Stunned at College Rejections


I’ve been getting emails from parents, who are bitter that their bright teenagers have been getting rejection letters from elite colleges and universities.

What follows are two email excerpts.

From a dad named Jeff:

My son is his high school’s valedictorian. He scored 35 on the ACT and had straight A’s all four years at an academically competitive school. He had plenty of extracurricular activities as well.

He has been wait listed by Duke, Vanderbilt, Rice, Tulane, Pomona, Washington U. (St. Louis) and Harvard. What the heck?

From a mom named Diane:

My daughter’s SAT, grades and extra-curriculars were superb.  She got waitlisted at Vassar, Colgate, Bowdoin and Bates.  All of the people involved are astonished at the outcomes.

Why the Surprise?

I hear from disappointed  parents like Diane and Jeff every year who are stunned that their bright children didn’t get into the elite research universities and prestigious liberal arts colleges on their lists.

What actually shocks me is why these parents are so surprised. These popular schools reject the vast majority of their applicants. In fact, elite schools work hard to boost their rejection rates every year.

Apply So We Can Reject You!

One way that institutions increase the percentage of students that they reject is by courting high school students who have no chance of getting into their schools. Parents and teenagers are thrilled, for instance, if they get marketing material with a flattering cover letter from an Ivy League school, but it means absolutely nothing.

It’s cruel to mislead families, but you have to understand that colleges are businesses. If your child becomes collateral damage in the process, admission administrators aren’t going to care because they need to keep their jobs.

This admission practice (and there are other more egregious ones), is just one of many reasons why I am so cynical about the higher-ed industry – and it definitely is an industry!

A Glut of Highly Qualified Applicants

I am not suggesting that the teenagers of the parents who wrote to me weren’t qualified to attend these schools. I assume they were

Don’t Rely on Such Cramped College Lists

The mistake that Jeff and Diane’s children made was to apply to the same set of schools that so many other affluent, “A” students swoon over. For instance, Diane’s daughter applied to seven of the top dozen liberal arts colleges (as ranked by U.S. News’ flawed college rankings).

Too many bright teenagers of affluent families look at the rankings and select schools near the top of the heap. And then they wonder why they don’t get into these schools!

Flawed College Lists

I am not suggesting that students stop applying to elite schools although I would love to see far, far less of that! What I am suggesting is that teenagers become more creative about their lists and throw a wider net.

Just because a school has a higher ranking doesn’t mean it’s a better school!! Here are two 2015 posts from my blog on this topic:

Stop Fixating on These Colleges

The Benefits of a Less Selective School

Of course, throwing a wider net would necessitate that families let go of the extremely destructive belief that the most elite schools are the best institutions for students to attend.

Here is a New York Times article on this topic:

Revisiting the Value of an Elite College

A Final Look at Applying to Elite Schools

I’m ending with an excerpt from a previous guest post that discusses why brilliant students fall flat when knocking on the doors of the most prestigious higher-ed institutions. The observations come from Patricia Krahnke, a former assistant director of admissions at Rutgers University and now a college consultant with Global College Search Associates in Bloomington, IN.

Here is a sampling of what she wrote:


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 tens 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.)

A Look Inside Admission Offices

It’s certainly true that many admissions counselors will go to bat for certain students. 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.

Here is the rest of Krahnke’s guest post:

College Admission Heartbreak and Reality

Learn More!lab

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  1. Hi Lynn,

    As a college admissions coach, I completely agree with this post! I have a lot of parents/students who see colleges at the top of the US News’ list, and decide it’s the only college for them/their kids. Have you written any posts on the US News ranking flaws – anything I can point my students/parents to when I’m helping them create their college lists? Thanks! I’m so excited I discovered your site!!

  2. Lynn, I’ve been following you for years and I really appreciate your no nonsense approach. I have a daughter happily attending the University of Oregon. Go Ducks!!

    I believe our culture is on the fast track to nowhere. Needless to say, I never pushed my daughter and she’s doing just fine. Why are parents so hyper fixated? My advice is to chill and stop pressuring your kids. It’s not the “school” that insures success. It’s not your grades, SAT, ACT, AP classes or extra C’s. BTW, both my husband and I attended state schools and ended up with excellent careers.

