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  • Writer's pictureNancy Fries

The Harsh Reality of Selective College Admissions

Now in my fifth season working in college admissions, I’m convinced the process is most stressful for the high grades/high scores/highly engaged student. Why should a student with, say, a 4.5 GPA and a 35 ACT face more stress than a “less-accomplished” peer? These top students are excellent candidates for America’s most selective colleges, like the Ivies, Stanford, Vanderbilt and Duke. They’re so fortunate, right? Not really, because each of those colleges accepts only a tiny percentage of applicants, rejecting thousands of objectively qualified students. After years of hard-earned success, many exceptional students face what may be their first perceived “failure” when they don’t get into a prestigious dream school. Around town, people talk in hushed tones: “Can you believe that Johnny didn’t get into one single Ivy, even though he had a 36 on the ACT?” “Sally was waitlisted at Vanderbilt, but she was ASB president!”

Exceptional students are no doubt aware of the raw numbers. Stanford accepted 4.65% of applicants this year; Harvard 5.2%. But students who are at the tippy top of their own graduating class, who have distinguished themselves in numerous ways amongst their peers in the community, convince themselves these odds aren’t all that bad. They’re used to being the top 1%, if not The Top One. And if they want to play it a little safer, they can apply to Duke or UPenn, with 9% acceptance rates, right? Along that line of thinking, USC, with a whopping 16% acceptance rate must be pretty safe.

Here’s why that thinking is off base. As another blogger put it, the math is "unassailable." The odds aren’t good for anyone. But they are even worse for most of the students I work with, because they do not have what in the world of college admissions is called a hook. A hooked applicant may be an athletic recruit, the first in their family to attend college, an under-represented minority, or from a geographically under-represented area. (At some colleges, legacy status is also a hook.) The admission rate for unhooked students is significantly lower than the published acceptance rate at selective colleges. A few years ago, I heard a high school counselor say it’s around 1% at Stanford. So Stanford may have accepted more than 2,000 of its 44,000 applicants this year, but maybe 800 or so of them were unhooked. And since most schools like their student body to have a fairly even balance of men and women, that leaves about 400 spots for unhooked students of either gender. There’s your 1%.

The odds wouldn’t be as daunting if top students were competing for those spots with an applicant pool that resembles their own high school. But the reality is, most applicants to highly selective colleges were tippy top students in their own high schools, creating an applicant pool of exceptional individuals. After turning away more than 30,000 applicants this year, Yale’s dean of admission said, “Virtually all of the students we denied will be successful students at other great colleges and universities.” The dean of admission at Tufts put numbers behind a similar statement in a blog post last year, saying that 78% of the school’s applicants to the Class of 2020 were deemed “qualified.” That was nearly 16,000 of 20,000 applications to a class of 1,325 students, in a year when the school’s acceptance rate was just 14%. Tufts is nobody’s safety.

A while back, a parent coined a useful term on the website College Confidential: "Average Excellent." Let’s take a hypothetical student, Natalie, and let’s say she played a varsity sport for four years, she has 400 hours of community service, she was ASB treasurer, and she held a high position in Youth and Government. She has a 4.6 GPA with one B in all of high school and 11 APs, she’s in the top 2% of the class, and she has a 35 ACT. She’s intellectually curious, hard-working, kind and generous, and white.

Natalie is probably not getting into Stanford. Or Harvard. Probably not Vanderbilt or Duke either. As much as I hate to admit it, even the best essays imaginable probably can’t help her. And it’s not because of that B or that one missed point on the ACT. It’s because while Natalie is awesome, compared with the rest of the applicant pool, she is “average excellent” and she has no hook. All over America, and the world for that matter, students like Natalie are applying to the most selective colleges. If you’re in the top 1-2% of your own graduating class, you’re still competing with the top 1-2% from across the nation and abroad.

What could enhance Natalie’s odds? It would have to be a unique accomplishment or interest that she had developed out of true passion or curiosity. Often, this is something the student has founded, built, or created. It may also be a unique achievement, like winning a national or regional championship in some niche interest. So the student who founded a robotics club and led that club to the national championship has something pretty interesting. The student who joined an existing club and rode its coattails to the county championship, not so much. Parents, you cannot manufacture this for your kids. It can’t be something the student does “to look good for college.” Besides, even authentically accomplishing something amazing carries no admission guarantees. As described in one of my favorite posts ever on this topic, an applicant to MIT was denied admission even though he had built a nuclear reactor in his garage. The point of the post: you should “apply sideways” to college: do what you love, and if you get in because of it, fabulous. But if you don't get in, you’ll have no regrets for having put in the time to something you wanted to do anyhow, whether it’s building a nuclear reactor, organizing a local fundraising hike to benefit victims of the Nepal earthquake, or joining the local astrophotography club. The latter were on the resumes of two of my “average excellent” students last year. To me, they were truly amazing and completely authentic, but they had their share of disappointments. (Love you both, if you’re reading this.) And yet, both are attending fabulous colleges, one with a huge merit scholarship and the other in a highly regarded engineering program that just happened not to be his first choice.

To borrow the wisdom of the parent who coined that “average excellent” term, “Do not let your kid invest all his hopes in a tippy top school.” The solution to the college admissions race isn’t to try to figure out how to get highly selective colleges to accept you. The solution is to find somewhere else you’d be happy to go, where you’ll blossom and thrive. Sure, throw in an application to a dream school or two. But please, drop the obsession with brand name prestige and find the college that will appreciate your unique qualities and welcome you, wholeheartedly, into its freshman class.


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