I was recently asked what a mother should tell her very sensitive son if he’s rejected at his first choice college when decisions come out next week. She was talking about one of the most selective colleges in the country, where only about 7% of the applicants are admitted.
Aside from offering your child tea and sympathy, it’s important to point out — before the decisions are announced — that most of the students who apply are rejected. If the school accepts 5%, then 95% are rejected. Another way of putting it is that a lot of very smart, talented students are turned down!
Students often see that a higher percentage of students are admitted Early Decision — and they think this means it’s “easier” to get in early.
NO, actually. The students admitted Early Decision are more likely to be 1. athletic recruits 2. legacy kids 3. the most impressive students in the bunch because the college wants them to pick their school, so they’re staking a claim on them.
It’s also important to explain to students that getting into the most selective colleges in the country IS NOT ONLY ABOUT MERIT. MERIT is necessary but not sufficient.
At the top schools, admissions officers report that 70 to 80 % of the applicants can do the work! Kids don’t get rejected because they’re not good enough or smart enough. They often get rejected because they don’t check off “the right boxes” that admissions officers use to create a class of about 1000 incoming students. These are real categories, but the decisions are made for reasons students will never know.
Beyond grades, scores, recommendations, extra curriculars AND essays — all of which must be top flight — admissions officers make decisions based on where the students live (they want to represent all states), what sports they might play, what instruments they play, their race/ethnicity, whether their parents went to college (some colleges want more first-generation college students), and whether they might have an interesting personal story. But they let in plenty of students without “interesting personal stories.” And plenty of students whose parents did go to college.
These are the considerations that go beyond grades, scores, etc. — and have nothing to do with whether students are “smart enough.”
Since the most selective colleges receive tens of thousands of applications — Harvard Yale etc. receive about 40,000 by year’s end — and they have 1200 spots to fill, they make all kinds of decisions that have nothing to do with whether you’re “smart” or “promising” or “likely to succeed.”
There’s been a great deal written on how the top universities make decisions. There have been famous lawsuits (against Harvard– Harvard won). There are many cries of elitism, racism and more. One of the most illuminating pieces I’ve read is a book review by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker from 2005, GETTING IN: THE SOCIAL LOGIC OF IVY LEAGUE ADMISSIONS, which I highly recommend for parents and students.
It’s sometimes hard to convince students that a rejection from a school that rejects 90% of all applicants is predictive of anything. But IMHO it’s important to start that conversation before the letters come.
I’ve worked with gifted students who get rejected from Stanford and get into Yale and Brown; students who get rejected from Brown and get into Stanford; get rejected from Duke and get into Wharton. Sometimes a student will get turned down from her top choice college and end up with a merit scholarship — even full tuition for four years — to an outstanding university that doesn’t happen to be an Ivy. There are all kinds of permutations. And the outcomes are unpredictable. So it’s valuable to understand how the system works — and works behind closed doors.
GOOD IDEA: Do the remainder of your applications before your big decision comes down. Another good idea: Rage, mourn, and do the rest of the applications well before the Jan. 1 deadline for remaining colleges. Find all the determination and grit that got you where you are — and put it to more good use.
If you want to talk more about this — and what else you or your kids might want to do once these decisions come next week as far as reviewing essays and applications — please shoot me an email or pick up the phone. I’m on the East Coast. I get up early and stay up late. That is not a typo!