The Conundrum of College Admissions

By: Judi Robinovitz | Last Updated: April 1, 2014

Want to go to the band concert? We can get you into the venue, but we can’t guarantee what seat you’ll sit in, or whether or not you’ll end up standing in the back.

College admissions: we will provide you with a list of schools across a range of admissions possibilities, but we cannot foresee with 100% certainty which schools will grant you admission.

What transpires behind the closed doors of the admissions office is known but to a very select few. Each year, a college admissions staff recalibrates: what were last year’s incoming freshmen like? Which high schools sent us successful students? Who plays volleyball really well? How many families can pay full boat? What was the yield of actual attendees from among all those to whom we sent letters of acceptance? And so on and so forth. These are imponderables for everyone outside admissions, and for the college itself there are some intangible qualities that go into the decisions.

Put your ear to the ground and hear the rumblings of parents and students across the country. So-and-so was essentially an absent student from her New Jersey public school, with neither extracurricular activities nor a single honors course – and a GPA of less than 2.0. Result? Admitted to five colleges. Perhaps her overwrought parents were happy to pay anything to get her into the next phase of her life away from home.

Then there’s Mr. Perfection who can now choose between Yale, Dartmouth, Stanford, Oberlin, and Berkeley, but is denied by UCLA and Tulane. We’re talkin’ unweighted 4.0 and an SAT 2360! I won’t say “go figure,” because your figuring won’t lead you anywhere, really.

According to the Admissions Office of one highly selective university, “The decisions we make here are nuanced, subjective, and, yes, personal. Though never arbitrary, they can be difficult to understand without having seen a large, representative sample of the applicant pool… Holistic admissions is a practice that enables meaningful distinctions among a sea of candidates who are highly qualified to attend….”

In fact, the characteristics that competitive colleges seek—qualities like engagement, impact, creativity, talent, and drive—are reflected in these six quantitative and qualitative areas of each student’s application: academic rigor, grades in core classes, recommendations, extracurricular commitment, the quality of thought and expression in the application essays, and test scores.

Most students who apply to super-selective universities exhibit the intellectual vitality and commitment to succeed. But with more than 30,000 applications competing for as few as 1,200 spots, the job of selection can only seem mystifying. Here’s just one example: at most elite universities, for each single freshmen place available, at least two high-school valedictorians apply! Imagine! How can an admissions committee ever differentiate among them – and still leave room for non-valedictorians whose positive impact will be felt on campus? Thus, these universities must consider a number of other factors, especially the way in which each student might contribute to the robustness of the campus community.

These are the conundrums of college admissions. Reasoning, preparation, and careful selection can unequivocally increase one’s chances for admission. In the end, though, some decisions will always remain behind closed doors.

Topics: College Admission Private-School Educational Consulting


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