Spinning out of Control: Why students can no longer predict the college process

By Joanna Im

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On paper, Ronald* had it all – impressive test scores, a high unweighted grade point average, stellar recommendation papers and more. That didn’t seem to matter, however, when he saw the word ‘deferral’ glaring back at him on his Yale admissions portal.

“It was a bit frustrating,” Ronald said. “I still am totally fine with my application and I think it was really good, but it was disappointing not to get an acceptance despite being qualified.”

According to a study conducted by Youth Truth, 55 percent of students feel unprepared for the college application process, regardless of GPA and extracurriculars. This is unsurprising given that many seemingly qualified applications are rejected from their ideal college, Founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting Shirag Shemmassian said.

Shemmassian attributes the uncertainty to statistical probability, he said.

“There is a reality of the number’s game,” Shemmassian said. “If there are so many students applying to schools each year, statistically speaking, not everyone can get in. Competition has risen in terms of college admissions in the past few years, so there are many people who seem qualified on paper to get in, but don’t.”

Although he had strengths in terms of GPA and test scores, Ronald said he believes that he was deferred due to the competitive applicant pool.

“There were about 19 people in the [Yale] pool, which is a ton,” Ronald said. “I really like my application and I think it was really good, but, fundamentally, they can take only so many kids from one school, especially when they have to take certain ‘hooked’ students.”

“Hooked” students hold advantages that make them more attractive to particular colleges, Upper School Dean Chris Jones said. Common hooks include alumni connections, contributions to development on the college campus, sports recruitment, connections with someone on the admissions board and religious, socioeconomic or geographic diversity .

Gender diversity within specific schools can also be valuable as a “hook” – for example, males usually have a less competitive pool when applying to liberal arts colleges, Jones said.

“After traditional hooks like legacy and development, it starts to truly depend on the institution,” Jones said. “For example, men applying to liberal arts colleges have less competition and because of that have a higher acceptance rate. In the past, women studying STEM fields were rare, and competition was lower, but that’s been out there long enough and there are lots of women now going into those fields, so it’s less of a hook than it used to be.”

While the influence of hooks varies between institutions, they often have a large impact, Jones said. According to a 2004 study conducted by three Princeton University students, being a legacy at Princeton is the equivalent of having an SAT score that is 140 points higher.

Jordan* was ‘hooked’ to three different schools due to his participation in an academic activity that could result in recruitment. After applying to all three, he was accepted into two and deferred from one, he said.

“Without a doubt, the time and effort I spent working for my hook activity far exceeded the time and effort I spend on schoolwork,” Jordan said. “I applied early to a very selective school and was told very early on that the hook I had didn’t have as much weight as others’ hooks. I was most likely deferred because my grades and course load didn’t reflect what they wanted to see. But for some people, like big donors, legacies, and sports players, they make a huge difference.”

Hooks can be frustrating to students like Ronald who are put at a disadvantage because they lack them, he said.

“From what I can tell, all the students who got into the school that I applied to were either hooked or going for music,” Ronald said. “I might still get in during the regular process, and I totally understand that, but it’s certainly frustrating that no matter how qualified an applicant is, there are others who are simply slotted at a higher position.”

However, while common hooks, such as being a legacy, help, they may not be the determining factor in admissions, Shemmassian said.

“So many schools can fill their entire pool with legacies, meaning that they have far more legacy applicants than they have seats,” Shemmassian said. “But at the end of the day, if there are two students who have similar qualities and one is legacy, the student with legacy will get in over the other.”

Jones also said even with a strong hook, there is no way to completely predict a college acceptance.

“Often when people refer to ‘ideal colleges,’ they’re talking about very selective colleges that have an applicant pool that all have those higher scores,” Jones said. “There’s something I call a human slash – it’s a human decision, not a scientific process. It may come down to how an admissions officer is feeling on a certain day, what that person thinks is the most important thing in applications and there’s no way to standardize that in a truly measurable way.”

Many students preparing for the process like Philip Moon ’20 said they fear that their efforts to accommodate for college requirements are useless due to this uncertainty.

“As a junior who is getting ready for applying to colleges next year, I’m always somewhat confused about whether I’m prepared or not, especially since there’s no clear way that we as students know what each specific college is looking for in terms of extracurriculars or personal essays,” Moon said.

As an athlete, Moon also said that the admission process is particularly different based on the activities that students do.

“I play baseball, so I know that some people on the team get into college through recruitment, rather than the traditional application process,” Moon said. “This can also apply to musicians and artists who submit portfolios and other activities – everyone’s application process is unique and specific to their own lifestyle.”

Moon said that while he was raised on the notion that there is a ‘perfect student’ to colleges, his belief in this ideal is declining due to the unpredictability of college admissions.

“I think that my family, friends and I generally think that colleges believe that colleges can see someone as a perfect student,” Moon said. “But the process is, in some ways, so arbitrary that meeting these standards may not even matter.”

After watching her older brother go through the college process, Tali Tufeld ’20 said she came to the same conclusion as Moon — the idea of the ‘perfect student’ is dying out.

“As much as we want to say there is a model student with perfect scores, I definitely think that there are always strengths and weaknesses about each student,” Tufeld said. “Everyone is different, and [admissions are] more about the holistic view. Now that my brother is in college, my parents are also aware of being realistic of colleges I’m looking at.”

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For some professionals, however, this ideal still thrives. Texas State University professor Scott Ham said that an ideal college application exists, but simply changes between universities based on their particular needs and interests.

“The notion of a ‘perfect student for college admissions’ is not a myth, but the definition of what that “perfect student” is will differ at each institution and in each applicant pool,” Ham said. “The admission process changes in terms of what is needed at the same institution in the next application pool, so at times, it looks like the “perfect” student is passed over.”

Ham said the most fundamental aspect of a successful college application is academic strength, particularly in core subjects.

“Admissions officers are charged with making sure the foundational skills in the areas of English, Math, Social Studies, Science and Foreign Language are present, and that students have performed at a level that indicates an ability to succeed at the college level,” Ham said. “While grades in these core subjects are the best predictor of academic success, other factors like class rank, standardized test scores, essays, activities or work experience and recommendations can help to inform admissions officers and committees of a student’s fit with a specific institution.”

College counselor Patti Demhoff also said that extracurricular activities are crucial for college applications.

“All colleges, in varying levels, look at the rigor of high school curriculum, the grades students received in their classes and standardized test scores first if available,” Demhoff said. “That is the first level, but after that, colleges look to the students’ characteristics, what they do with their time and their engagement with intellectual pursuits outside and inside of the classroom. Initiative, leadership and intellectual curiosity are all traits that they generally look for in students.”

When students have similar levels of academic rigor, Ham said that essay applications can make a student stand out from others.

“The essay is the one place in an application process where the admissions officers/committee get to hear from the student in their own words,” Ham said. “Students can demonstrate what is important to them and gives them an opportunity to differentiate themselves on a personal level. This is not to say that pressure should be put on students to write the “perfect” essay, but rather to be honest and genuine in their response.”

While Ham said there is no way to completely predict and ensure acceptance into a certain college, students should try to find the college for them and enjoy the process rather than getting wrapped up in the ideals of perfection.

“The bottom line in all of this is that the college search and application process is, without question, full of uncertainty and anxiety, but it also an opportunity for students to explore who they are and who they want to become,” Ham said. “Students should take this process seriously, but also take the time to enjoy the discovery that is inherent in the process.”

*Names have been changed

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