I discussed what to look for in a college in a lengthy chapter of Preparing Your Teens for College (see the Table of Contents). College admissions has changed profoundly over the last two decades as an increasing number of high school graduates are pursuing higher education. Among most universities, there is increasing competition for students. These colleges are vying for numerical growth and/or better students in the hopes of moving up the ranks (raising their average SAT/ACT score, boosting their graduation rates, and so on). But among elite universities, the competition from students has become increasingly fierce. Ivan Maisel explains in an article for the Stanford alumni magazine:
Brand consciousness and a belief (not shared by Stanford admissions people) that success is measured by entry to one of a handful of elite schools is part of the cause. The rising cost of college—and concerns about the value of a degree—has hastened this phenomenon as families gravitate toward well-known schools with strong reputations. The emphasis on rankings such as those compiled annually by U.S. News & World Report exacerbates the fallacy, says dean of admission Richard Shaw, “that if you don’t get into a top 25 school, you’re doomed.”
The number of applicants at Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale has tripled since 1993. Since these schools aren’t interested in massive numerical growth, they’re acceptance rate is plummeting. Stanford now accepts only 1 of 17 applicants. Maisel explains that, “69 percent of Stanford’s applicants over the past five years with SATs of 2400—the highest score possible—didn’t get in.”
What helps? “The percentage of alumni children admitted to Stanford is roughly three times the overall percentage of acceptance: somewhere in the mid to high teens.” It also helps if the football team needs a good quarterback, or the orchestra needs a great tuba player, and you bring that particular talent.
What this means, of course, is that the process of getting into a university like Stanford is increasingly mystical and indecipherable. Their admissions staff of 52 people (Dean, Assistant Deans, admissions officers and part-time readers) is looking for “intellectual vitality.” Dean of Admissions Shaw explains:
“It’s a holistic evaluation….Of course academic credentials are important, but we’re also looking for evidence that this young person has a passion, that he or she will bring something to our community that is unique. We want to hear a ‘voice’—that’s a critical component.”
Maisel’s article goes on to explain that alumni whose children are denied admission are often devastated. And yes, they do check if the alumni have remained “connected” to the school.
“Sometimes people say, ‘Do you know I’ve given money? Do you know I’ve led (this committee)?'” von Bargen says. “We really don’t. We know which people are engaged. But exactly what they do, how much they give, we have no idea.”
Hmm. Hopefully the disappointed parents can recover. The truth is their kids will excel no matter where they go to college. For an entertaining and insightful exploration of the frenzy associated with elite college admissions, check out Crazy U by Andrew Ferguson. And for a fascinating overview of the history of admissions at Harvard, see this piece by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell unpacks his perspective a bit further in his most recent book, David and Goliath.