Why you were denied

Some early decision admission decisions are rolling in, from the sound of things. And the annual understandable confusion from parents, counselors, and students rolls in right behind them. Few of them, of course, are questioning or complaining about acceptances; it’s the denials (also called “rejections”) that cause the stress and strain.

(Disclaimer: You know which colleges we’re talking about here. We’re not talking these 69 major research universities established by the Morrill Act in 1862 that have admit rates of at least 60% and enrolled well over 200,000 first-year students in 2021.) Click the image to expand.

We’re talking about the colleges everyone loves to talk about. You know the ones. Those of us who sit on stage at high school events where stressed parents (and by osmosis, their stressed children) ask questions like, “What do colleges want, anyway?” or “Why is it so hard to get into <insert college not listed above>?” We know too.

I’m reminded of this every time a counselor on a discussion list I subscribe to starts a question with, “How do colleges feel about…”. Colleges, collectively, of course, have very few consensus opinions about things. That’s both the good and the bad thing about American higher education. We’re all different.

I’m also reminded of a colleague of mine who hired a consultant to help with her son’s college application chances. “Our consultant told my son that <college not listed above> likes entrepreneurial students, so she advised him to start a business.” This, of course, is a great example of how Campbell’s Law manifests itself: Chasing that elusive slot, parents and students try to make themselves look like what colleges say they really want. This, of course, gives parents and students the illusion that they are in control.

I have bad news for you. In college admissions at the colleges not listed above, your ability to control things is far less than you think. Let’s take a look at things you can’t control:

  • Who reads your file: The admissions office may have dozens (or more) first readers, who have a big say in what happens to your file. That person is human, and subject to all the biases and random events of life that affect attitude on any given day. The day your file pops up for a read, they could have gotten a nice acknowledgement from a boss; or their dog might have died. They might really like your sarcastic and ironic take on things; or it might cause them to stop reading your file before finishing your essay.
  • When your file gets read: Your file might pop up after the application of the student who cured cancer. Or the one who submitted the worst essay of the year. It might get read at 10 am on a Tuesday, or 4pm on a Friday, with dozens more to read before the reader can knock off for the weekend. Context matters.
  • What other people say about you: Your letters of recommendation might not be glowing, even though the teacher who submitted it thought it was great. When I worked at Grinnell, a student from Iowa had a teacher write that “she’s not afraid to ask questions if she doesn’t understand the content.” Anyone from Iowa would recognize that as a compliment, but if you’re not from Iowa, let me translate it: “Although you can tell from her academic record that this student is the best our high school has produced in years, she is nonetheless still blessed with that humbleness we expect. She doesn’t think she’s better than her classmates.” One faculty member (a native of Brooklyn–the one in New York, not the one ten miles from Grinnell) read this and said, “Clearly, this student is sort of slow on the uptake.”
  • Whether you were born with an athletics gene: A letter from the coach of the college basketball team saying, “This student will be a starter from year one” gives you an incredible–literally, incredible–boost. (And this is not diminishing the work that athletes put in, of course.)
  • Where your parents went to college: Children of alumni get preferential treatment at many colleges. Many colleges think this is fine, because it’s always been that way. Others (including me) think this is unfair. If your parents chose poorly 30 years ago, you can’t help it.
  • Whether your grandparents have their name on a building on campus: If your name is Barney Rubble VI, and the library is named “The Betty and Barney Rubble IV Memorial Library,” your file will get a lot of attention, even before the Advancement Office signs the deal on the Pebbles and Bam-Bam Rubble Recreation Center. Yes, Bam-Bam was actually named Barney Rubble V, and he and Pebbles did marry after the series ended.
  • The college’s preferences: At some colleges, standardized tests are still important, even if the college reluctantly went test optional during the pandemic. At some of those institutions, submitting tests can hurt you; at others, not submitting tests can hurt you. And you have no way of knowing this or predicting which college is which (unless they come out and say it, like MIT and Purdue have done recently by re-instating testing requirements for Fall, 2024 admission. It’s not an approach I agree with, but it’s better than colleges who claim to be test-optional but still like tests.)
  • How a college views that choice you made in your senior schedule: I was once on stage at a New England prep school, and a student said she would graduate seven AP courses, but was worried that if she took a pottery course she really wanted to take, she couldn’t take the eighth. She wanted to know how her “top choice” might react to that, and what she should do. I thought about it for a moment and suggested that she ask the question differently: “If your top choice doesn’t value your decision, why do you think it should be your top choice?” I don’t think she was satisfied.

The lesson here is that you will probably never know why you were not admitted; it’s almost never one single factor. And you won’t know if you missed it by a hair or a country mile. It is perhaps a cruel but poignant lesson that will be repeated many times in your life. Sometimes things don’t go your way. And even when they don’t, they usually turn out just fine.

4 thoughts on “Why you were denied

  1. It’s so subjective. I have a solution. Use AI to give all students in the world a score based on a number of areas or future probabilities based on the information gathered, inputted and verified by the AI system. However the data would not have gender, race, or income level inputs. Students would be evaluated on things like academic ability, leadership, community building, conformity, teamwork, entrepreneurial ability, creativity and a host of other factors. Then schools could make offers to the students that they felt fit their criteria and values for how they want to “craft” their class. It would take stress away from the student and families and reduce admissions staff by over half.


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