What Do Selective Colleges Look for in an Applicant?
It is often said that college admissions outcomes are just not predict able. Everyone knows that it is harder to get into selective colleges than ever before, but in addition the criteria for admission seem to be getting murkier and murkier.
Take the student who is admitted to a super-selective college but winds up placed on the wait-list at a less selective one. Or the student admitted to three colleges but denied by three others, all about the same in selectivity. Why aren’t decisions more consistent? Even more puzzling can be the result when students from the same high school apply to the same college. One student may have a significantly stronger academic record than the other, yet be denied by a selective college while the classmate receives a fat admissions packet at notification time. Why wasn’t the student with the stronger record accepted also? And although many colleges claim they use exactly the same criteria in the admissions process for early decision applications as they use for regular decision applications, anecdotal as well as statistical evidence strongly argues that early applicants sometimes have an edge in the admissions process. Why should when you apply make any difference at all?
This article will help you understand the many factors colleges consider in their review of applications. Knowing what colleges look for as they sort through thousands of applications can help you understand the admissions process and help you approach it with confidence. There is no such thing as magic bullet or formula to guarantee you acceptance to a selective college. But the more you know about how colleges select their freshman class, the wiser you will be in approaching the tasks before you—from choosing colleges to preparing your applications to dealing with the successes and, yes, even the disappointments that may occur at the end of it all.
How College Admissions Has Changed
A little history that dramatically illustrates how college admissions has changed over the years. Seventy-odd years ago, colleges that are now considered among the most selective filled their classes in ways that reflected the time. Yale University, for example, filled its class of 1936 from a total of 1,330 applicants. Of that group, 959, or 72 percent, were accepted, and 884 of them subsequently enrolled. Almost 30 percent were the sons of Yale University alumni, known as “legacies.” Many of those admitted were students from “feeder schools”—elite prep schools with headmasters whose close relationships with college admissions officers virtually assured the admission of their graduates to the school of their choice. Less than 20 percent of the freshman class graduated from a public high school. Women were not eligible to apply to Yale University; they had separate elite colleges, known as the Seven Sisters, with similar admissions standards. Also excluded were young men who, no matter how bright and accomplished, did not fit the mold of privilege and wealth. But few of the latter even considered applying; the criteria for admission, social class included, were well understood by everyone.
Another example, this one from just fifty years ago, makes a similar point. The following description comes from a book on the history of college admissions:
Until the 1950s admissions staffs typically consisted of one professional and possibly a secretary to take care of clerical work. Often, a dean would split responsibilities between admissions and some other aspect of administration or teaching. Colleges could function effectively with such a simple admissions structure because students tended to apply only to their first choice college, and they were usually accepted. A close collaboration between admissions officers and guidance counselors also facilitated such modest staffing. Admissions officers visited selected high schools, interviewed candidates for admission, and then usually offered admission to students on the spot. Philip Smith, [former] dean of admissions at Williams College, recounted a visit as an admissions officer in the late 1950s. After he interviewed students, Smith sat down with eight teachers; he was given a pat on the back and a Scotch, and was expected to offer admission to all the candidates right then.
Today, of course, institutions like Yale University and Williams College pride themselves on the diversity of their student body and actively recruit high-achieving men and women from all backgrounds. The 1,952 men and women invited to join the Yale University class of 2012 were selected from an applicant pool of almost 23,000; of the 1,320 enrolling, just 13 percent were legacies. Fifty-five percent of the class came from public high schools. This example is typical of the current admissions picture at other selective colleges as well. Those who in a prior era would have been assured of admission by virtue of birth or circumstance no longer are. Some of the rules have changed.
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