OPINION: USC admissions process needs more transparency

Opening with footage of Doheny Library, there is no question that last week’s “Saturday Night Live” skit titled “College Admissions,” which was cut from the on-air broadcast but published online, was a parody on the noted inconsistencies that lie within USC’s college admissions process.

In the skit, after a character who appears to be former USC senior athletics official Donna Heinel (played by cast member Aidy Bryant) persuades the admission team to admit two academically underqualified rowers, actress Sandra Oh asks: “Do you ever feel like we’re admitting too many Asian students?” The jab at affirmative action initiates laughter in the studio. From bribery to misused affirmative action, the skit highlights all the possible loopholes and biases that have plagued the admissions processes for universities.

What’s worse is that this skit could very well be a reflection of what goes on behind closed doors. The line drawn between parody and reality is muddled because the admissions process is so secretive. These characters seem to be extreme cases, but as Heinel proved, admissions-related corruption did fly under the radar at USC.

USC needs to clearly define what a “holistic review” of applications entails. At the very least, the University should detail what factors the USC admissions team values and how these factors play into the profile of an exceptional candidate.

The USC Admission page states that the admissions team “[conducts] a comprehensive, holistic review of [applications] to consider academic and personal characteristics.”

“Holistic” is vague. “Characteristics” is vague. The first step to increasing transparency is to clarify the language used in the admissions process.

USC Admission can expand this statement in the form of a rubric — identifying which characteristics are most highly valued and looking into how officers assess each students’ “performance in school, the rigor of your program, writing skills and test scores … personal qualities, as revealed in community involvement, leadership and achievements.”

Another solution is to provide examples of anonymous students who have been admitted and detailed descriptions of what made them exceptional. When pushed to explain what about candidates made them stand out, officers will have to tighten their language, rather than simply “liking [candidates] a lot,” as the characters on “SNL” did.

USC does disclose its matriculated student profiles — average GPAs, test scores and high schools are all available for prospective students to scour and compare. But this is not the same as an individual profile — two students with the same GPAs and test scores may have differing admissions decisions, and on the surface, it would be difficult to identify what made one stand out more than the other.

If USC released anonymous profiles with extracurricular lists, sample essays and leadership roles come every admissions cycle, the admissions process would be held to a more consistent standard and therefore provide prospective students a better look into what makes a Trojan.

Some may argue that releasing these “student profiles” cultivates a mindset of score-oriented academic achievement. But sites like College Confidential, Reddit and Quora are already filled with the same kinds of deliberations. If a university provided individual anonymous profiles, admissions forum debates now have more accurate examples of what admissions teams are looking for.

While the USC Admission blog highlights communities on campus like Questbridge scholars and the University’s Multicultural Recruitment Team, there isn’t much discussion on what grants a particular student admission and how the admissions team conducts the “holistic review” process.

Early blog posts, like one from 2011 titled “Quality, not Quantity,” identify that “a great letter of recommendation provides insight into the personal and academic character of a student.”

However, the post doesn’t explain how this factor is weighed against others considered in the application.

Comedy is comedy. It’s absurd, it’s extreme and it’s created for the sake of a good laugh. “SNL” writers likely have no idea what goes on in USC Admission deliberations, but that’s exactly the problem. The admissions process lacks transparency, and when a scandal forces corruption out of the deliberation room and into the limelight, comedy skits prove to be not so extreme after all. Students need definable goals, and admission to USC is proving to not have clear expectations.