Bias Happens: Reduce Its Impact In Your Admissions

January 27, 2023 Alex Halladay

Graphic of two heads on a dark blue background

The Yield, Fall 2022 Excerpt

We all have bias. Bias—the positive or negative associations we have with a person, place, or behavior—informs everything from whom we decide to sit with when we walk into the EMA Annual Conference to the affinity we sometimes feel when we first meet an applicant. Even though bias is natural and impossible to completely eliminate in the admissions process, it’s critical to increase our awareness and understanding of how and when it occurs. When we do, we’re better able to ensure that every student gets a fair, more equitable admissions process and that we admit students who are the best fit for our unique school community.

The reality is that bias can show up in nearly every element of the admissions process: a teacher who prefers extroverts writes a letter of recommendation for an introvert, an interviewer loves Star Wars, and the interviewee happens to wear an Obi Wan Kenobi shirt, or a file reader advocates for the unique candidate they remember because the student was a circus professional for six years. Think about it this way: if every interviewer, application reader, and recommender adds their perspective (and their bias) to an applicant’s file, that’s three opportunities for bias to impact an applicant. In a pool of 100 applicants, that makes 300 times that biased perspectives may influence your application decisions.

Having a process that mitigates bias is key for the recruitment and selection of new students, as well as the composition of the school community. When we increase our awareness and start to talk about and name our own biases, we are better equipped to recognize them and create a more impartial process that upholds the integrity of our school. It’s not always easy—most biases are subconscious things we’ve learned from our environments over time. But with continued focus and intent, we can begin to see how bias influences our decision-making and take steps to significantly reduce its impact.

Recognizing Different Types of Bias

Understanding the different types of biases and how they can show up is the first step. Kira Talent published a helpful eBook, “Breaking Down Bias in Admissions: The How-to Guide to Reducing Admissions Bias at Your School,” that outlined the most commonly seen bias in the admissions process—along with examples of each. I reference this blog and the nine types all the time, plus I added one more to the list that I see a lot:

  • Groupthink Effect: When members of a group set aside their own opinions, beliefs, or ideas to achieve harmony.
  • Conservatism Bias: When you hold on to a prior point of view despite receiving new or additional information.
  • Bizarreness Effect: When you recall and emphasize only the most unusual information in a series of facts or details.
  • Halo Effect: When one remarkable quality gets all the focus and overshadows other factors about the applicant.
  • Confirmation Bias: When you go into a situation looking to support an existing belief or opinion.
  • Status Quo Bias: When you have an attachment to the current state of being or an aversion to change (aka, the “we’ve always done it this way” mindset).
  • In-Group Bias: When you give preference to someone who aligns with your own group. (This is a tough one because it’s so deeply ingrained. Here’s a personal example: I get excited when a young woman of color steps into my office. I see myself reflected in her, and I want her to have a great experience. Owning this bias help me and my team hold me accountable and keep bias in check.)
  • Recency Bias: When you give more weight or importance to a recent event or interaction than others in the past.
  • Presentation Bias: When the order of information being shared or the attitude of the presenter affects your perception.
  • Stereotype Bias: An oversimplified understanding of a particular type of group, person, or thing.

Maintain awareness of the different ways bias occurs by regularly reviewing these definitions and reflecting on how they may be coming into play. Then, take action.

Read the full article to learn more about how you and your team can lead productive conversations and reduce bias in your admissions process.

EMA Members can view the full magazine in our community

Become a member to gain access to our full magazine
and more professional development tools.

About the Author

Alex Halladay

Alex Halladay is the Director of Admissions and Enrollment Management at The Northwest School (WA). She is an alum of the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education with a passion for diversity and inclusion work in urban areas. Alex aspires to make change in her community through recruitment and retainment work with students from underrepresented backgrounds and educating and inspiring cultural competency in the communities she works in.

More Content by Alex Halladay
Previous Article
Culture & Belonging
Culture & Belonging

Should we be saying diversity, equity, and inclusion? Should we add belonging? What about justice?

Next Article
How to Move the Dial on Culture
How to Move the Dial on Culture

It's relatively straightforward to move the dial on a new academic program. But how do you move the dial on...