College Admission Heartbreak and Reality


One way that I try to keep up with what’s happening in the higher-ed world is to belong to some LinkedIn Groups including one called College Counseling for the Rest of Us. Last week Michael Szarek, the group’s founder, who is an assistant vice president at Felician College and a college consultant in New Jersey, started a discussion by throwing out this question:

So, what are the rest of us hearing out there? Admission decisions, financial aid packages, student choices – what’s the word with your students or at your college?

I thought the the discussion among the consultants, many of which are former college admission folks, was so valuable that I got permission from Szarek and the participants to share some of their observations. I’d urge you to read all the way to the bottom.

A College Meltdown

Some of the comments were triggered by the lone parent in the group (a dad from New Jersey), who acknowledged that he was angry that his daughter hadn’t gotten into the five Ivy League schools where she had applied. After being rejected by her top choice, his daughter had a meltdown.

Getting Into Elite Schools

Patricia Krahnke, a former assistant director of admissions at Rutgers University and now a college consultant with Global College Search Associates in Bloomington, IN., weighed in on the Ivy rejection:


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 10s 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.)

In other words, they expect to see extraordinary academic challenges conquered with excellence. I have a student this year who took third year honors calculus at the regional big ten university and got the top grade in the class — he took full advantage of faculty hours and tutors. As a math major, he was able to have that professor write him a letter of recommendation for his applications, which was invaluable. Yeah, he’s into music and theater, but that’s not what got him into Harvard. (That’s where he will matriculate this fall.)

Doing Something Special

When we work with students — especially the top ones — we urge them to stop focusing their extracurriculars on the activities that everyone does, the easy stuff that basically means showing up at the high school after class. We point them in the direction of serious undertakings (preferably linked to their strongest area of interest) that will make them pop out on an application.

I know high school students who have arranged trips to meet the Supreme Court Justices in Washington (now Swarthmore students), students who have arranged city-wide high school service trips to New Orleans, etc.

Avoiding Boring College Admission Essays

crumpled paperThe essays. Even the top students sound boring and ordinary. We know they’re not, but they are so used to just following ordinary ideas of excellence that have been set by the high school’s (or private school’s) standards — and being rewarded for it — that there is little to use in an essay that will set them apart.

So the tough part of our job is drawing the student out of his or her comfort zone to see themselves and their accomplishments in new light. We help them to express this new understanding of themselves via the essays and personal statements.

Preparing for Interviews

Interview prep is also absolutely crucial, getting the parents to stop doing the talking and then helping the student to hear his or her own voice. Getting the student used to speaking on their own behalf to a stranger, getting them to connect the dots between their heart and their mind and their spirit, reconciling their fantasies with reality, helping them to see beyond the walls of high school and home, to understand that they are making an argument on behalf of the quality of their future.

Interviews are usually optional, often are simply a means to ask questions of the interviewer, and they can backfire. Even if it’s essentially an opportunity for the student to ask questions, those questions had better be well thought out and consistent with the rest of the student’s application. The student who simply tells an interviewer that he wants to go to Yale because — duh — it is prestigious, has sealed his fate: Not going to happen.

The student who has been been through a strong interview prep process has learned how to talk about the connections between herself, her dreams, her area of interest, the college’s ethos, and the college’s offerings.

Most families/schools don’t/can’t do any of this.

It’s Just the Numbers in College Admissions

Here is another observation from Krahnke:

It’s certainly true that many admissions counselors will go to bat for certain students — I was the queen of that, the office gnat, taking files into my upline’s office and saying, here, you be the one that can’t sleep at night — 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.

Speed Reading Through Applications

The whole experience had become so mechanized, it was all about speed reading applications. My personal best was 100 in a day, I’m ashamed to say.

And now I hear universities applicationstalking about implementing automatic decision making algorithms — until the student matriculates, no one will ever know the kid exists except for a machine — unless maybe they got lucky enough to meet a passionate admissions counselor, but the fact is, with approximately 2 million high school grads entering college each year, most of them don’t unless they’ve got the savvy and gumption to make those connections for themselves.

