6 facts about college admissions

college students

6 facts about college admissions that help explain why seemingly excellent applicants don’t always get in.

Don’t be misled by those magazine rankings. Nobody in his right mind would bother to apply to a prestigious university like Harvard, Yale, or Princeton unless he or she had the same excellent grades and test scores as those who got in. One should think of great grades and test scores as merely being a prerequisite for admission.

Still, how is it possible that a prestigious university can reject the valedictorian of one high school in favor of an applicant in another high school who ranks only tenth or even twentieth in his class? There are two reasons why this happens. One is fair; one is not. What’s fair is that the applicant who took an extremely demanding course load in high school should be rewarded for his intellectual curiosity and risk-taking, even if it resulted in somewhat lower class rank. What’s unfair is that college admissions people know that the quality of education offered by prestigious private “prep” schools and by public high schools in affluent communities generally is superior to that provided by other high schools. While a high school’s reputation doesn’t count nearly as much as an applicant’s own accomplishments, it does count.

Most applicants to prestigious universities, however, come from outstanding private or public secondary schools. They have taken tough courses and have done very well in them. Each is an exceptional student who is more than “qualified” for admission. (Hargadon once said, “I’m really spoiled” by the quality of Princeton’s applicant pool.) Unfortunately, prestigious universities literally don’t have the room to admit more than a small fraction of all the great applicants who apply. Indeed, almost every top college would love to be able to accept many more students than it can physically accommodate. And so we come to the second lesson of selective college admissions:

It is the “compelling” candidate who gets admitted.

What makes an applicant compelling in the eyes of an admissions office? Consider the following two hypothetical students: Student A ranks first in her class and has scored above 700 on all her standardized tests. She even got a perfect 800 on the SAT II in her best subject, chemistry. Student B has done all that, plus she has gotten As in college-level chemistry courses that she took on her own time and initiative, plus she spent the summer after her junior year in high school working as a laboratory assistant with a nationally-renowned chemist. She has even been published in a prestigious scientific journal. As incredible as it may sound, highly selective universities see dozens of these academic superstars in their applicant pools every year—students whose accomplishments to date, plus obvious potential for future accomplishments, outshine the achievements of thousands of other highly accomplished applicants. These superstars often apply to all or nearly all prestigious institutions. They, of course, get accepted almost everywhere they apply, leaving a university no choice but to reject five or six other great applicants, even though the odds favor that superstar applicant opting to attend another university. (Even when the superstar applies for binding Early Decision, the university in question must bump other applicants.)

Fortunately, for all those thousands of great college applicants every year who aren’t academic superstars, there is more than one way to look “compelling” in the eyes of a selective university. This brings us to the third lesson of selective college admissions:

Do whatever it is you love to do, whether it is in or out of the classroom, and don’t worry about whether it is something a prestigious university wants to see in an applicant.

The logic here is simple: if you love to do something, chances are you are going to do it very well. In short, you will distinguish yourself. Moreover, by doing something you love, you cut down on the risk of looking like lots of other great applicants in the same applicant pool. This is not to say that you should steer clear of the usual kinds of student activities. If being class or student body president is what you want, go for it. But understand that there are going to be hundreds, if not thousands, of other class and student body presidents in the same applicant pool. Being a president counts for nothing; it’s what you do while you’re a president that counts.

One year Dean Hargadon sent a letter to us alumni interviewers in which he said that every applicant Princeton had admitted that year had “seemed special in his or her own right.” He then listed a handful of them. While the list contained several academic superstars, it also included several “ordinary” great students. They had raised their level of accomplishment in the thing they loved to a level that had greatly impressed the dean of admission at one of America’s most prestigious universities. Among those Hargadon listed were:

• 11 Presidential Scholars;

• four National Science Foundation Young Scholars;

• four National Endowment for the Humanities Young Scholars;

• the winner of the Moscow Math Olympiad;

• a winner of the California Young Playwright’s Contest;

• a young woman who had authored and illustrated a children’s book;

• the national director of high school operations for the Rain Forest Conservancy;

• four high school Academic All-American rowers and three honorable mentions;

• several musicians whose talents have been recognized at the state, regional and national levels;

• Junior Olympic, All-American and All-State athletes in virtually every sport.