  3. To all parents of high achieving kids. Rather than play this absurd US admissions game have your child apply to UK universities. You will find the ONLY admissions criteria are grades and the ability to pay international fees. In terms of grades the universities are quite explicit in what is required for admissions and unless you are applying to Oxbridge or the LSE 3 x 5 in relevant AP subjects and ACT/SAT of 28/1900 should get you in any UK university, but remember these are minimum requirements. As far as cost is concerned tuition/room and board will be around $35k per year, but there will be no financial aid for international students. English universities are 3 years (Scottish 4 years) so cost is very competitive. Remember London is EXTREMELY expensive and I would advise against it as there is nothing in London that cannot be obtained at a UK school outside of London, but if money is no object why not. Remember there is not a lot of hand holding in UK schools there will be lectures and tutorials but the students will be expected to do a lot of reading independently if they are to do really well. In England you need to know what subject you wish to read for on application, Scottish universities are a little more flexible. As a rule of thumb and in no particular order, LSE, UCL, Imperial College, Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Warwick, Durham, Edinburgh, St Andrews. If you stick with those schools you will get a great academic experience with as much academic rigour as you can handle from a world class institution. It wont be for everyone and there will be homesickness (Skype is a wonderful thing) but if you want a rigourous academic experience with a like minded cohort where admissions decisions are loaded in your favour (your fees are higher than domestic students) then it is well worth the effort.

  4. What you say is true. Part of what has happened is top students from other countries are being accepted into top colleges partly because many of them can pay full price and partly because of the ‘international;’ diversity make up colleges aspire to have. That means that many top USA students end up in 2nd tier colleges, which have improved over the decades with many straight A and A & B students getting in. That makes more competition even at that level and to some degree at lower tier college rankings.

    The badge of honor many colleges aspire to have is turn aways – how many were rejected, which bolsters their reputation – see all those who wanted to get in but could not get in so we are very selective. There is proof that some are reaching out to more students to apply with the idea that this gives them more students to reject, again to bolster their claim of a very small acceptance rate. The common application has added to the mix – making it much simpler and sometimes cheaper to apply to more colleges. More students are applying to more different colleges than before. Lets say a student used to apply to 7-10 colleges before. Now more students are applying to 15 colleges so there are more applying to top, elite colleges and the ivies. You have to look at what the agenda of the college is – what kinds of students are they looking to admit this year or at this time – to create the student body they want to say they have. Top grades and great SAT/ACT scores and good extracurricular activities are still needed but they are a minimum to even be looked at and considered. If you don’t realize this, you can feel crushed (that you did all the right things according to past standards. Its a new game with new rules. Most college grads say they were happy with the college they attended so though the top colleges have some advantages, lots more colleges can offer much

  5. I have a nephew who just heard back from a list of schools – got rejected to the Ivies he applied but got accepted to the following:

    Lehigh University
    Univ of Washington
    USCB (Honors Program).

    He lives in San Francisco Bay Area and attends a public high school. He does not know what he will want to major in yet.

    What would be the best choice for him?

  6. I have a nephew who just heard back from a list of schools – got rejected to the Ivies he applied but got accepted to the following:

    Lehigh University
    Univ of Washington
    USCB (Honors Program).

    He lives in San Francisco Bay Area and attends a public high school. He does not know what he will want to major in yet.

    What would be the best choice for him?

  7. Yes- I figured as much, but what do we do now? Is it worth it to reapply for a spring semester or ‘cast a larger net’ to a wider variety of schools for spring semester? Thank you for this article.

  8. My child has been accepted to Washington U in St Louis and thrilled but school offered no financial aid. Nothing. We feel Washington U doesn’t have name recognition and questioning the value of degree. Because of this horrible admission process my child was denied at so many reach and target school. What should we do, should we encourage gap year? or go to community? Worried parents.

    1. Hi Howard,

      What I always recommend is that parents run net price calculators before applying anywhere so they know what the price will be. Washington U., which actually is one of the hottest universities in the country, has excellent financial aid, but provides very little merit aid.

      There are many lesser known schools – master’s level universities and liberal arts colleges – that are still taking applications even if they aren’t advertising it.

      If your child takes a gap year, be more realistic with the college list. Applying only to reach schools is a recipe for disaster.

      Good luck!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  9. Jim is spot on — the colleges he lists are ones I have heard students from my area — kids who are okay with not going to schools clustered at the top of US News rankings but that nevertheless offer excellent academic experiences aimed at undergraduates — have been thriving in. I know people here who are passionate about Wofford, College of Wooster, Willamette, and Sewanee/University of the South lately, to name a few. They talk about being in close knit social communities full of school spirit where they are plenty challenged academically but receive excellent support along the way. One of my friends who is a teacher, had a son who was a late bloomer academically and suffered from test anxiety, as well. He attended Wheaton College in Massachusetts (used to be a women’s college but is now co-ed, not to be confused with the other Wheaton College). There he was turned on to Physics, a subject he had avoided in high school because he thought he wasn’t smart enough, by the personal attention he received from several professors there and is now in his second year of a PhD program in Physics at the University of Chicago, where he was accepted from Wheaton. Wheaton professors helped him get over his high school academic anxieties to excel in a very difficult subject to the point where he now has the confidence to immerse himself in it at the PhD level at a world renowned university. These schools work magic on many of the kids who take time to discover them for the gems that they are and don’t listen to all the noise pollution surrounding them about name brand colleges (a very hard tide to swim against in our affluent, status oriented area). Often these schools will offer financial support or merit based aid to those truly interested in them.

