Skip to content

Dirty Secrets of College Admissions–It's More Art Than Science


Thanks to a reader, I stumbled upon a new publication today (new to me, anyway). The Daily Beast is running an article entitled, “Dirty Secrets of College Admissions.”  The author interviewed dozens of current and former admissions officers to ask about what the process is really like.


The answer?  It’s random.


Parents and students yearn for objective standards and transparent processes.  College admissions is neither.  People are judging people here, and so many unpredictable factors enter the process that it is virtually impossible to state what any particular student’s chances will be at a particular college or university.


The entire article at Daily Beast merits reading.  But I’m going to share a few anecdotes from the piece.


Current admissions officer, Ivy League university

“Some 70 percent of kids who apply are qualified to come to school here, and we have space for one in ten. We can be as choosy as we like. It almost always comes down to whether or not you’re a likeable person. Let’s face it, some people are just more affable or more likeable than others. An admissions officer is really asking himself, ‘Would I like to hang out with this guy or gal for the next four years?’ So if you come off as just another Asian math genius with no personality, then it’s going to be tough for you. An admissions officer is not going to push very hard for you.”


Current admissions officer, Ivy League university

“There’s an expression in admissions circles: the thicker the file, the thicker the kid. Don’t send in every newspaper clipping of your son on the high school honor role. That’s just redundant if we have his transcript.

Admissions officers want this to be a hands-off process. If a parent calls them repeatedly, that’s almost always an automatic rejection. They worry that parent or student might become a nuisance to the university for the next four years. They just don’t want to be contacted all the time.”

Former admissions officer at elite, small liberal arts college in the Northeast, age 25

“One year I had a student with a near-perfect SAT score and straight A’s. I’d originally put him in the submitted pile, but then we had to reduce the list. I reread his essays and frankly, they were just a little more boring than the other kids. So I cut him. Boring was the only justification that I needed and he was out.

Current admissions officer, state university in the Northeast

“All in all, we’re less selective than some of the elite schools or the Ivy League. But there are still some factors out of an applicant’s hands. One night, I got food poisoning at a restaurant in Buffalo. The next day, I rejected all the Buffalo applications. I couldn’t stomach reading them.”



So what is my advice to parents and students who read this stuff and start weeping?

1.  Make sure you are applying to the college that fits you best:  know who you are, then find the colleges most likely to value who you are.  And definitely to not put all your eggs in one basket.


2.  Try not to worry about things over which you have limited control.  By senior year, your grades, your test scores, your extracurricular record, and even your teacher recommendations are more or less fixed.  While you can tinker with these at the margins, try to find that Zen-like zone in which you can appreciate yourself for who you are.

3.  Do your best to allow your personality to shine through your application, and ensure that your every response to every question reveals something new and interesting about yourself.

4.  Prepare yourself for some colleges to say no.  Rejection is never easy, but if you reconcile yourself to the fact that the admissions process is always somewhat random, you’ll be less likely to suffer psychological trauma when you’re inevitably rejected by at least one of the colleges on your list.


Mark Montgomery
College Counselor



Technorati Tags: college admission, college counseling, college selection, admissions officers, admissions offices Tags: college admission, college counseling, college selection, admissions officers, admissions offices


Archive by Date

Join our Facebook Group ››
Stay informed about college admissions trends and ask questions of experts who can give you Great College Advice.