpetuates outsized control and membership in many liberal democracies, and not necessarily those who are best suited. This issue has become more acute in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and in the push for more social justice accountability in many elite post-secondary institutions of higher learning – many of which will be considering applications from our Seisen seniors. Social justice activists contend that the college admission process is long overdue for reform, as it promotes economic elitism, white supremacy and systemic racism. Data from the Teachers College Press suggest that the SAT favours students with high economic status, as more privileged students perform better than those with low-income backgrounds. In response, many school administrations agreed to deemphasize the SAT as an entrance ticket to universities. The San Francisco Board of Education took a step further, by replacing standardized tests with a lottery system. The reason for this phenomenon is that academic extracurriculars (cram schools, SAT/ACT camps, and private tutors) – are only accessible to wealthy families to train students for important examinations. Furthermore, these wealthy families predominantly consist of white families due to the racial wealth gap in the United States. The real challenge in meritocracy is ensuring all students have equal starting lines (Donovan, 2020) so that standardized tests will be “fair” considering the tests that take a ‘one size fits all’ approach tend to ignore factors such as neurodiversity and socioeconomic advantages of some test takers. 


What Meritocracy really is

With rising numbers of schools criticizing the current system of meritocracy and searching for an alternative system, we should question whether meritocracy really is just a “tool of White male privilege” (Adrian, 2021). In reality, meritocracy also gives some opportunities to marginalized identities and even economically disadvantaged students. For example, the number of Hispanic and Black children identified as talented increased in 2005 as a result of incorporating screening tests in elementary schools. This indicates that standardized tests help society discover hidden talents that may have gone unnoticed without such assessments. Moreover, the notion of meritocracy also guides the country’s economy. Bruno Pellegrino of the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and Luigi Zingales of the Booth School conducted a study that ranks economically advanced countries. The data on the World Economic Survey displayed a strong, positive correlation between a country’s economy and “meritocracy score” determined by the data from the World Economic Survey and the country’s economy. The countries with higher meritocracy scores such as Sweden, the United States and Japan (the points are accumulated by the question such as “​​are managers rewarded and promoted according to productivity?”) tend to have higher productivity and a more stable economy.


As seniors prepare for colleges, affirmative action will heavily impact how their applications are evaluated. Affirmative action refers to the policies that  favor the underrepresented groups in workplaces or schools. Yet, this may not be working as its original intention has been. According to “Education researchers reveal why far more girls apply to college than boys: Schools prioritize organization and rule-following,” US colleges accept more female students than male students. The article says that this phenomenon occurs because more female students apply for college, but the schools want to keep the proportions of sex even. Another article, “How elite US schools give preference to wealthy and white 'legacy' applicants” says that US universities discriminate against Asian American students. Harvard gives lower personal ratings to applicants of Asian ethnicity, restricting the number of Asian ethnic students in the school. Clearly, this affects the future of Seisen students, who are living in Asia and are female.

One senior, Ashita, stated that affirmative action should be only used in certain situations, stating,

“yes, I agree that affirmative action should be used to diversify the race represented in universities, however, I do not think it should be the only deciding factor.”

This would require college admissions officers to take a more nuanced approach to considering race or socio-economimc background, and not merely see them as filling racial quotas, thereby undermining the notion of meritocratic fairness. 


The Case Against Meritocracy

In 2019, 33 parents (including prominent Hollywood actresses and business figures) were accused of a college admissions bribery scandal. Albeit shocking, wealthy parents buying their children’s way into elite universities is not a rare phenomena; alumni donors commonly donate large sums of money to colleges to increase the chance of their children’s acceptance into the institution. US colleges’ preferences of legacy students is also lucid, with Harvard’s acceptance of legacy students being 33% compared to their overall acceptance of 6%. Recognizing the inequality, the majority of people were enraged and believed that these places should only be offered to bright students who supposedly deserve to study in elite universities. Their anger supports the throng’s belief that the society should provide opportunities based on individual merit. 


