What I Learned About College Admissions After 2 Years on the Inside

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It’s been a whirlwind two weeks since Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions was released on September 15. Thank you for all your support. I was on CBS This Morning on Friday to talk about the book (and also on the CTM podcast). The book landed on the USA Today bestsellers list. Friday night, it rose to #71 among all books sold on Amazon and it’s headed to its third printing in a few weeks. People find out about books mostly from their friends and colleagues, so if you have the book or read it, please tell others about it.

As today’s newsletter will explore, I’ve learned a lot about the world of college admissions in the 2+ years of reporting for the book.

🖥 Two can’t miss virtual events this week:

For parents of high schoolers: On Tuesday at 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT, I’ll be part of a virtual college fair hosted by Verto Education where students can chat with representatives of more than 60 colleges. For part of the evening, I’ll be discussing how college is changing because of the pandemic and will be joined by the president of College of Wooster, Sarah Bolton, to discuss some of the issues on the minds of parents this fall.

·     More details and register here.

For college leaders: On Thursday at 3 p.m. ET/Noon PT, I’ll be leading a conversation about how to reframe the affordability discussion in higher ed with Southern New Hampshire President Paul LeBlanc and Hocking College President Betty Young.

·     More details and register here

What most surprised you?

It’s a question I’ve been getting often in media interviews the past week: After 20+ years of covering higher education, what surprised me about the two years I spent reporting the book?

Many things surprised me, so it’s difficult to just pick one. So let’s try three:

1. The applicant pools at selective colleges are deeper than many of us imagine.

  • It’s not that there are so many more top-notch students applying to college; it’s that the top ones from Los Angeles and Chicago and Atlanta and Buffalo are now all applying to the same selective schools. And they’re applying to way more of them.
  • There’s no denying that the competition for a seat at a specific college is much tougher for today’s students than it was for their parents. But it’s not true that getting into any selective college is actually that much harder.
  • Even top colleges accept higher numbers of students than they need because they know only between a third and a half of those accepted will say yes to their offer.
  • After sitting in admissions offices for a year, one thing I realized is that I fell into the same trap many readers did after weeks of reviewing files: after a while the numbers and key identifiers that accompany the applications begin to look the same. Everyone wants to major in biology, psychology, or business. They all scored a 1390 on the SAT and have a 3.7 GPA.

The bottom line: The more time teenagers spend making sure their college list has a mix of schools on it, as well as think about the academic, social, and financial fit of each of them, the better off they’ll be at the end of the process.

2. Our vocabulary around admissions has lost meaning.

  • Elite, prestigious, merit, fair are among the words I heard so often in my reporting.
  • Prestige was originally a derogatory term, defined as “illusion” and “conjuring tricks” in Latin and French.
  • Elite is now almost exclusively defined by how hard it is to get into college, not actually what happens once you’re there.
  • Merit is a word whose definition has changed substantially over the last half century. I probably heard 10 different definitions of the word merit from 10 different people while reporting the book.
  • Fair, well, let me have Robin Hennes from the University of Washington explain that one: “No matter how you review applications, it’s not going to seem fair if your child is denied admission.”

The bottom line: Does going to a top-ranked school help lead to a successful life? Sure. But there are so many other factors contributing to one’s ultimate path that focusing exclusively on this one narrow stretch of it seems out of whack. In the end, college is a staging ground. It’s one of many stops you’ll make throughout life, but it’s not the only one, and certainly not the last.

3. Marketing and rankings have made admissions worse, not better.

  • The marketing from colleges is designed to make students focus on a “dream” school and a “perfect fit.” It’s not about the similarities that colleges have—it’s about the purported uniqueness of each.
  • No one sends high school juniors a glossy brochure explaining that the top liberal arts colleges are pretty similar. Or a viewbook about engineering co-op programs that says here are a couple of good options for you. Who can blame students for focusing instead on individual brands? That’s what colleges are selling.
  • Teenagers might like that their college lists include only top-ranked colleges, yet what they typically don’t realize is that they’re often the ones footing the bulk of the bill to build or maintain that prestige. A study of a major university ranked by U.S. News in the mid-30s found that it would have to increase its spending by $112 million per year to jump into the top 20, about $86,000 per student.

The bottom line: Look up and out beyond the top 10 or 20 or whatever in the rankings. Use the college search as a learning experience. The students I met who ended up being most satisfied with their final choice were the ones who embraced the ambiguity of the process rather than got fixated on one or two schools.


As always, thanks for subscribing.

Cheers — Jeff

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Published By

Jeff Selingo

Jeff Selingo

New York Times bestselling author, Washington Post columnist, higher education strategist, LinkedIn Top 10 Influencer


But there are so many other factors contributing to your ultimate path to success that focusing exclusively on this one narrow stretch of it seems out of whack. In the end, college is a staging ground. It’s one of many stops you’ll make throughout life, but it’s not the only one, and certainly not the last.

I explore these issues in the latest edition of my newsletter, out today.

#classof2021 #applicationprocess #collegeapplications

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