Beyond the Numbers: Why Some Students Get into Selective Schools Despite Lower Credentials

If I had a dollar for every time a parent questioned whether their student’s race, gender, lack of disability or missing extracurricular was to blame for their student failing to get a scholarship or get admitted to a school – Oh, my! I would be a wealthy man.

Over the last two decades working in higher education, I’ve counselled thousands of upset moms and dads and one thought always came to mind, “If only they knew how complex the selection process really is.”

Why are admission and scholarship decisions so complex?
Every parent wishes colleges would just tell them the grades and scores needed to be admitted or awarded. “If they retake the SAT and score 40 points higher, will they get in?”

There Are More Applicants: Applying to colleges and scholarships has become easier than ever (80% of students today apply to at least three colleges vs. less than 30% in 1975). As a result, even the best students find themselves in competition with many others who have equal or better credentials.

Consider that over 61,000 students applied to Harvard last year, more than double the 26,000 applications in 2019.
Of last year’s pool,
16,000+ had perfect 4.0 GPA’s
6500+ had perfect SAT math scores
5000+ had perfect SAT reading/writing scores
Harvard admitted less than 2,000 students.

Colleges are shaping their class: It’s easy to understand that an athletic department only has so many scholarships available based on graduations and transfers. It’s logical that some of those scholarships are reserved for certain positions or specialties- they can’t enroll 15 freshmen quarterbacks, regardless of how good the 15th may be. The same holds true for academic departments and specialties on campus, as well. Harvard only has room for so many biomedical engineers and band members.

Every college produces a Common Data Set (CDS) that is available on their website and will tell you the overall acceptance and enrollment rates. What they generally do not tell you is that majors or specialties with lots of openings and fewer applicants (i.e. English) may not be as selective. Conversely, a major with limited lab space and a large number of applicants (think nursing) may be highly competitive, even at a less-selective school.

Schools (and scholarship committees) are becoming more holistic: With so many high-quality applicants to choose from, many committees will look at non-academic criteria very heavily. As you can see in the chart from the CDS below, Harvard considers grades, recommendations, extracurriculars, talents and even whether a student is related to an alum in their admission decisions. It feels a lot more like they are judging a gymnastics competition than running a mathematical algorithm to enroll their class.  

What should you do then?

  • Focus on getting the best grades in the most challenging courses that you can take. This is the best way to ensure that your GPA will impress the schools you’re interested in.
  • Commit yourself to the things you feel most passionately toward. Colleges are looking for diverse perspectives and experiences, so the exact activity is less important than your commitment to it. If there is a way to incorporate service or leadership into your favorite extracurriculars, that’s even better!
  • Write the damn essays. And make sure they are damn good. Only 50% of qualified students apply to scholarships that have even an extra paragraph of writing as a requirement. If you want to get into the smallest pool of applicants possible, you need to write. The best essays often highlight your academic achievements, extracurricular involvement, pursuit of service/leadership and may mention unique obstacles that you have overcome.
  • Let a college know that you are really interested by visiting, applying, and opening their emails. Colleges don’t want to give their limited spots to students who have their hearts set on a different institution. The National Association for College Admission Counseling found that 17% of colleges weighted “demonstrated interest” as considerably important.
  • Remember that rejection is not about you. Sometimes a denial letter is a blessing in disguise because who you are is not in alignment with the school’s mission or the opportunities that they have available. It’s usually better to be the starting quarterback at a very good program than to be a bench player for 4 years on a title contender.

Concluding advice:

My favorite author on college admission, Jeffrey Selingo, encourages students to strongly consider schools outside of your “reach schools.” You are more likely to become a big fish in a small pond at your “safe schools.” He suggests that you should focus more on what you want to do in college, that where you will go to college. I agree. Over the last two decades, I have seen students who graduated from non-selective colleges get into incredibly selective Ivy league graduate programs ahead of students with less experience from selective schools. Increasingly, data also backs up the idea that a great education is more about what you do in college, rather than where you go to college.

Keep an open mind, and your academic journey will lead you to the right place for your growth and success.

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