Many people deem that a meritocratic society is the final goal that our current society should look towards to achieve social equity and justice. The term “meritocracy” was first introduced in 1958 in The Rise of the Meritocracy by British sociologist Michael Young. It refers to a society that rewards people based on individual merits, notwithstanding uncontrollable factors such as personal background, race, and gender. Many politicians promote themselves by referring to the term “meritocracy.” Even former president Barack Obama referred to the pop lyric, “You can make it if you try” more than 140 times in his speeches; other politicians such as Tony Blair, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Ronald Reagan also frequently used the term in their speeches as well. These examples, again, reinforce the prevalent belief and desire for a meritocratic society. In theory, meritocracy is efficient, offering opportunities for individuals to climb the ladder as high as their ability will take them. From its description, this sounds like a utopia, but is it really?


Some experts suggest that the notion of meritocracy is illusory. It rewards those who have wealth and time to invest in education, and blatantly ignores the existence of systematic discrimination prevailing in society. It blinds the successful to the idea that their prominent status is earned by their hard work, while the less fortunate are simply lazy. It also convinces society that the poor or those who are financially unstable somehow deserve their suffering. However, meritocracy should not justify people’s unequal access to basic human needs such as healthcare, shelter, and food. Especially since meritocracy is a concept suggesting to reward the most industrious, which is heavily dependent on opportunities and privileges, a meritocratic society is certainly not a utopia. 


Contemporary society considers to embrace this ideal, prominent political figures continue to espouse and perpetuate the myth of meritocracy, reinforcing the idea that their success is earned purely by their own agency. The elites, who promote the total withdrawal of systematic discrimination of people based on uncontrollable factors (e.g. race, gender, etc.), are naive or ignorant to the corrosive effects of  educationism, which refers to the bias against the uneducated. Based on these ideas, political philosopher Michael Sandel criticizes meritocracy in his book The Tyranny of Merit. He highlights the consequences of the meritocratic hubris, explaining that the victory of Donald Trump in the presidential election and the BREXIT referendum was the result of the populist outbursts against the allegedly fair meritocracy. Sandel claims that these were the working class’s revolt against the elites who constantly looked down on them. Clearly, the people would not support a political notion that rewards the rich under the facade of being fair. 


Modern society, although ostensibly meritocratic, is patently technocratic and credentialistic. The society offers lucrative jobs only to the highly educated, and the elites hegemonize the uneducated; 95% in the US House of Representatives and 100% in the US Senate owned a Bachelor’s Degree or higher, while only 42% of US citizens aged 25 or above did. Even the Democratic Party, which represents the interests of the blue-collars, has only 9 members in the House without a college degree. People may think that this is rational, since the common perception is that the college graduates are more intelligent than the nongraduates. Nonetheless, some argue that college degree acquisition does not prove the intelligence of an individual. They say, for example, prominent political figures such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Harry Truman did not graduate from college. Yet, it should also be noted that these people were all born before the 20th century. Therefore, meritocracy certainly has flaws regardless of its intentions to create a fairer society. 


Meritocracy has its fair share of benefits and disadvantages. Different people standing on the different zones of the political spectrum have different views on meritocracy and its fairness. Nonetheless, meritocracy will impact many of us students in the near future. To ask about meritocracy’s role in  college admissions, we interviewed Ms. Lui, Seisen’s College Advisor. She stated that, “When discussing US admission, especially the higher-ranked universities, meritocracy still plays a role but not so much. This is because they have to consider many other factors such as diversity, interstate admissions, generation in their family attending college, and legacy. Therefore, in that sense, meritocracy doesn’t play a significant role. But if we are talking about countries like the UK and Japan, which are outside of the US, they have a high emphasis on academic scores and achievement. They don’t consider as many factors as the US.” Our Seisen seniors should recognize this illusion of meritocracy and temper their expectations that the college application process is completely transparent and fair.

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