Even here in Southern Indiana, talk to Indiana University faculty and admissions folk, and they complain about how soulless it’s all become. In Vermont, the admissions counselors at many colleges there talk about how they feel like “Used Car Salesmen.”

That’s why we talk to families about owning their college search process. Take the reins of your life and don’t let that pile of virtually identical college publications in the living room corner confuse you.

It may be different for you, but among my connections out there, the mechanization of education and the disconnect between the numbers-people and the people-people is a divide that appears to be growing quickly, and it is affecting admissions, enrollment and teaching at every level.

I work with fascinating, talented students who have gotten into the Ivies. Now that I think about it, not one of them has ever been approached by or courted by an admissions counselor. Hmmmm…

It’s astonishing how many students and parents have no idea at all how to navigate this stuff.

Another Take on What’s Happening

Here’s more comment on the topic from Parke Muth, an associate admissions director  at the University of Virginia until last summer, who is now a consultant with a wonderful college blog:

Patricia, your comments confirm much of what I have seen and heard lately. The huge increase in applications at many selective schools have made the personal efforts and personal biases (in both the good and bad sense of the word) of ‘human judgement’ largely superflous. But there are are still hold-outs., but very few that I know of.

But I do know that the personal makes a huge difference in lives and decisions. Here is the end of an email an admission dean at a highly selective school sent to a recently accepted student and the response on the part of the applicant’s mom (whom I have known for many years).. I have excised some the part of the mom’s letter that compares another highly regarded school’s indifference to the human qualities of the student out as it is too specific.

Admission Dean: “P.S. — Like you, I’m a fan of Wallace Stevens. A faculty member introduced me to him long ago and likened “The Emperor of Ice Cream” to a Bob Dylan lyric. I was hooked.”

Mom: She was so impressed/touched by him writing and what he said; she has responded to him already. .. She has not declared but she has decided. I could not be more pleased at the outcome.

I always enjoyed writing personal notes on the acceptance letters I sent. My hand, however, did not necessarily feel quite the same way.. This initial connection led to long term interactions with students and then graduates.

 More to Come

I’ll share more of what this group had to say about wait lists in a future blog post!



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  1. I think some people seem to be looking at this in a… strange way. “The best” school is supposed to be the one with the “the best” faculty and education programs – not “the best students”.
    The school is made up of who it employs and what it offers. Not who attends it. Let’s use a sports analogy.

    How do you determine the “best” team in the NFL? You could use wins, points, offensive/defensive ranks, but in all of these cases, the best team is based on the team’s players. If someone argued that no, in fact the Baltimore Ravens were not the best team in football – because they have terrible fans; few people would take this person seriously.

    I’ve been hearing a similar complaint in sports for years. It’s not fair, tickets are so expensive, why can’t they make some cheap seats so I can take my kids?
    Because this is a business. It exists to make money, not to make you happy. Just because they make money by making some people happy, does not mean they need to make everyone happy.

    And lastly, yes there is more to success in life than raw mental ability. The smartest people tend to end up as engineers and scientists. While the richest people are their less intelligent(though still well above average) bosses.

  2. There is a Turkish joke. Once Nasreddin Hodja’s home was burglarized. People from the community were stopping by to say how they are sorry and how Hodja should have been doing this and taking care of that to prevent the burglary. Finally Hodja could not stand this constant advice and bursts out “People! Don’t you think the thief too has some responsibility for this calamity !”

    Now everyone is saying “well, if your kid is bright let him apply to other good schools, do this do that” well beyond all that does anyone not think that admission policies at ivies are at fault too. The admission policies at Ivies are not exactly merit based, not exactly data driven, not exactly accountable to applicants or to the university in general. Admissions hide behind words like “holistic” and “building a class” and “art not science” in the meanwhile they are robbing what arguably belongs to best and the brightest!

    By the way I do believe about a quarter of the admitted class (of course the top quarter:)) is deservedly placed in those schools, no question there. Magical world of divination by the admissions happens for the rest, only three quarters of the class.