If reaching such a high level of accomplishment in the thing you love seems beyond reach, take heart. One day I interviewed the president of Princeton University, Harold S. Shapiro, and asked him what Princeton looks for in an applicant. Shapiro described a hypothetical student who loved to play a musical instrument. On his own initiative, this student formed a little orchestra and convinced his school’s administration to set aside rehearsal space. The group practiced hard, and their music got so good that they entered a competition. And did they win? I asked. It didn’t matter, Shapiro replied. He said that what was relevant about this musical applicant was that he (or she) had demonstrated leadership, hard work, initiative, and commitment.

But while Shapiro seems to offer a way for any applicant to a prestigious university to rise above the rest, there is an important caveat, which we’ll call the fourth lesson of selective college admissions:

Prestigious universities select a class, not a group of individuals. Thus, whether an individual applicant gets admitted to a given university depends in part on luck—the luck of whether the applicant has the skills or talents that the university “community” needs that year.

Referring to the university’s student orchestra, Hargadon once said, “You can’t have all brass and no strings.” Neither can a university have all English majors and no electrical engineering majors. Admissions officers keep close tabs on the needs of their university’s student “community.” When an academic department isn’t getting enough undergraduates majoring in it, they know it. When the star quarterback on the football team, or the star ballerina in the student dance company, is about to graduate, they know it. Hargadon once said that applicants are like crops in that they don’t all come in every year. In other words, luck determines how many great ballerinas (or significant anything else) apply the same year as you do. Luck also determines whether a student whose exceptional accomplishment is, say, ballet applies the same year the university’s reigning ballerina is a senior and a replacement is needed.

Luck isn’t the only factor beyond an individual applicant’s control, which brings us to the fifth lesson of selective college admissions:

Some applicants have built-in advantages which put other applicants at a disadvantage, no matter how great they are.

Being an academic superstar obviously is a built-in advantage. Two other built-in benefits that some applicants have are being a varsity-caliber athlete and being the son or daughter of a graduate of that university. Athletes and so-called “legacy” applicants represent needs that a prestigious university feels it must fill every year. As a percentage of a freshman class, the number of students who play a varsity sport at an Ivy League school is much higher than at large public or even private universities. While there is always criticism by the faculty of a prestigious university that too many applicants are being admitted primarily for their athletic prowess, the system seems impervious to change. The same criticism is leveled at the favoritism shown to children of graduates of a given university, but, obviously, alumni giving (an essential source of funds at every prestigious university) might suffer if alumni didn’t feel that their kids had some sort of advantage. To be sure, athletes and legacies aren’t admitted unless they are on a par with other applicants in the pool. But when you only have so many acceptances to give out, something has to give. (Be honest: if you are a gifted athlete or the child of an alum, aren’t you hoping that will help get you admitted?)

Then there is the advantage that comes from having a different background than most great applicants whom a university sees. A prestigious university wants to create a richly diverse mosaic of students who will serve to teach each other through the life experiences they have had. These experiences can reflect where a student is from (i.e., a distant foreign country or a rural American town that’s never sent one of its own to an Ivy League university). They can reflect the ethnic, racial, or economic background of the student. (Imagine rooming with a student who had been homeless and had lived under a highway bridge before his high school guidance counselor came to his rescue. True story.) Prestigious universities pride themselves on the learning that goes on outside the classroom. By assembling a class where every student has a story to tell, the university hopes to provide the richest possible education.

Still, don’t think for a moment that just because you aren’t an academic superstar or a varsity quarterback or an all-world violinist that you don’t have a good chance of getting into a prestigious university—assuming you meet the prerequisite of having excellent grades and test scores and assuming you have distinguished yourself at something you love to do. It is highly unlikely that every university you apply to will already have on campus or in its applicant pool one or more individuals exactly like you. This brings us to the sixth and final lesson of selective college admissions:

Don’t fall in love with one college.

By having several “number one” choices, the great student who strives to achieve in something he loves likely will be happy when he opens those fateful letters from the admissions departments. Sure, the acceptance may not come from the university you’ve been dreaming about since you were in the seventh grade. But no doubt it will be a wonderful university, one that will continue to challenge you in and out of the classroom.

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