Our Annual Entitlement Ritual

It happens every year:

First, someone announces that a student, or several students, defied the odds and gained admission into some combination (or all) of the Ivy League universities, plus (sometimes) Stanford or other high profile institutions.  Usually, these students are students of color, and/or children of immigrants.

Second, the media pick it up.  Regular, good old-fashioned people say, “Wow, that’s great!” Regular, good-old fashioned racists say, “Affirmative action is the only reason this student has this success! It’s unfair to White people everywhere, and when is our suffering going to end?”

This post is not about that.

This post is about what happens in our profession, among people who should know better: Among people who can always be expected to stand up for students, except, it seems, on these particular occasions.

This post is about the third thing. So,

Third, people in the profession accuse the student of “Trophy hunting.”  If you’re like most people, you don’t know–but can probably figure out–what this is about.  The accusation is that students are simply attempting to accumulate accolades for themselves.

It’s bullshit.  For a lot of reasons.

First, most of the people making these accusations see the world through their own lens: One where every student has access to good college counseling. One where every student knows why someone who loves Dartmouth, for instance, might not be happy at Brown. One where students have been talking to parents over dinner since they were four years old about going to college, and especially, about going to the right college <wink wink>.

“How could they make such an admissions faux pas?” they scream in unison. “Don’t these students know that one simply does not apply to every Ivy?” You can almost see Thurston Howell III and Lovie getting light headed.  “What were they thinking?” they say, pressing the backs of their hands against their foreheads, while they grab onto something to help prop themselves up.

These are the same people, by the way, who can’t wait to publish their school profiles each year, showing the whole world just how many of their students from the previous graduating class enrolled at–and sometimes just how many were admitted to–The Big 9. This is done to ensure that those colleges feel good about admitting students in the coming year, of course.  When you got a good thing, you keep it going if you know what’s good for you, as Tony Soprano might have said.

But the perception that a student should have been counseled out of this behavior, of course, begs the question.  The majority of students, I’d suggest, don’t have someone showing them the ropes of applying to college and navigating the game.  This is especially true for some (not all) of the students in these stories, many of whom are children of immigrants who work in blue collar jobs, where they don’t rub elbows with America’s prep school graduates who could have taught them how to raise their children.

And do I need to remind you that these students are going through the process for the first time? In the high stakes admissions game, the student gets to play just once.  When someone hits it out of the park the first time up, especially if they do it on their own, we should congratulate them, not criticize them.  We should also remember, of course, that for every one who manages to get the press, there are thousands who completely struck out.  The last time I looked, the Ivy League institutions counted a quarter of a million rejections in just a single year.  They’d fill several newspapers.  Problem is, they’re not news.

The second line of criticism comes from those who point out (duh) that you can only attend one institution, so why bother applying to eight or even nine?  This, I’d remind you, comes from the same people who complain about how impossible it seems for their students to get into even one Big 9 institution; who complain that their best student was shut out of all her top choices despite stellar credentials, even with the benefit of good counseling from someone who knows the game.

Even students without access to good counseling hear this, and they understand the odds, as much as any 17-year-old can understand statistics.  And while the chance of admission is not random, students may see it that way, as they really have no idea what their chances are going into the process; all they have to go on is published admissions statistics, which, taken at face value, actually overestimate a student’s chance of admission at any highly selective institution in regular admission, given the weight to Early Decision and Early Action.

But suppose a student can find a binomial probability calculator on line, and plugs in 9 chances, each with a 10% chance of success (again, admission is not random, and these events are not independent; this is an exercise).  Here’s what they’d get:

ScreenHunter 114 Apr. 05 11.25

The chance of being admitted to at least one (the last box) is 61%.  A little more than half, using optimistic estimates of probability, given highly asymmetrical information.  Does this student think he’s going to get in?

How about getting into all nine? Does she expect admits to nine out of nine? With a one-in-ten thousand chance?  I doubt it.

ScreenHunter 115 Apr. 05 12.11

The third line of criticism suggests that this behavior is wrong because it takes away chances from other students.

ScreenHunter 116 Apr. 05 12.15

No one believes it, but think of it this way: Each of these fine institutions is full every year. Capacity is capped.  In order to be full, each of the students they enroll has to be admitted.  Does this make sense?  If not, the math won’t persuade you.

The real issue, I believe, is that many people feel like these wildcat students, these mavericks who defy convention by applying to all the Big 9, put professional counselors at a disadvantage by refusing to play by the informal rules that make high powered secondary schools and highly selective institutions such cozy partners. If you read between the lines, you could easily suspect this informal rule against applying to all nine is a nice, wink wink, nudge nudge anti-competitive agreement propping up the implicit symbiosis that makes the college admissions game a win-win for certain agents on both sides of the equation.

If we yell enough, and make this behavior seem abhorrent  and somehow unacceptable, they seem to think, perhaps it will go away.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is how it feels when your privilege is taken away for just a moment in time.  Try to imagine for just a moment what it’s like living your whole life without it.


3 thoughts on “Our Annual Entitlement Ritual

  1. And what about financial aid? It behooves the student who has a shot at any of these schools, post 90s breakup of the financial aid collaboration, to apply to a bunch of them to see who is going to manipulate the same financial data in the most advantageous way for their specific circumstances. For a family for whom, say, $1500/year is a significant sum, this is a reasonable strategy, especially if they also utilized test fee and application fee waivers. For the student who may not come from a privileged background, attending any of these schools can propel them into networks of influence… so college counseling about finding the “right fit” doesn’t matter in the long run. College may not be about their “passion” but about moving an entire family, in one generation, from one social class into another.


  2. Jon, as always, I agree with you. I only wish, when a student has their admissions in hand (and their financial aid) and has then narrowed the field to their favorites, that they would release the other schools by either withdrawing the applications or saying no to their offer of acceptance. It is not the applying that I find troubling; it is only the hoarding of acceptances (once their preferred schools are in hand and aid questions have been answered) that I have a quarrel with.
    Because, as you said, not everyone has access to good counselors. Students who don’t have access to counselor support and advice will likely not know how to play the waiting list game, and perhaps do not have $500 to deposit and then forfeit should they come off a waiting list. Those are life-changing stakes.


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