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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 05/13/2010

Getting real about super-selective colleges

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is college admissions consultant Bruce Vinik, president of Vinik Educational Placement Services, Inc., in Cabin John, Md.

By Bruce Vinik
“I don’t understand why my son didn’t get into Yale. He had straight A’s, took sixteen AP courses, scored 2500 on the SAT, was captain of the baseball team and president of the student body, and developed a new drug that will eradicate gout.”

I typically don’t focus on the most selective colleges, but this comment from an exasperated and totally fictional parent got me thinking about the world of competitive admissions.

When I began my career in college counseling in the early 1990’s, I (like most of my colleagues) could predict admissions decisions with great accuracy, even at the most competitive schools. I might not have been 100% accurate, but I was close.

These days, when it comes to Princeton, Brown, Columbia, Duke, Stanford, Williams and their peers, I have absolutely no idea about who is going to get in and who is not.

I can tell which applicants are qualified to be admitted, but I can’t tell who these schools are actually going to take. The fact is that there are too many extraordinarily qualified applicants chasing a limited number of spaces at the most selective colleges.

When we hear about all the wonderful kids with outstanding grades and test scores and activities who are turned down (more than 90% of applicants at some colleges), it’s easy to conclude that admissions decisions are essentially random. But I can assure you that they are not.

Dedicated admissions officers do everything they can to give each applicant a fair hearing as they try to build their freshman classes. They study transcripts and read essays and consider the talents and skills that individuals have to offer. They consider the different institutional needs that their colleges have. And in the end, they make their decisions for reasons that may not be obvious to those of us on the outside.

The most selective colleges can admit only a very small percentage of their applicant pool. As a result, all sorts of outstanding candidates are turned away.

As high school juniors begin to focus on the college admissions process, they and their parents must come to grips with the difficulty of gaining entrance to the most competitive colleges. While students do, in fact, get into these schools (except for Yale where I am convinced that next year’s entering class will contain “zero” students), there is simply no way that I can convey how tough it is to be admitted.

Even all A’s and a better-than-perfect score on the SAT may not be enough.


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By Valerie Strauss  | May 13, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions  | Tags:  brown admissions, college admissions, columbia admissions, getting into harvard, getting into stanford, getting into the ivy league, harvard admissions, ivy league, selective colleges and applicants, who gets into harvard  
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Bruce - I concur with everything you have to say here except for your conclusion in paragraph six - I find your allegiance and defense of selective colleges' admission process disappointing.

I've been a guidance counselor for over twenty years and a private consultant since the mid-1990's, and like you I've seen my ability to predict the most selective schools' choice process become nearly impossible. But my conclusion is that it's because these selections, once the "wing and a prayer" kids are culled out, are indeed random.

There is no litmus test for who deserves to get in to Yale; no 'Harry Potter Sorting Hat' that candidates at Tufts or MIT don to determine their place. Admissions officers are no doubt hard working and conscientious, but except for the occasional need for a chemical engineer or a soccer goalie, I'm convinced that they're playing "eeny meeny miney moe" when it comes down to their selections.

And lest you feel I'm being too hard on them, I've avoided (till now) raising the unsavory topic of the "full pay" versus "high need" candidate, and how this factors in to the "lower half" of the accepted pool.

I've seen too many incredibly qualified kids buying the argument that they did not measure up, when in fact I'd prefer they listen to my consolation: at the level of the admissions "game" that they're at, it's all luck. I've advised admissions deans for the past fifteen years to go to a lottery system - no one has taken me up on it yet, probably because it would be tantamount to rendering their positions obsolete. Would that really be such a bad thing?

Gary Canter
Portland, Maine

Posted by: glccps | May 17, 2010 9:29 PM | Report abuse

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