Please Apply So We Can Reject You!


High-achieving students who apply every year to the Ivies and other elites schools have heard the grim statistics about how ridiculously hard it is to get into these schools.

That reality, however, doesn’t deter students from applying even though it’s pointless for most of them.

Ambitious teenagers aiming to attend the nearly impregnable schools at the top of the rankings heap tend to assume that if they apply to enough elite institutions they will surely get into one of them. They mistakenly treat the admission process as a lottery, which has lead to application inflation.

I heard from one teenager last year, for instance, who applied to more than 30 schools and he said that wasn’t unusual among his wealthy peers at a top high school in Los Angeles.

Encouraging Pointless Applications

A big culprit in this phenomenon are the schools themselves. The institutions work hard to encourage students to apply to produce their fear-inducing rejection figures.

Many elite schools strive to attract as large an applicant pool as they can by encouraging students who have ZERO chance of getting admitted to their institutions to send in applications.

I can’t emphasize enough that if your child gets literature from an elite school, it means N-O-T-H-I-N-G. It certainly doesn’t indicate that he or she has better odds of getting into the institution.

You can’t sit down on a couch with a bag of potato chips without eating most of the bag. You hate yourself for it, but you can’t resist. And that’s how it is for elite schools that tease students for purposes of their own self-aggrandizement.

Pleasing U.S. News

The intent of this craven practice is to burnish their images, impress families, please college presidents and boards of trustees and, of course, curry favor with U.S. News  & World kingmakers. U.S. News gives brownie points to schools that reject more students. Higher rejection rates also help a school’s bond ratings.

If you want to read a story that looks at this practice in more depth, I’d urge you to check out the following article from The Chronicle of Higher Education that appalled me when I read it a few years ago: Application Inflation.

University of Chicago

University of Chicago

The article focused on a cynical admission policy change at the University of Chicago that had not been experiencing any trouble attracting excellent applicants.  Administrators, however, had  decided that wasn’t good enough.

Chicago vs. Columbia

A dean said that he wasn’t satisfied because some schools on the East Coast were attracting more applicants. In an interview in the school’s student newspaper, the dean said the U. of Chicago deserved more applications than Columbia University because Chicago was a better school. Does anyone else find this rational galling?

The school beefed up its recruiting to target more students so they could reject more of them. I wonder if the dean got a bonus for breaking more hearts.

The executive who helped institute this policy, which led to the tripling of Chicago’s applicant pool since 2006, recently landed at Colby College, an elite liberal arts college in Maine. Just like U. of Chicago, Colby has never had any trouble attracting phenomenal applicants, but when a new college president arrived on campus, the top enrollment administrator was replaced with the Chicago numbers guy.

Here is a story that appeared in The Chronicle last week that mentions the Colby situation: The Hottest Seat on Campus.

By the way, encouraging noncompetitive students to apply to institutions is hardly just a preoccupation of the most elite schools. I wrote a story about how countless schools further down the food chain do the same thing:  Should You Be Flattered By a Red Carpet Treatment?

Schools Want the 10 Percenters

If elite schools were honest, they would tell applicants without a hook not to bother applying if they aren’t in the top 10% of their high school class. (I will explain what I mean by a hook shortly.) And, as a practical matter, nearly all of these 10 percenters won’t be accepted either. At a college conference that I attended last week in Indianapolis, for instance, a keynote speaker mentioned that Stanford rejects 70% of students with perfect SAT scores.

You can see for yourself how many students come from the top 10% of their high school classes by looking at the stats for each school on the College Board. When you call up a school’s profile on the College Board’s website, click on the Applying hyperlink and then the Academics and GPA hyperlink.

Here are examples of schools that strongly favor the 10 percenters;

Stanford’s 10% stat:



Brown University’s 10% stat:


Harvard University’s 10% stat:


10 Percenter Exceptions

It doesn’t matter, by they way, if a high school contains a large number of brilliant teenagers. Elite colleges and universities want the top 10%.

There are some exceptions to this 10% rule. The schools will waive the 10% rule for some legacy applicants, recruited athletes,  high-achieving minorities, professors’ kids and the children of celebrities and the super rich.

Why 10%?

Why the obsession with the top decile?

No one would argue that children who rise to the top of their high school classes are going to be better students than other smart kids. The reason for the 10% rule is once again because of U.S. News & World Report. The college rankings giant gives brownie points to schools that fill their freshman classes with 10 percenters. It’s a nauseating reason, but it’s true.

10% Admission Exceptions

Many private high schools, as well as affluent public high schools, have fought back by no longer ranking. I’m sure most of these schools believe they have won this battle, but they haven’t.

Eliminating rankings hasn’t deterred colleges and universities from generating their own rankings with the information that they have for individual high schools. You can learn more about how colleges will rank students themselves if the high schools don’t cooperate by reading the following blog post by Parke Muth, a former associate dean of admissions at the University of Virginia:  Dirty Big Secrets: Part 2 Rank and Class

 Summing Up:

Schools that fish almost exclusively in the 10-percent pond should tell students, who aren’t in that decile that they have virtually no chance of getting in without one of the aforementioned hooks. That, however, isn’t going to happen.

