What Admissions Decisions Really Mean

April 12, 2021

 

It’s been a remarkable year to apply to college. Thanks to all kinds of new and unusual circumstances, this winter has certainly seemed exceptionally long, cold and lonely. But now the winter is past, and the voice of the college admissions officer can be heard in our land.

This is a time of great excitement for high school seniors applying to college, but before you go any further, it’s important to know three things about selective college admissions. I cannot overstate the importance of reading this twice, thoroughly, before you move ahead — OK?

Some colleges will find their applications are at an all-time high. The number of students graduating from high school goes up and down, but one constant is the number of students applying to highly selective colleges — it always tends to go up. Even if it didn’t, getting admitted to colleges with a 6 percent acceptance rate is just plain hard to do. This isn’t a random process, and there’s more to it than just grades, but an increase in the number of applicants makes it that much harder to get admitted.

There is a common reason why colleges deny admission to most applicants. The No. 1 reason selective colleges turn down most applicants is simple — they run out of room before they run out of great applicants. If they had more dorm rooms, and more professors, and more classrooms, they’d love to take more students. But they cannot do justice to the students they admit by taking too many students, since no one gets a quality education that way — and that’s not fair to anyone.

An admissions decision is not a character indictment. With more applications, and limited space, colleges must create a learning community that is exciting, diverse and rich with opportunities. Doing that is a mix of science and art, a mixture of data (grades, maybe test scores) and insight (essays, letters of recommendation), and frankly, a little guesswork, where (as one admissions officer said) the standard is excellence, not perfection. In selecting these students, these colleges will tell you that just about everyone who applied qualifies for admission — they would be a great student, benefit the college tremendously and contribute to the college in many ways. Since you applied to a highly selective college, all that applies to you.

Given that, I can’t think of any way a letter of denial or wait list should be interpreted to mean “The college doesn’t like me” — or worse, “I am not a good person.” College admissions is about many things, but it is never a judgment about you as a person.

Most colleges go to great pains to point this out when they send their rejection letters. Believe me when I tell you they aren’t just being nice; they truly honor and respect everything you have done as a person, and they are grateful you applied to their college. That may not mean much the minute you hear the news, but it will over time. Whether the college says yes, no or maybe, your value and worth as a person is cast in stone, and can be shaken by absolutely no one, be it another person or an admissions committee.

Your life isn’t in that envelope or email; it’s just an admissions decision. You already have a life, and a fine one at that.