The prevailing sentiment among high-achieving high school students is that college admissions is a lottery. It’s random, wherein after they dot their i’s and cross their t’s, their applications are sent into a raffle drum and admissions officers select the winning admits one by one until they’ve filled up all their spots for the incoming class, regardless of their extracurriculars or essays.
It sounds simply ridiculous when it’s laid out like that, doesn’t it? But if we are going to use the definition of random, that pretty much describes what the process might be like. So why do we think this anyway, and what can we do to improve our chances for success?
Why This Outlook Doesn’t Work
The idea that college admissions is a crapshoot stems from two main opinions held by students and parents alike: that college admissions should be a meritocracy, and that a college’s selectivity is seemingly arbitrary.
It’s very easy to think that college admissions should be a meritocracy, particularly when colleges are now more competitive than ever. The edge of a perfect 2400 on the SAT or a 4.0 unweighted GPA should be more important when being factored into the decisions admissions officers make, people reckon. So why are students with less than perfect stats being admitted over those that do?
The answer lies in the way people perceive the meritocracy in college admissions. People who are admitted truly deserve to go to the college they’re admitted to; nothing should devalue your acceptance. However, the incredible and sometimes over exaggerated importance of scores on standardized tests has made people lose sight of the holistic process college admissions is meant to be. Good candidates with great stats but very poor essays are almost always at a disadvantage in comparison to candidates with slightly lesser stats but great essays because admissions officers are seeking out people, not just students, for their incoming class.
Moreover, with incredible rates of rejection coming from elite colleges (Stanford University, for example, rejected 19 out of 20 applicants this past cycle), it’s easy to feel that admission to these elite colleges is arbitrary. Nevertheless, these decisions are anything but. Contrary to popular belief, you—yes, you!—have a lot of power in college admissions. The prompts you choose and how you present yourself weigh incredibly more than any fleeting importance luck has in your admission. Every member of a school’s incoming class is purposefully admitted; it’s up to you to show admissions officers that you’re worth admitting.
What College Admissions Really Is
And truly, that is the core of the admissions process: other human beings trying to form an impression of applicants while trying to find the right mix of people. This is what makes the process unpredictable: not some intangible bias, but human influence. But people misattribute this unpredictability to a crapshoot, which is certainly not the case. The admissions process tries to dig deep and understand who you are and where you are coming from as a human, and by understanding that and responding to it, you can position yourself to be successful.
So what can you do right now to increase your shot of getting in? Simple: be honest with yourself. Don’t use a college’s admit rate as a measure of your odds of getting in, because this assumes a mentality where everyone in the applicant pool is exactly equal. Instead, be introspective, and list out the things you want in a college and research colleges that are truly the best fit for you. That way, come decision time, you’ll have a solid variety of colleges from which you can claim one as your new home. Check out this post for tips and tricks to curating a solid college list.