Amaral: The meritocracy delusion

Luís Amaral, Op-Ed Contributor

Northwestern recently announced with great pride it only admitted 7% of applicants to its class of 2026. In this, NU is no different from its peers. Among elite institutions, acceptance rates appear to be on a race to zero. The question that comes to my mind, however, is whether this is something to be proud of. Being selective makes us all feel good and special. Every new student is a “one-in-twenty” special person. But is this selectivity the sign of merit we reflexively think it is?

There is no way to construct a universally accepted approach to rank human beings. By pretending such an approach exists, we promote the illusion that those we select are somehow more worthy than those we reject. I believe this false sense of worth is what allows the select few to ignore the suffering of the rejected many.

In all likelihood, there were many rejected applicants with higher test scores, higher GPAs and higher graduation rankings than the typical accepted applicant. One could argue this is fine. After all, research has shown that standardized test scores are biased. It makes sense that the admissions staff at NU would not be swayed solely by those numbers. That is where the personal essay, recommendation letters and extracurricular activities come into play. But research also suggests these application materials are even more biased toward the well-off than the numerical measures are. 

That is where some applicants’ special circumstances come in. For sure, the admission officers consider the struggles some applicants experience. But how many socioeconomically disadvantaged students take note of this and even consider applying? And, if they do apply, how many spots are “reserved” for them?  

Meritocracy is such an appealing concept. It is so easy to convince ourselves we are more worthy. We are more driven, more resilient, more intelligent, more poised, more mature, more talented and more good looking. Even if we agree it is possible to evaluate the worth of a person along a single dimension, we would still have to decide which dimension should be valued the most. 

The alternative is harder. We would have to acknowledge that admission to NU — and to all other equally competitive schools — is, to a great extent, a lottery. And not a particularly fair one at that, as some applicants hold many more tickets. If we admit acceptance to NU is a lottery, maybe we should also accept that all qualified applicants deserve the same number of lottery tickets. Maybe then we would stop fooling ourselves that our good fortune makes us more worthy than those less fortunate. 

I have been astonishingly fortunate myself. When I was born, Portugal was under a fascist dictatorship and the terminal education level for most of the population was fourth grade. That is how far my father studied. Just before I started first grade, a bloodless leftist revolution brought a democratic regime to Portugal and a renewed focus on education. 

Over the next decade, widely available access to a certain education level was always a year or two ahead of my own grade, rising to sixth, ninth and then 12th grade. In 1986, Portugal joined the then European Community and, as a result, the country received European funds to support the development of its scientific workforce. I was thus able to apply for a government-sponsored scholarship to study abroad when I was ready to apply to doctoral programs in the U.S. Then in 2002, the year I undertook what I had already decided would be my last search for a faculty position, I was offered a tenure-track position at NU. 

It would be comforting to claim I deserve it all, but that wouldn’t be true. As they say: It is better to be lucky than good. I know I wouldn’t be here, enjoying all NU has to offer, if I had not been able to cash several lucky lottery tickets at critical points in my life. Many other people are worthy of the same opportunities.

Luis Amaral is a professor of chemical and biological engineering. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.