  10. I hope my experiences may help some parents and students out there. It may be hard to digest the rejection now, but in some ways it is better to be rejected. I have two daughters. The oldest is currently working on her PhD at an ivy league after graduating from St. Mary’s College of Maryland. A public liberal arts college. She was rejected by one ivy and wait listed by another for undergrad. She visited St. Mary’s after she was accepted and fell in love with it. Deciding after her visit to remove her name from the wait list. She was a science major who received attention, encouragement and mentoring from her professors. Her professors took an interest in her recommending her for research opportunities on campus and at the University of Maryland medical school labs where she was able to learn advance research techniques which led to her receiving a stipend from St. Mary’s during the school year using these techniques to help underclassman. In addition, she was awarded merit money to attend St. Mary’s making this college our most affordable even though she was an out of state resident. She graduated in four years with no debt. As I mentioned we have two daughters. This story may make you thankful to be rejected. She was accepted by two elite liberal arts colleges. I had used the net price calculator prior to her applying because I did not want to be in the situation of her being accepted and not being able to afford it. Well, she was accepted with no financial aid. Making these two colleges $60,000 a year, which we could not afford. I wish she had not been accepted at all, rather than being excited when she first read her acceptance and then seeing the lack of financial aid and having to say no. Long story short, she is now a sophomore at a wonderful liberal arts college, where she too has received individualized attention from her professors. Everyone has just been wonderful. She is also a science major. She was recently selected as an intern to work with a chemistry professor on campus this summer. It is a paid internship which will more than cover her living expenses allowing her to not only acquire valuable research skills, but increase the balance of her savings account to put towards her junior year of college. She also received a generous merit award and is right on track to graduate in four years with no debt. Really hope this helps to put this process into perspective.

