by Rick Clark, Director of Admissions at Georgia Tech (read the full article Here)
However, in contrast to what most people think, it is easy to understand. Admission is driven by two fundamental rules:
- Supply and demand. The Applicant to Class Size ratio drives admit rate. If applications go up and enrollment does not, the admit rate drops.
This is why you hear about Younger Sibling not getting into University of X (Home of the Fighting X’s) with the same, or even better high school grades and classes, than Older Sibling (a current junior at X with a 3.4 GPA). Three years have passed, U of X’s new first-year class size is the same, but this year they receive 5000 more applications than the year Older applied. Could Younger do the work? 100%. Is Younger talented, ambitious, and very interested in going to University of X? Without question. Is this fair? Nope, but it is logical.
- Mission drives admission. As we just established, Older is a good student and a good person (3.4 GPA in college and very active on campus). But three years ago, when she applied as a high school senior, there was another candidate vying for admission—Applaquint. “App” had better grades, better classes, better writing, and more community involvement (all the things U of X says it values) than Older. App, however, was denied.
Why? Well, it happens that App is from Y (the state just to the east of X). Because University of X is a public school, students from the state are admitted at 5 times (would have been too confusing to say 5x) the rate of non-Xers. Fair? No! Again, App is smarter, nicer, and better looking than Older. But again, totally logical.
College brochures may make all campuses look the same, but the goals for the composition of their classes vary widely in number, geography, major, gender, and so on. So when admission committees discuss candidates, they are reviewing and considering GPA, essays, and letters of recommendation, but ultimately institutional mission and priorities are the lens and filter through which admission decisions are made.
As a parent, my sincere hope is you hear, believe, and prepare yourself for this truth- neither an admit nor deny decision is a value judgment or evaluation of your job as a parent. My friend Pam Ambler from Pace Academy puts it perfectly: “Admission decisions feel deeply personal, but that is not how they are made.” As a result, many parents react when their student receives disappointing admission news. They see that hurt and think they need to call the admission office (or the president or the governor), appeal the decision, “come down there,” or pull strings. After watching this cycle repeat itself over and over, and particularly as my own kids grow up, I’ve come to appreciate ALL of that comes from a place of deep and genuine love. But ultimately, in these moments what kids need from you is very simple—love, concern, empathy, belief, and encouragement, or sometimes just a heartfelt hug.
I try not to specifically speak for my colleagues, but I feel confident saying this for anyone that works at a highly selective college that has just denied a ton of the students you are thinking about/calling about/inquiring about: We know. It’s NOT fair. You’re not crazy. In fact, we’d be the first to concur that there are many denied students with higher SAT/ACT scores or more community service or more APs or who wrote a better essay or participated in more clubs and sports than some who were admitted. But here is what is critical for you to understand– ultimately, the admission process for schools denying twice or three times or sometimes ten times more students than they admit– is not about fairness. It’s about mission.
Mission Drives Admission.
Selective colleges publish mid-50% ranges or averages on our freshman profiles to serve as guides, not guarantees. These are the quantifiable factors that provide an overall sense of the admitted or enrolling class. Yes, we look at test scores, rigor of curriculum, course performance, impact on a community, essays, interviews, and so on. But what drives a holistic review process and serves as a guide for admitting students is a school’s mission. Counselors in high schools talk a great deal about “fit.” Where are you going to thrive? Where are you going to create a network or be challenged? Where do you see students that will push and challenge and stretch you to grow as a person and as a learner? These questions come from the fact that they’re savvy and educated not just about our admission processes and stats, but more importantly about our distinct missions. Ultimately, choosing the right school should not just be about “can I get in?” from a statistical or quantifiable standpoint, but “do I align with their mission?” It takes more work to figure that out, but that’s your job as an applicant or prospective student.
If you look at the academic profiles of Caltech and Amherst, they are very similar. But take a look at their missions.
Amherst (abbreviated) “Amherst College educates men and women of exceptional potential from all backgrounds so that they may seek, value, and advance knowledge, engage the world around them, and lead principled lives of consequence… and is committed to learning through close colloquy and to expanding the realm of knowledge through scholarly research and artistic creation at the highest level. Its graduates link learning with leadership—in service to the College, to their communities, and to the world beyond.”
Caltech “…to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education. We investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology in a singularly collegial, interdisciplinary atmosphere while educating outstanding students to become creative members of society.”
The difference in missions is why an individual student sometimes gets into a higher-ranked or more selective school and is denied at another. The student applying to Amherst has the same profile, involvement, writing ability, scores, and grades. but is a totally different fit in their process than for Caltech. This is, at least in part, what counselors are talking about when they say “fit.” It’s fit with mission. You’ll hear schools talk about “institutional priorities.” These are simply components of the macro vision and mission of a university.
What does this mean for you?
If you are a senior (or a parent of a senior) who has been denied or waitlisted: You are most likely just as smart, capable, and talented as other students admitted to that school. Move past the numbers and the comparison. You’re absolutely right: it’s not fair in a comparative sense. But that school has made its decisions in light of advancing their mission. Inevitably, you’ve also been admitted to a school where, if you looked hard enough, you could find someone denied with higher scores or more APs or better grades than you. But you fit their mission. Embrace that!
If you are an underclassman (or parent of one): Selective schools will say, “We are looking to shape a class.” Counselors will talk to you about “fit.” As you try to digest and comprehend what that really means- or where that comes from- look to the school’s mission. Use the academic ranges they provide as a guide. Check out the profiles and other historical data to see how “students like you” have done in the past. But keep in mind those graphs don’t show the qualitative elements. When you are writing or interviewing at schools, do your homework in advance by researching. The essay you write for Caltech should not be the same one you write for Amherst. Your mission, should you choose to accept it (see what I did there?), is to find a school that aligns your academic ability with your vision of the future. Data is helpful. Stats are important. But fit, ethos, campus community, and your ability to be honest with who you are and want to be– that’s the best way to approach the process
Questions? Let’s chat!
Bettina Weil, MSW, IEC
Weil College Advising, LLC