Applying for college is hard. Every Amherst student remembers the frustration of studying for standardized tests, the stress of juggling application-boosting extracurriculars and, most of all, the disappointment of being rejected from Harvard. Once we get to college, most students want nothing more than to put that whole ordeal behind us. We have a duty, however, to look back into that traumatic part of our past and see the outrageous double standard between how Amherst treats its students and how it treats its applicants.
Over the last eighteen months, the college made a plethora of decisions intended to help its students cope with the pandemic. Among these were radical changes to the (now partially defunct) Flexible Grading Option, which essentially allowed any student to take a pass/fail on any course at semester’s end. Many departments have also reduced their course requirements, and during the past two semesters, the recommended course load fell from four to three.
With all these reduced requirements, the college sent a clear message: it doesn’t want students obsessing over classes and grades while a pandemic disrupts lives around the world. It is more important, in other words, that students take care of themselves and each other than that they focus on achieving perfect academics.
At the same time, however, students applying to Amherst during the pandemic faced a far less charitable philosophy. Amherst admissions have undergone no major pandemic changes, with the exception of a new short essay about the pandemic (itself a measure to lower the pandemic’s presence elsewhere in the application) and making the SAT and ACT optional. In fact, the class of 2025 was the most selective in Amherst’s history, with an acceptance rate of just 8 percent. While the administration has encouraged Amherst students to take it easy, any slip up in GPA, any loss of motivation or productivity, puts an Amherst applicant at risk of rejection.
My point is not to praise or criticize either Amherst’s academic or admission policies by themselves, but to point out the contradiction between the two. How can Amherst claim that even its own high-performing students require academic leniency while also scrutinizing the 2020 GPAs and resumes of its applicants?
In expecting that its applicants continue to perform at the highest level during a world-altering pandemic while giving its students lots of slack during the same period, Amherst is asking its applicants to achieve something it has shown it does not view as important in practice. We might as well expect applicants to master juggling, yodeling, walking more than five minutes at a time, column-writing or some other skill in no demand on the Amherst campus.
Two philosophies are in conflict here. Right now, Amherst functions as a kind of exclusive club, where admission is merciless and arbitrary, but once selected, members are showered in preferential treatment. That philosophy feeds into the worst aspects of private colleges as expensive ‘pat on the back factories,’ aimed only at helping their own members and preserving their own exclusiveness. Instead, Amherst should adopt the spirit of a public-minded institution. In that mindset, Amherst would view those outside and inside with the same sympathies. If people on the inside receive advantages, it should always be for the end goal of benefiting everyone, both inside and outside the Amherst bubble.
Amherst should bring a consistent approach to its admissions. Since it is impossible to retroactively revoke the benefits students received in 2020, the only fair solution is to extend that same philosophy to applicants who struggled in that year. That would mean treating most Covid grades as either Passes or Fails.
Amherst students will always get benefits denied to the general population. After all, only so many people can fit into Valentine Dining Hall or Johnson Chapel. But these benefits should always take the form of services like on-campus housing or expert teaching, not an entirely separate moral code.
As Amherst students, we pride ourselves on being special, as though the process of receiving an email beginning with the words “we are delighted to inform you” somehow turns us into something new. But that’s just not true. I still love Billy Joel. My co-columnist still goes through one bottle of shampoo per week. The line between applicants and students is thin indeed, and we should never forget to extend the empathy we give our fellow students to those who will soon take our places.