“Melanie watched her son’s eyes fill with tears as he read the letter silently to himself, all too aware that he would interpret the deferral as a profound setback.” Jordan would have to await official word from Brown as he wondered whether his career as a writer might be over before it started . “It’s a matter of your whole future in an envelope.” On the other side of this equation is a college admissions department responsible for such early life verdicts. College admissions has grown tremendously competitive and this article is meant to outline some keys to what is occurring behind closed doors of college admissions offices.
It’s a matter of your whole future in an envelope.”
What happens inside the admissions process of a premier college has the making of any good drama. As Grisham has been to legal thrillers, Jacques Steinberg is to this educational thriller. Steinberg wrote a New York Times Bestseller in 2004 with a suspenseful account of real-life college applicants and admissions officers. The story describes in gripping detail how in 1999 nine members of Wesleyan’s admissions office accepted nearly 1,800 applicants from close to 7,000. The admissions committee worked six days a week for twelve hours a day for the active application months of November through April.
This college machine has continued churning along for years, building steam year over year. Since World War II the rise of college attendance (and cost) has grown at a high rate. Today nearly 70 percent of high school seniors plan to go to college. That is over 2 million students each year flooding the college admissions committees with over 10 million applications per year.
So where does this machine begin?
The life programming that feeds the college machine starts early in life and is fueled by reports that by 2020, 65% of U.S. jobs will require a degree beyond high school, up from 28% in 1973. (Source: Georgetown University, Failure to Launch: Structural Shift and the New Lost Generation, 2013)
You know the drill. Get up on time. Brush your teeth. Wear proper clothes. Do your homework. Get good grades. Say please and thank you. Follow the rules. Stay in line. Sit up straight. Study for tests. Do more. Be better. Run faster. Score more. Join a club. Play a sport. March in the band. Make Honor Roll. Go to college. Get into Harvard. Become a doctor.
The list is a mere representation of how we are expected to act. The theory is that following these rules will best prepare us for life – which includes receiving that “golden Willie Wonka” ticket to college entry. Let’s step into this story The Gatekeepers, particularly Chapter 4 titled Considered Without Prejudice, with eight key points about this two-way admissions process.
Eight Factors Behind Admissions Decisions
Key #1 Early Admissions is good for colleges
- increases yield
- build out top-flight incoming class
- self-selecting candidates with above average credentials
Key #2 Early Admissions is good for students
- complete the college admissions process up to six months early
- higher acceptance rate
Key #3 Not all applications go through committees
- two days of early decision hearings
- about 65% of all applications submitted early action went to committee hearings. (30% were already approved by the dean and 5% already rejected or informed that their applications were incomplete)
- on a committee of nine, 5 admits were required to admit a student and 4 rejects to deny a student
Key #4 Selective colleges pay close attention to scores and rank
- admissions officers understand average GPA and test scores from past incoming classes
- admissions officers never want to see a reduction in GPA or test scores for an incoming class
- top 10% of class rank is a common key criteria
- allowing students in lower than 10% raises concerns, especially closer to 25%
- students scoring in the middle 50% range for GPA and test scores is a common key criteria
- reports are evaluated regularly as the incoming class is formed
- when ranked by major ranking companies will monitor closely and not give in
Key #5 There are certain key things important to admissions officers
- class rank and size of graduating high school class (top 10% is key)
- students ethnicity
- captain of a sport/team
- editor of a high school school newspaper, magazine, or yearbook
- four years of the same language
- a year of calculus
- full sequence of biology, physics, and chemistry
- grade trends do matter and students should trend toward A’s
- four major or solid subjects should be achieved all four years of high school (English, Math, Science, Social Studies or Foreign Language) with a preference of five majors or solids
- total advanced or honors courses by year (0-0-1-3) demonstrates rigor
- grades matter but the quality of courses is important
- stand out in two different activities
- poor grades hurt chances (a C in any major course)
- demonstrated talent in non-academic areas (sports, art, music)
Key #6 It all boils down to a rating or admissions score
- scale of 1 to 9 (varies by college but 9 for Wesleyan in 1999)
- each officer rates on three criteria: academic, personal, overall
- overall rating of 9 from two officers virtually guaranteed acceptance
- overall rating of 8 from two officers in early admissions also likely for acceptance
- rating of 6 and 7 were reviewed by the committee
- below 6’s admission was unlikely
- personal rating of 8 or 9 candidate will make significant impact on campus in leadership roles, and a 6 or 7 is mostly a contributor role with limited leadership
- personal rating represents both extracurricular involvement and overcoming hardship
- academic rating of 8 or better assigned when SAT higher than 90% (1400 composite on 1999 version)
- academic rating includes an intellectual curiosity score with an 8 or 9 to someone who has demonstrated “a sophisticated grasp of world events and technical information,” as well as “a passionate interest in numerous disciplines”. Someone who had shown merely “strong interest and activity” in “research, independent projects, competitions, etc” would probably draw a 6 or 7
Key #7 Being a Legacy Matters
- the children of alums have a higher admittance rate
- in 1999 a “legacy” Wesleyan applicant had admittance rate of 45 percent compared to 27 percent as a whole
Key #8 Diversity Matters
- the committee looks at ethnicity as well as number of males and females
Getting Past The Gatekeepers
“Wesleyan received so many applications that Ralph knew that, on average, he had to say no to three candidates for each one he accepted, while knowing full well that most were capable of doing the work at Wesleyan and would likely thrive there.”
If the goal is getting by the gatekeepers of highly selective colleges then understanding these keys to admissions is important. Know that there is no college that can determine your future value to a college or to the world. Also know that when the college is not as highly selective then not as many of these keys is critical.
The primary importance is finding the college that is best fit. It is completely acceptable to reach for some schools with an understanding of these gatekeeper rules. Getting admitted to Harvard to become a teacher and have to borrow 80% of the cost of college makes no sense. It is important to strike a balance and make good decisions.
The bottom line is the college that you attend does not dictate your life success. So much of life is what you go get for yourself. The college you do attend is lucky to have you and what you choose to do with your experience is on you. This is how life works. Go make it happen.
It’s like the NFL or MLB. Those low round draft picks or undrafted free agents that prove they belong. Just ask Mike Piazza. Lowest round draft pick to ever make it to the MLB Hall of Fame, class of 2016.
This book should be required reading for students and parents who seek admission to college, especially those considered selective and admit fewer than 50 percent of applicants.