Getting Rejected From Elite Universities

This is the time of year when elite universities, which have kept applicants in suspense for months, notify teenagers of their admission decisions.

Most of these applicants are going to be terribly disappointed, but I want to EMPHASIZE that the majority of teenagers get into their first choice school. (They can’t always afford to go their favorites, but they get in.

Don’t believe me?

Every year UCLA oversees an extensive survey of freshmen at four-year colleges across the country and every year about 75% of these students say they got accepted into their No. 1 school.

In other words, it’s not too tough to get into college!

Elite schools, however, are a different story for the small percentage of applicants who aim for these schools. If your child is in this category, I am rerunning a post on elite school rejections.

Here goes…

I’ve been getting emails lately from parents, who are bitter that their bright teenagers have been getting rejection letters from elite colleges and universities.

What follows are two email excerpts.

From a dad named Jeff:

My son is his high school’s valedictorian. He scored 35 on the ACT and had straight A’s all four years at an academically competitive school. He had plenty of extracurricular activities as well.

He has been wait listed by Duke, Vanderbilt, Rice, Tulane, Pomona, Washington U. (St. Louis) and Harvard. What the heck?

From a mom named Diane:

My daughter’s SAT, grades and extra-curriculars were superb.  She got waitlisted at Vassar, Colgate, Bowdoin and Bates.  All of the people involved are astonished at the outcomes.

Why the Surprise?

I hear from disappointed  parents like Diane and Jeff every year who are stunned that their bright children didn’t get into the elite research universities and prestigious liberal arts colleges on their lists.

These popular schools, however, reject the vast majority of their applicants who come from not only the United States by internationally. In fact, elite schools work hard to boost their rejection rates every year.

Apply So We Can Reject You!

One way that institutions increase the percentage of students that they reject is by courting high school students who have no chance of getting into their schools. Parents and teenagers are thrilled, for instance, if they get marketing material with a flattering cover letter from an Ivy League school, but it means absolutely nothing.

It’s cruel to mislead families, but you have to understand that colleges are businesses. If your child becomes collateral damage in the process, admission administrators aren’t going to care because they need to keep their jobs.

This admission practice (and there are other more egregious ones), is just one of many reasons why I am so cynical about the higher-ed industry – and it definitely is an industry!

A Glut of Highly Qualified Applicants

I am not suggesting that the teenagers of the parents who wrote to me weren’t qualified to attend these schools. I assume they were.

Don’t Rely on Such Cramped College Lists

The mistake that Jeff and Diane’s children made was to apply to the same set of schools that so many other affluent, “A” students swoon over. For instance, Diane’s daughter applied to seven of the top dozen liberal arts colleges (as ranked by U.S. News’ flawed college rankings).

Too many bright teenagers of affluent families look at the rankings and select schools near the top of the heap. And then they wonder why they don’t get into these schools.

Flawed College Lists

I am not suggesting that students stop applying to elite schools although I would love to see less of that! What I am suggesting is that teenagers become more creative about their lists and throw a wider net.

Just because a school has a higher ranking doesn’t mean it’s a better school!! Here are two previous posts from my blog on this topic:

Stop Fixating on These Colleges

Of course, throwing a wider net would necessitate that families let go of the extremely destructive belief that the most elite schools are the best institutions for students to attend.

Here is an old, but highly relevant New York Times article on this topic:

Revisiting the Value of an Elite College

A Final Look at Applying to Elite Schools

I’m ending with an excerpt from a previous guest post that discusses why brilliant students fall flat when knocking on the doors of the most prestigious higher-ed institutions. The observations come from Patricia Krahnke, a former assistant director of admissions at Rutgers University and now a college consultant with Global College Search Associates in Bloomington, IN.

Here is a sampling of what she wrote:


Dartmouth College

As a former admissions dean, this is what I can tell you: Very few people know what a student needs to look like to get into one of the Ivies.

The fact is that out of tens of thousands of applications, most of them look identical.

They all have perfect SATs, perfect SAT IIs, well-written essays, tons of AP courses, 5s on their AP tests, straight A+s over 3-4 years of high school, music lessons and high school theater. That kind of record in your child’s high school may be few and far between, but to the Ivies (and other highly competitive colleges and degree programs), it’s commonplace.

Fierce Competition Globally

Families are used to the idea of their child competing academically in their high school and town. But the competition for the Ivies is national and international. They don’t care about your child. They don’t HAVE to care about your child.

As an admissions director at Yale emphatically told me, “We only want the very top students from around the world.” (Of course, we all know that having legacy trumps that.)

A Look Inside Admission Offices

It’s certainly true that many admissions counselors will go to bat for certain students. But at the administrative level, I’ve never experienced anything where the leadership cared about anything but numbers.

And I’ve known countless admissions counselors over the years who only cared if the student met the parameters, had no interest at all in the kid behind the numbers. That is extremely — and heartbreakingly — common.

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