Originally Posted by raptor_dad
Oxford's head of admission has explicitly said the dons do not want "second-rate historians who happen to play the flute".

So how do the Oxbridge schools select candidates... they go beyond using APs, A levels, IB diplomas, etc... In math there are the STEP tests[1] and in other subjects there are equivalents[2].

If US schools are serious about being base on merit, they should do something similar... the difference between a 770 and 800 SAT math is largely chance. A 3 hr test with 6 hard problems should give a clearer distribution.
I believe that at many universities worldwide, you are admitted to study a particular subject. At most U.S. schools, you can declare a major after matriculating. So they are not admitting students as historians or mathematicians.

You can major in music or theater at Yale. If Yale thinks those subjects are worthy of a major, its admissions process ought to give some weight to achievement in those areas.

For mere transmission of knowledge, the residential university may be becoming obsolete. Schools are trying to create a vibrant campus with student publications, concerts, theater productions, and sporting events. Emphasis on extracurriculars can be carried too far, but people can differ on the definition of "too far".

Strong ECs may indirectly indicate academic ability. If students A and B both have perfect grades and test scores, and student A also has good ECs, maybe she is smarter than student B and is able to get the same academic work done in less time, freeing time for other pursuits. In making such a comparison, demands on time such as working part time and caring for siblings should also be considered.