• Dr. Thom

Answering Student Questions: What is selectivity for, our best advice, and how to handle rejection


Photo by Jac Alexandru on Unsplash

A while back, I wrote a guest piece for Challenge Success entitled “Three Fears About Applying to College and How to Address Them," in which I discussed the current state of college admissions and the anxiety it often causes in young people.


This week we received an email from a high school student who enjoyed that piece and had some really thoughtful follow up questions. So, we thought we would answer them here for everyone.


1) Why do you think colleges are becoming more selective every year and what impact does this have on such an impressionable generation?


First, let’s understand that the vast majority of colleges admit most of their applicants, so when we talk about selective admissions, we are talking about a very small sliver of colleges and universities. That small proportion of colleges does receive an inordinate amount of attention, but it is important to remember that these selective colleges represent a minority of institutions.


To the question: What I like about this question is that it starts with “why?” What strategic purpose does admissions selectivity serve? First, some facts:


  • From 1985 to 2016, the average SAT composite of the incoming class at a sample of selective colleges and universities increased 93 points.

  • For many selective colleges, 2021 was a record-breaking year for applications but application volumes at many colleges have been steadily increasing for decades.

  • Most people assume it has something to do with U.S. News and World Report college rankings, which do include some admissions-related variables. But in truth, the weighting of these variables in these college rankings is laughably small.


So what is going on here? How did we get to a place where these colleges have been flooded with applications, which mathematically drives down admissions rates?


It’s a combination of variables:


  1. We have written before about the creation of the “Admissions Factory” and the role of the Royale strategy of driving up applications through pre-filled applications and the use of credit card style marketing tactics. If you are a student getting tons of spam and junk mail, you can thank them

  2. Demographically, we have gone through periods of steady population growth through much of the 2000s and 2010s, including record breaking high school graduation rates. This means that for much of the preceding decade, there have simply been more students applying to college.

  3. The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to a massive shift toward test-optional admissions criteria. Many students took advantage of the opportunity to apply to selective universities when they might not have applied to in the past, assuming their test score wasn’t good enough.

But here’s the main point about all of this talk about selectivity: colleges are selective because they want to be selective. This didn’t happen by accident, it was a strategy. It’s marketing. Scarcity is an amazingly powerful attractant. Why was a ticket to Hamilton so coveted when the show first opened that people would happily pay outrageous prices to see it? Because of scarcity.


But that doesn’t mean that we have to buy into that. Happiness in high school and college is not scarce. Access to a transformational and affordable college experience is indeed abundant.


2) Do you think more colleges should continue using the holistic review process? Why or why not?


A holistic admissions process, in which many variables are considered in the reviewing of an applicant’s credentials, is vital for an equitable future of college admissions. This is in contrast to more exclusively data-driven “merit” criteria for admissions.


One of the greatest challenges for admissions officers is to create an admissions evaluation process that can be flexible enough to account for the tremendous diversity of the applicant pool, but that also can be consistently and efficiently applied so they can get decisions out in a timely (enough) manner. For the admissions office, this is a teeter-totter of variables that is constantly being adjusted. You can say that a student must have a 3.5 high school GPAbe eligible to admission, but what about the high school that maintains their GPA on a 100-point scale, and what about the student who would have had that GPA, if not for an extended bout of mono in Sophomore year, and so on?


Holistic admissions review, where an applicant’s subjectively reviewed personal qualities are used in conjunction with more quantitative measures like GPA and test score, is key to this balance.


That’s a good thing for students who care about the quality of the application they submit. There’s a lot of things in the admissions process that you as an applicant cannot control (e.g., who else applies, who is reading your application, etc). But you can always control how much energy you put into telling your authentic story in your application.


3) What advice would you give to a student applying to college and a student who was just denied from their top school?


The biggest piece of advice we give to students applying to college is two-part:

  1. Be organized

  2. Be authentic

The myth is that both of these traits are owned - you either have them or you don’t. The truth is that these are not traits at all - they are skills. And skills can be fashioned and honed.


Being organized in the admissions process involves a proactive awareness of what tasks you will need to complete and by what date they must be completed. Organization is key to taking advantage of early application deadlines and many other benefits that are available to the applicant who leans into the process early. Organization means staying in communication with colleges to which you are applying, following up on materials that have been sent, and, yes, checking your email for communications from the college.


Being authentic means that you have asked yourself the tough questions about what you want out of your college experience. Most students simply want to be admitted - that’s all they ask of a college. They are then surprised when they enroll and find out that the experience of being at that college doesn’t match their personality and quality of life standards. What we teach is an inside-out kind of understanding of a college environment. What brings you alive, what never fails to make you smile, when do you feel most like yourself? It’s okay if you don’t have an answer right now, but start working on figuring it out. Once those answers start to come into focus, find a college that understands you.


And what happens if a college rejects you? Then they didn’t really understand you, and they certainly do not deserve you. Remember, failure is a redirect, not an end result. As you are writing your life’s story, there will be redirects, there will be course corrections, it is all a part of the journey. When you eventually accomplish that big goal or dream you have been working towards, you will be appreciative of all of the twists and turns.


Not working with us yet? Feeling stressed by the college search process? Let's chat.

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