  3. Lynn,
    This was a very refreshing read of the article and the replies. I can only make one observation – sooner or later everyone buys a lottery ticket. The prestigious schools are just that. I sometimes wonder if most applicants parents feel the same. They’d rather spend the application fee, wondering if they are the exception.

    It will get very interesting in the next 10 years, as applications should likely fall off, as the echo boomer students are fewer than now. I have 3 sons, a freshman in college, an 11th grader, and a 6th grader. I’ll bet you a cup of coffee (heck a mocha at Starbucks) that my 6th grader will be “luckier”. Maybe all these parents should just give their kids a couple hundred thousand, just to sit out for a few years, and invest in a business! Wouldn’t that be a great application letter, someday!

    1. I couldn’t agree more David! Aiming for a tiny number of schools is a total crap shoot. It will be interesting to see what college admissions are like when your 6th grader is applying. There will certainly be less affluent students (the applicants schools love) in the mix.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  4. I’m not just jaded, but bitter. Our story? Our son is one of those “boring” over achievers. I know he’s human and, without causing eyes to roll, he had done everything he could do to get into any school. Perfect 36 on his ACT, 3 sport athlete (really), #1 in his class, All-State in choir, state champ, student government and the like. And to his credit, he’s a good kid. Saying this is common is crap. Only 700 kids in the US had perfect ACT’s. But I’ve learned that many admissions professionals take some pride and sick satisfaction in noting that they rejected kids like my son. They say “We’re looking for something special…”. Good; why not start with your brain? I agree with Mike’s comment; my son couldn’t do any more without killing himself. So what happened? He was rejected by 5 Ivies plus Stanford while two other kids from our community got in. Their background? A couple of dope-smoking, counter culture dudes who got a 30 and 32 respectively, were in no extracurriculars to speak of (9th grade JV baseball) – but one started a catering business that served bad food for two months at grad parties and other started a band and did a concert for the homeless which was attended by about 17 people. So this is what an admissions counselor finds “interesting”? This shows “leadership”?
    Even if I’m too close to the issue, what do you tell someone like my son, who aspired to get into an Ivy school since he was in the 8th grade…that he wasn’t weird enough? It’s easy to be bizarre. It’s much much harder to treat everything you do as an opportunity to excel.
    I can take my son getting passed over for a kid with similar credentials just due to the numbers, but I can’t stomach the idiotic PC attitude that asks real achievers who struggled to make it to the front of the line to step aside so 2000 other kids who didn’t do as well can walk through the gate because they were more “interesting” than my son. Gimme a break.
    There may be a lot of great resumes that come through at the Ivies, but great achievement is never pedestrian and the admissions folks at those schools need to get off their lazy asses, stop searching for fake, made-up, contrived uniqueness and, rather than belittle the kids who can do things they never could, focus on the kids who have managed to survive the gauntlet of high expectations and emerged on top. A collection of great achievers is not boring. I hope the same admissions counselors who rejected my son will select the goofiest professional they can find the next time the need a good doctor or lawyer. At least the person and the experience will be “interesting.”

    1. Hi Martin,

      I am sorry that your son didn’t get into those 5 Ivies and Stanford. The odds, despite your child’s talent, is miniscule. Harvard and Stanford accepted less than 6% of student. And if your child wasn’t a legacy at one of these elite schools, or a recruited athlete, or the child of a billionaire or a gifted minority, your child’s chances were even lower.

      Studies have repeatedly shown that brilliant students don’t have to go these handful of schools to succeed in life. He should do well wherever he goes.

      Here is an essay that I wrote at the behest of The New York Times recently that touches on this subject:

      Here is another post that I wrote:

      My own personal peeve is that too many brilliant students are regrettably myopic when they are applying to schools. They assume that the schools your son aimed for are going to provide the best education. People fall in love with the brand names, but these places are often not the best places for undergrads. Some of these schools get miserable professors ratings including Harvard.