It’s heartbreaking to see so many overly stressed and overly committed students ruining their high school years by trying to attain the cramped admission definition of “perfection.” I would argue that not being in the 10 percent can be freeing.

These kids can stop chasing an impossible dream and focus on all the wonderful schools in this country that really, truly want them.



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  1. My daughter is in the top 1% of the school and Nation. She has a 2300 SAT. Volunteers at a hospital, works, and plays violin in the county orchestra. She has been solicited by top schools but the cost is beyond our ability to pay and we decided the cost of applying to them was too high also. She decided to go to a local college where she can get into the honors program and will save her money for grad school.

    1. She graduates in May, 2015. Interestingly, her friend got a full ride scholarship offer for his sport into prestigious school. It’s sad to see how academic achievement isn’t honored like sports achievements.

  2. I can say for a.face that I myself wasn’t in the top 10% in high school and I still got accepted to a good school
    Dakota State University.

    1. Hi Chris,

      The 10% rule is only for the tiny percentage of schools that are the most highly ranked. Thankfully, this isn’t an issue at most schools!

      Lynn O.

  3. HILARIOUS! My son just keeps getting mail from University of Chicago – for no apparent reason! We have three piles of college mail – mail from schools we want to pursue, mail from schools we would like, but which do not fit the parameters we have already set and the feel good pile. These “feel good” mailings are random notes from far flung schools saying things like — “You’ve impressed us”! Really? How?

    Thanks for your reminder to take a breath and stay focused on fit. Jeepers!

  4. And what about homeschoolers, who have no class rank? How do they fit in to the statistics? The colleges do accept homeschoolers, too. What does U.S. News do with that data?

  5. Thanks for the excellent post! My senior son is at a private high school that doesn’t rank students. Should I ask to see the school profile? Is that where colleges get the information to determine rank anyway? He has an unweighted GPA of 3.3, is taking the most rigorous curriculum available and has a 34 ACT. It’s a bit confusing without knowing his class rank if the disparity between GPA and test score will be construed as a negative. It is frustrating that he may be penalized for challenging himself intellectually and becoming a “lifelong learner” rather than focusing on achieving perfect grades. By the way, we are looking for a good fit for him rather than relying on the flawed U.S. News rankings!

  6. Hi Lynn,

    This is what Pake Muth states in his blog:

    “Colleges and universities do all they can to enroll students who are ranked in the top 10% of their entering class. This isn’t because the schools have done studies to demonstrate that anyone in the top 15-20 percent would not do as well. (Or if there are such studies I have not seen any.) Instead, the 10% figure is measured and used as a significant rubric on the US News rankings. ”

    I don’t think most colleges “submit rank information they themselves arrived at without the assistance from high schools” to US News for the above purpose. Some may do like Emory et. al. If all did so all bets are off. They most probably are submitting data provided by the students not data made up internally. So in the end what we are left with still are only opinions and conjectures from outside, not hard facts.

  7. The statistics on the top 10% class rank is misleading. For example, the statistic from Brown’s CDS (line item C10) indicates that 94% are in the top tenth of high school graduating class. However, this is based on only 32% of first-time, first-year (freshmen) who submitted high school class rank (line item C11) .This means that a full 68% of the first year students did not submit class rank data. Similarly, only 40% of Dartmouth’s freshmen provided rank data. Therefore, we should be careful before we start arriving at conclusions based on such incomplete data.


    1. Hi Shan,

      Please understand, as noted in my post, that schools can rank students themselves without assistance from high schools.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      1. Following up Shan’s comment, granted that colleges can and will rank students themselves without help from high schools. But those unofficial rankings aren’t counted in the USNWR data, correct? So unless a college wants a 10% cutoff for reasons other than the USNWR ratings, then it seems like students in the top 15%-20% coming from schools that don’t rank would have some advantage over students coming from schools that do rank.

        1. Hi Val,

          What you said is my hunch as well. There is nothing magical about the 10% other than the fact that it is a statistic used by US News while ranking colleges. If colleges can get away with admitting students who don’t make this cutoff but are desirable for other reasons (full pay, high SAT scores, from a rigorous high school that does not rank etc.) without lowering their standing on the 10% measure, they will do so. Submitting only that data on class rank that was provided by the students themselves will achieve this objective. Why would colleges go out of their way to create and submit ranking data that will force them to reject otherwise desirable students if they are not forced to? No wonder class rank is being used less and less to make admission decisions by elite colleges (Rubin, 2014). Rubin promptly started her own college counselling business upon completing her dissertation at Harvard! See the link at the bottom of this post.

          Of course Lynn’s overall point that elite colleges will try all means available to persuade as many students as possible to apply to them, only to turn around and reject most of them later, holds true still. But this is not something that only elite colleges can be accused of; most colleges will do so in a heartbeat if given a chance.


  8. Thank you for another excellent post!

    For a parent though, it’s hard to tell your kids not to pursue their dreams. Only if there’s a
    glaring mismatch (a B student applying to Harvard for example) would I want to dissuade them from even applying.

    1. Hi Phil,

      Glad you like the post. I happen to disagree with you. Why waste your applications on schools that you don’t have any chance of admission success? This will keep you from focusing on excellent schools that are realistic.

      Lynn O.