  11. I live in a very competitive area from which to be applying to colleges — the Washington, DC suburbs. This area is full of competitive, top-ranked high schools, both public and private, and the area boasts one of the highest percentages of college educated parents, which means these families are goal oriented and push their kids to excel and know how to work the college admissions system. Virtually all students at my kids’ high school apply to the same 25-50 colleges. The only students who get in, whether or not their grades, standardized test scores, and extracurriculars are better than some who get rejected; are underrepresented minorities (Asians are out of luck — they actually suffere reverse discrimmination), first generation in a family to attend college (and usually this only helps if in conjunction with another one of the “hooks”), females applying to and committing to studying engineering or a hard science (especially physics), state level or higher athletes (as in, represented their school at a state level competition and placed in it), and/or valuable legacy connections (either politically well connected such as a member of Congress or other high level figure, a celebrity, or notably wealthy). These are hooks, some virtuous (like trying to attract more female engineers) and some less virtuous (legacy connections). And unfortunately, they are heavily used by the most elite universities and well known by the goal oriented families in my area. I had a friend, who graduated from an Ivy League school and does admissions interviews for her alma mater, tell me that by the time they are done selecting students with some sort of hook such as the ones listed above and also accepting wealthy, connected foreign students (for example, Georgetown and some Ivies are famous for accepting the children of Latin American dignitaries and business leaders), she estimates and has heard anecdotally that only about 25 per cent of the slots go to “unhooked” kids who are just plain excellent students, some of whom actually have stronger academic credentials than many of those with the hooks. Parents around here joke that the best way to get your children into one of these “top tier” colleges, as they are called by US News, is to marry someone with the right ethnic background. This sounds terrible and even racist, and nobody admits it out loud in public, but it is the view…or to start training your kid to be an elite athlete at an early age (although this could still end up not working), or donate millions to have an academic wing built at a school. As long as our society continues to move in the direction of judging people who are contending for jobs by the names of colleges they attended rather than looking more closely at the substance of what they did while in college, coupled with the fact that the economy stinks and there aren’t enough good entry level jobs for recent graduates, you are going to see people in a frenzy to get accepted to these colleges. We can tell people not to worry, that you can get a good education almost anywhere, as it’s what you make of it. Or that it doesn’t matter where you went, as long as you can demonstrate that you can learn, are a good writer and speaker, and can think critically. I agree with this whole-heartedly, as some of the best employees in my organization graduated from non-famous colleges/universities — you CAN get a very good education, sometimes a better one, at non-name brand schools, particularly at those focused on undergraduate education. But unfortunately, an education is not what most people are looking for or care about, to be quite honest. Most people, especially wealthy connected people, only care about prestige and connections. Those in the middle classes aspire to join their ranks and believe acceptance to an Ivy League school is the only way to attain it. I have seen recent graduates from prestigious schools whose families have lots of connections get jobs over others more qualified who didn’t go to as prestigious schools and whose families don’t have connections to work on their behalf. While this has gone on to some degree forever, it’s gotten a lot worse in the last decade or so. It used to be that there were enough high quality jobs to go around for both the connected and less connected, but in the current dismal enonomic scenario, those without connections, whether or not they are well educated, are being left behind. This stuff angers me and shows me that we are becoming increasingly like many other countries, where a person’s connections matter more in hiring than his substance, effort, and experience. In the US, it is illegal in many inudstries, especially the government, to hire one’s family members as is done in many Third World countries, so we get around it here by using our universities as our caste system. This academic caste system we have is actually worsening the situation of inequality in our country — further dividing the haves and the have nots in a wickedly competitive admissions game that is stacked in favor of the already rich and connected and those who know how to work the system. Yes, they accept a few poor and minorities, but it is so few that it is merely symbolic and does not make a dent in reaching minorities who are the most needy while also being talented. Many of the minorities they accept from around the DC area are not low income and are from well connected, professional families. Many of the rest are from foreign, connected families. Until our society stops using universities as sort of a caste system, and also letting the rest of the world do so, you are going to see this frenzied obsession with name brand schools continue. You do not see this kind of craziness in other developed nations – in fact, it’s very difficult to find college t-shirts for European, Australian, and Canadian universities, because they do not attach the same obsession to the name of a particular college as Americans do, not even in the UK, where they have Oxford and Cambridge. A person working in the bookstore at St. Andrews University, Scotland, told me that Americans are the only ones who ever ask for and buy the few t-shirts in their store. It really is another form of discrimmination — centered around a fake meritocracy if you will — to judge and hire people based on the university they attended. It is actually giving a let up to a class of people, no matter their race or creed, who by and large has already gotten a leg up.

  12. Hi Lynn — I keep reading that only a tiny percentage of schools admit fewer than 25%, yet I’m not finding that. For example,Grinnell College, where I went to school, admitted 19% of applicants this year. My daughter is a junior in high school, and while I used to think schools like Grinnell would be a good match, now I’m thinking we need to move yet another step down.That’s where I’m struggling to find the type of schools she’s interested in (small liberal arts schools with no Greek system and good study abroad options). The schools we do find don’t seem to have graduation rates nearly as high as the schools like Grinnell.
    Also, what percentage of admits should be considered a good bet for a safety school? More than 50%? More than 75%? Or is 35-40% safe if her grades are above the average grades for that school?

    1. `Hi Ruth,

      Grinnell is a highly selective school. It’s ranked 19th by US News in the liberal arts college rankings. The rankings are terribly flawed, but unfortunately affluent families tend to think these rankings are meaningful and apply to schools near the top of the heap. To have a better chance of acceptance, you need to start looking farther down in the category. The mistake that many families make is that schools lower down are somehow inferior. And that’s a shame.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

    2. Hi an independent educational consultant who has been working with students for 34 years. I applaud your wanting to look more broadly. Some schools that may resonate, depending on your child’s future major: Goucher College (100% of students have one or more international study experiences; Washington College, 90% study abroad; College of Wooster (100% of students complete mentored undergraduate research); Wofford College, Furman University, Sewanee, the University of the South; Rhodes College; any of the 40 colleges found in Lorenz Pope’s Colleges That Change Lives. Bottom line: forget the brand names. These schools and their sister schools offer a transformative undergraduate experience, engaged and engaging faculty and wonderful merit aid. Jim Ovetton, PhD, College Consultants of SC, LLC.

    3. Ruth, we just came back from college touring in Massachusetts, toured Holy Cross because a friends daughter went there. Wasn’t expecting much but all three of my kids came out loving it. It maybe what you’re looking for, small liberal arts, 94% 4 year grad rate and an unbelievable study abroad for your whole 3rd year that doesn’t out you behind. Check it out

      1. Yes Holy Cross is a beautiful college, but no merit money making it unaffordable for people who are upper middle class but can’t afford the $60,000 price tag and continue saving for retirement.