      Good luck.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  5. Our family faced this dilemma 4years ago.My husband was laid off from his university job durning the 2008 financial downfall. This also meant losing tuition for our daughter who had planned to attend this prestigious university.Several monthsl later and still without a job she had to choice a college which included Harvard and Princeton without any financial aid or a full merit scholarship to a very well known regional university.We weren’t sure what to do.She had twin siblings right behind her as well. With plans on attending medical school in her future, she made the decision to accept the scholarship.She is graduating debt free and was given many wonderful opportunities durning her time there.In the end, she felt it was the right decision.

  6. Mike, I’m glad your family recognizes that some of that early mail is nothing more than spam. I’m finding first- generation students and their families, in particular, do not recognize these mailings for what they are and get their hopes dashed during the process.

    Lynn, thank you for continuing to enlighten us about the college admission process.

  7. We have just completed the 12 month grueling process ourselves and it led in directions we hadn’t even thought of… wonderfully so! The BEST thing that happened in our search and apps was that our son was rejected in the early round at Princeton. We cried a little and then took a hard look at things, re-grouped and broadened our search while still working hard to keep our criteria (thanks Lynn for pointing out all the good stuff like grad rates, retention rates, professor accessibility rankings…. etc.) There are a lot of great schools out there with similar stats to the Ivies and even best them in many areas! In the end he was rejected by all his lottery schools, but accepted by his matches and safeties and with some surprising awards, scholarships, etc that we hadn’t expected. His decision is made and we are still pinching ourselves that he will attending the College of William and Mary in Virginia in the fall. It has all the elements we were looking for on paper, which were doubly confirmed in our campus visit, and we never received a SINGLE piece of mail from them prior to our submitting an application. We found them… and thankfully they reciprocated with an acceptance and even came through with financial aid. Had Princeton NOT rejected him in December, he never would have found his way to William and Mary. My advice is to have a lot of matches and safeties and love them all so you have options in April. He has no regrets over Princeton, he says W&M is his best fit. Yeah!

  8. After three years of researching, reading and finally living through it (son applied 6 ivies, rejected from all:) ), here are my thoughts, three important factors which are at play when it comes to a yes/no from very selective colleges (includes all ivies, of course):

    By the way, It is not true that 10s of thousands have 4.0 GPA and nearly perfect SAT (1550+, 2300+) or 800 SAT II. Only some students have these stats, and total number of these students cannot fill open slots at ivies, saying nothing about most selective colleges. However beyond some numbers such as 1450, 2200 it does not matter so much it is 2200 and not 2300. Same goes with GPAs, 5s in APs etc. Or any “standard” extra-curricular activities.

    So what is important?

    1) Beyond these nominal academic stats (not the best stats) it is more important that student can pay full price or have little financial need. Selective colleges will say they “are need blind”, another empty buzz word, but I really do not think so:) I say look at the percentage of students in FA in Common Data Set over the years. Very stable percentage.
    2) It also helps the student is from certain “known” high schools. Number of admits from “known” high schools read that as feeder, very stable. Why take a chance with little known schools.
    3) Very selective schools has racial quotas. Of course they will never admit to this. Notice that racial composition of the student body stays the same year after year, how is that possible if not controlled consciously? By the rule of large numbers? I highly doubt.

    So if it was totally merit based and not related to financial strength or which feeder school or race we would be seeing more variation year to year in the student body composition.

    In a nutshell, very selective colleges try to grab full paying relatively smart (not necessarily academically the most successful) and well connected students from certain racial groups by certain amounts. Based on these parameters they will say yes or no.

    PS: Son, white, non-Jewish, academically most successful, from fairly new high school, will be going to one of the most selective colleges, just not ivy, with full tuition help as need based financial aid.

  9. Lots of great comments!!

    As a first step to curtailing the madness surrounding admission to these colleges, I would like to propose a ban on referring to them as “elite”. That word connotes that that they are superior to other schools; they are not. Labels such as “dream” and “highly selective” also add an aura of being desirable or sought after. Words are powerful. Perhaps by changing how we describe these schools, we will affect how they are perceived.

