Idioms and Admissions: Apples and Oranges

The earliest memory I can seem to muster of the idiom, “That is like comparing apples to oranges” is from high school. I can not remember if it was my personal finance teacher or my cross country coach, but it was one of the two (and comparing those two certainly is like comparing apples to oranges).

I remember being stumped by the idiom at first. I did not understand the context and asked around until some other examples finally brought the point home to me.

While Wikipedia delves into the validity of the usefulness of the idiom, to me the admission decision season provides a scenario where the idiom makes perfect sense.  Most applicants apply to several different schools and it is only natural not only to compare the characteristics of those schools, but the admission decisions of those schools.

When decisions go out each year applicants will often contact our office to discuss their SIPA admission decision. Statements and questions like the following are not uncommon:

  • I don’t understand why I was put on the waitlist at SIPA when I was admitted to all of the other schools I applied to. Can you explain why?
  • I received a fellowship offer from another school but not from SIPA. Why didn’t I get SIPA fellowship funding?
  • SIPA’s letter said that I should get more experience and apply again at a later time but other schools admitted me? Why?
  • My decision letter from SIPA said I could benefit from more quantitative preparation but I was admitted to other similar schools. Why is this the case?
  • My decision letter from SIPA said I could benefit from additional English language study but I was admitted to other U.S. programs. Why?
  • Why have I heard from other schools but not SIPA?

From an administrators point of view statements and questions like these are, well, like comparing apples to oranges.

If it were an apples to apples comparison, every single applicant would have had to apply to the same exact schools, have been read by the exact same committee, and the committees would need to share the exact same budget. Obviously this is not what happens.

Sure policy schools are similar in many ways. We have similar core classes, faculty that study, teach, and practice common subjects, and we seek to prepare students for similar careers. However, each school is quite different in many ways when it comes to shaping an incoming class.

Each school has its own unique Admissions Committee structure. Each school has its own unique applicant pool. Each school has a different fellowship endowment and can choose to use it in different ways. Each school has different donors who set different criteria for awards. Each school has its own time lines.

I am not going to pretend that by reading this entry all of your questions or concerns about admission decisions will be put at ease, but I hope it does provide insight into “the big picture.” Each policy school is different in its own way and will make decisions based on its history, goals, preferences and yes, limitations.

Thus, comparing a decision from one school to another is often like comparing apples to oranges.  I will attempt to address many of the questions posted in future entries, but for now I just wanted to provide a bit brief insight into the process from the prospective of someone on the other side of the process.