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  • Writer's pictureEverest Schipper

Beyond the Numbers: Understanding the Heart of College Admissions (Tallulah Bates ‘25 & Henry Koepp ‘25)

Introduction 

On March 28, in a daunting tradition known as “Ivy Day,” all eight prestigious and coveted Ivy League colleges released their regular admission decisions. Following Ivy Day, many of these colleges release statements pertaining to that year’s competitive applicant pools, yielding immediate gratification to accepted students and perhaps attempts to assuage the rejected ones. But to the high school juniors just beginning the application process, these statements bolster the irreconcilable fear that, in a sea of straight-As, perfect SAT scores, and trauma-dumping personal essays, how can one even begin to compete? 

This past year at Cate School was no different from the hundreds of other competitive high schools nationwide. When asked to define the recent application season, seniors Karla Camacho and Ada Hansen used adjectives such as “surprising” and “time-consuming.” At the same time, Riley Pan ‘24 described it as a “comparison;” each perspective encapsulates the unpredictability, intensity, and competitive nature of the process.  

Each year, applications to colleges accumulate by the hundreds and thousands. With the accessibility of the common application and aid of organizations such as FAFSA, more and more students are provided with the resources necessary to pursue college degrees. Undoubtedly, the increasing number of America’s youth seeking higher education is a testament to the nation’s bright future. And yet, there remain sinister back-dealings, shameless branding, and devastating consequences on reputations. We must now ask ourselves–and the 10 billion dollar college admission industry–how much of a gamble are college admissions?

Colleges As A Brand: Elite Ivies, Acceptance Rates & Early Decisions  

The Ivy League comprises rigorous academic institutions like Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia Universities and connotes prestige, tradition, and power. Some one-third of U.S. Presidents and the current Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans are all Ivy Alums, and despite mitigation attempts, the “Ancient Eight” still inordinately favour the rich and connected among their admissions pool. Since their founding, these members of the Ivy League have dominated American higher education and remain the most selective schools in the country. Indeed, this year marked “the most competitive admissions cycle in Yale’s history,” with the school’s acceptance rate hitting a near-unbelievable low of 3.73%. As the few select college counselors, students, and parents rejoiced in their acceptance, the remaining 97% were experiencing the sting of college rejection. Some of the most talented students in the country did not receive admission offers to any Ivy League institutions. Sophomores and juniors (and their parents) now worry that, despite their strive for excellence, their efforts will all be for nothing. When many American high schoolers feel they must attend an Ivy (or their equivalents like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) or Stanford) to become successful adults, the competitiveness and toxicity of the Ivies continue to exponentiate. While these colleges do promise an exceptional education, their extreme selectivity overshadows other equally impressive and desirable institutions. At Cate, the college counseling office often stresses to their students: “Don’t mold yourself to ‘fit’ into what you think a school is looking for; instead, find the school that best fits you.” A good “fit” means that a student feels significant and important within their college community and whether they feel like they matter to someone; their classmates, professors, teammates, and roommates. 

The College Board website explains that early decision (ED) and early action (EA) application plans can be beneficial to students who have thought through their college options carefully and have a clear preference for one institution. For students that have definitive first-choice colleges, applying early can have many benefits: reducing stress expended on applications; quick turnaround for college decisions; and can also provide the time needed to reassess and apply elsewhere if they are not accepted. According to the New York Magazine, in the last five years, the number of early applications has increased by over 60%, whereas the number of regular applications increased by only 26%. This supports the growing trend of high school seniors using early applications as leverage in the college admissions process, subtly revealing the sharp-elbowed, competitive nature of securing admission to the aforementioned “top” institutions. 

Students As A Brand: Test Scores VS Personal Narrative

In addition to navigating application deadlines, students face the harrowing dichotomy between test scores and a personal narrative with efforts to manipulate the Common App into their best advertisement and not their worst deterrent. 

Amid the pandemic, many American colleges made the submission of standardized test scores (SAT or ACT) optional in students’ applications. This raised questions regarding diversity, inclusion, and “college readiness.” Is the admitted class more or less prepared to succeed in their new institution? With over 3,000 accredited colleges, more than ⅓ are test-optional, and some schools, like Pitzer, will not consider test scores even if they are included in the application. However, a few institutions, such as Dartmouth, Yale, and MIT, have returned to required standardized test scores. Yale's test-flexible policy slightly modifies the testing requirement, allowing students to submit Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) scores in lieu of the standard SAT or ACT. This instance may accommodate the discrepancy between “perceived readiness” supposedly assured by high test scores and students’ actual preparedness. 

In addition to letters and numbers attaining an applicant’s academic merit, colleges also require an essay accompaniment. In these essays, students are encouraged to incorporate everything they stand for (motifs such as honesty, integrity, compassion, and service often glitter through these paragraphs) into a cohesive “brand” that can be grasped at a glance. Dallas Admissions explains the benefits of branding this way: “Each person is complex, yet admissions officers only have a small amount of time to learn about each prospective student. The smart student boils down key aspects of himself or herself into their personal ‘brand’ and sells that to the college admissions officer.” However, a personal brand is effective only when supported by action, so students are encouraged to select a passion as early as possible and then rack up the experience to substantiate it. This emphasis on pre-preparedness contributes–in addition to the aforementioned competitive atmosphere–to students lacking any particular passion or direction, feeling as though their applications are doomed before they even put pen to paper. 

The Sticky Stuff: Institutional Priorities VS Hooks 

Determinists, rejoice: a shocking number of applications are decided by factors well beyond students’ control. These factors often have less to do with academic qualifications or even over-the-top extracurricular activities. In addition to the aforementioned, all applications are evaluated based on whether or not the student meets an “institutional priority” the school needs to fulfill. Namely, prior to Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard (the 2023 Supreme Court Case ruling affirmative action as unconstitutional), colleges were rewarded for offering admission to historically underserved groups under President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. Additionally, some state institutions have an in-state admissions quota; University of North Carolina schools are only allowed to accept 18% of an incoming class from out of state while schools of the University of California must admit every high school student who falls in the top 9% of statewide GPA rankings to at least one UC campus. Underrepresented majors, recruited athletes, legacy applicants, and applicants related to donors are all examples of hooked applicants or those who fulfill institutional priorities. 

Closing Remarks

The college admissions process is daunting, often unrewarding, and, unfortunately, not as merit-based as advertised. The unforgiving academic crunch leading up to the fall of one’s senior year isn’t guaranteed to pay off: rather, it’s like working for the privilege to buy a lottery ticket. At Cate, if you aren’t satisfied, the process is not over. Transfers, waitlists, and gap years are just a few of the tools at the disposal of those trying to earn a spot after the regular admissions cycle.

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