  10. I would say replace the rankings with your own research.

    It has been a year long journey but I must say there were many wonderful surprises along the way. We ended up with fantastic choices and scholarship offers that are more than I had imagined possible. Mike it sounds like you have an accomplished son and he will do well. It is stressful for parents and kids alike, and is hard to navigate because in some areas the info is sparse and hard to predict what will happen in your individual circumstance. I found the people that work at the colleges that I came into contact with to be warm, helpful, and sincere.

    Lynn’s book came along at just the right time and I am grateful for what I learned and I recommend it often.
    Thank you Lynn!

    1. Congratulations Julie! I am glad your child has great choices. And thanks for your kind words. It always makes me feel great when I hear stories like your!!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

    2. Julie, thanks, we have. We use Michelle’s Tool, found at DIY College Rankings and lots of leg work. He’ll have plenty of good options, none of them $250k.

      I also second the recommendation of Lynn’s book. It should be the required first book every parent reads when the thought of college for their child first enters their head.

  11. I too agree with Mike, and I also agree that only when parents and kids start saying no, will we see any change. One can get a useful, meaningful college degree at a non-ivy-league college and go on to a very successful, rewarding career – and life. There’s more than one path to success, however yo define that.

    1. I completely agree. A top student should really feel more special when he or she is courted by a non-ivy-league school that is truly interested in what he or she can add to their freshman class. The prospective students become more than just numbers. There are admissions officers, deans and college presidents out there who take the time to write personal replies in acceptance letters, who call to check in after the acceptance letter has gone out, in order to personally recruit the student. This is the kind of experience I want top students to have. Not this numbers game, waiting on pins and needles to see if you are one of the “chosen few” who has passed through the impersonal process of highly selective admissions. The difference seems to say something about the college experience the student will have. How can we trust that the student will be nurtured and welcomed at a college that starts off their process in such an impersonal way?

      As a parent, I want to see a school showing caring and guidance for my child right from the start of the process. That helps to assure me that my child will be encouraged to grow and thrive once she gets to campus.

  12. As our son narrows his list and begins the search process in earnest, I’m becoming fairly jaded.

    He will look like any other “top candidate,” good academics in the top classes at a good school, plenty of ECs, life long classical musician, athlete, blah, blah, blah blah…blah. This was not by design, but by doing the things he wanted to do during the course of his childhood.

    That, say the bigs, is enough to get you into the hunt, but not even close to feeling like a solid, if you aren’t an athlete, Senator’s son, legacy, Olympian, under represented minority or haven’t cured cancer, you must do more.

    The “more” comes at an expense, giving up your childhood, loosing the journey for the destination. Is it worth it?

    I think the answer after visiting several of the bigs a few weeks ago is decidedly no. In fact, with name plates and references to the athletic conference removed, some would have trouble luring the top students.

    Our son will not be applying to any of the Ivies, not because he doesn’t have the qualifications, but because he found no there, there.

    What’s more disappointing isn’t the game, but how many other institutions are signing on to try to be the same. There’s a clear strategy for doing this. Get a lot of applicants to apply so you can reject most of them and become more “selective.” Vanderbilt has been mailing him since he was in the 9th grade.

    The only way to stop this nonsense is to just say no. No I won’t pay a quarter of a million dollars in tuition. No I won’t give up my childhood. No I won’t let a magazine define my self worth. No applications to Ivies. No applications to those who’ve spammed me for four years. NO!

    1. Hi Mike — I love your attitude! It’s the healthy way to proceed on your college search. Letting college rankings dictate choices is a sad way to look for wonderful schools that will provide your child with an excellent education and home for four years.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

    2. I could not agree more. Increasingly it is apparent to me that this emperor has no clothes. It is a huge error in judgment to believe that colleges are interested in the person behind the application. Higher education does not give a rat’s ass about the welfare of your child.

  13. Regarding comment “It’s astonishing how many students and parents have no idea at all how to navigate this stuff.”

    Can you provide a “top 10” list of how to properly navigate things. Perhaps reference earlier blog postings.

    Thank you for all the great information!