Why Getting Into Top Colleges Is So Difficult

Many parents have the opinion that attending a top-tier university establishes you for life, and they have started an intense competition of making sure their child gains admission to elite institutions. In some cases, this means keeping their students so busy the students accumulate five pages of extra-curricular activities, and the parents end up spending significant money and time on SAT and/or ACT tutoring. Further, the student’s essays must be stellar, thoughtful and personal – a challenge for teens. Teacher and counselor recommendations also need to highlight the student’s intellect and uniqueness, without making the student look elitist. It is a difficult balancing act and not many 17 year olds can meet these standards of excellence and maturity. So, parents are understandably shocked when their child has met many or all these qualifications and is still not accepted at a top-tier college.

Here is why we are seeing many highly talented students rejected from top tier universities:

10 – 25% of accepted students at elite institutions are minority (African American and Hispanic) students according to this Forbes article. This increases diversity of thought, experiences, and backgrounds. Many are also from low income backgrounds, which helps lift families out of poverty. It is a shift from past years when colleges did not actively recruit this group.

20% are athletes, N.Y. Times, Legacy and Athletes at Top Schools. Athletics seems to be a big draw for students and alumni donors, so recruiting these kids is a priority for many universities.

10 – 20% are international students, which helps broaden the horizons of our students, and creates a culture of diversity, US News, International Student populations. International students also typically pay full price to attend as they do not qualify for federal aid. It can help the school’s bottom line to admit international students.

Additionally, colleges have varying acceptance rates for legacies, children of big donors, students who possess a special talent or status, geographic diversity inside the U.S., first-generation applicants, females in STEM programs, etc.

That brings the total to 40-50% of spaces not being given to extremely strong but over-represented U.S. students. There is some overlap in the above categories, so the numbers are hard to quantify.

Additionally, many of these colleges are taking about 50% of their incoming class as Early Decision candidates. This makes the admissions process much easier for the college, but significantly more competitive for any student who is applying Regular Decision to these institutions. In some cases, it means that colleges are only accepting only 2 – 7% of the Regular Decision candidates. This has raised the stakes needed to qualify for the elite group of schools. High-performing groups such as Asian Americans, Indians, Caucasians, and females, are at a disadvantage due to overrepresentation. Therefore, even kids with almost perfect statistics may not gain admittance to Ivy League schools.  Many admissions counselors take only 3 to 5 minutes to read a whole application so it is difficult to stand out. It has also turned many children’s lives into ones where they do not have down time or the opportunity to relax and meaningrul self reflection.

The good news is that the qualities of the student determine their future, not the name of the university they attend.  Their ability to move past disappointment, find opportunities to match their interests, connect with professors, and find internships that are meaningful, will affect their success more than a college name.

According to a paper by Stacy Dale, a mathematician at Mathematica Policy Research, and Alan Krueger, an economist at Princeton University, “who you are” as an 18 year old is more important than “where you go.” After correcting for a student’s pre-existing talent, ambition, and habits, it’s hard to show that highly selective colleges add much earning power, even with their vaunted professors, professional networks, and signaling.” The Atlantic, What is an Elite College Really Worth. This paper tracked participants in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s to see their earning differentials, and found none for whites.

Additionally, Malcolm Gladwell shows statistics that students in the STEM field are much more successful going to a college where they are in the top 25th percentile of their class. Students in the bottom 1/3 of their classes generally drop out of STEM fields and choose less-well-paying careers. Read his book David & Goliath.

Students can and do achieve success at institutions which fit their preferences, and where they are one of the top students. In that environment, they can find the best research opportunities, excel in classes, find great leadership positions, and enjoy the activities on campus. Success is about how we evolve in the environment in which we are put.

6 replies
    ALAN HAAS says:

    Nicely done, Cori. Thanks for the much-needed perspective during this vexing period for seniors and their parents.


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