Wednesday, March 22, 2023

College Admission and the Best in Class

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Counselor chat rooms are already filling up with comments from colleagues who are in a state of disbelief.

“I can’t believe they didn’t take him. He’s the best kid this school has seen in five years!”

“She took 14 AP classes and three at the local community college.”

“What else did they want her to do. Walk on water?”

Before things get really intense in the weeks to come, it’s time to keep a few things in mind.

Only so many How many best-in-the state oboe players are there in the United States?

Right. Each state has one, and only one, and while there isn’t a competition in any state to earn the title of Best Of, you get the idea.

Given that, let’s try Question 2.

Of those 50, how many is Juilliard likely to admit? How about Curtis? How about Eastman?

I don’t have the inside information from any of these fine music programs, but no matter how good any and all those oboists are, these premier programs will say no to many of them—likely as many as 40 of the 50, if not more.

As it goes with oboists, so it goes with students in general. Well-known colleges run out of room well before they run out of highly capable students. They’re still smart, well accomplished, and going to knock the socks out of their college experience. But not all of them can be admitted, and so choices have to be made.

More applicants than ever Regular readers of this column know I cringe when papers print the two stories they always print this time of year:

“Fancy School U Reports Record Number of Applicants”

“Fancy School U Admit Rate Reaches All Time Low”

This is one story, not two. Fancy School U isn’t likely to take more students, and if they do, it likely won’t be enough to offset the impact several hundred applications will have on admit rates. But our friends in the media are counting on America’s extreme dyscalculia to provide not one, but two opportunities to throw our hands up and declare college admissions to be a biased system.

In some ways it is, but not with the admit rate. This isn’t inside politics. It’s math, and it means it is harder than ever for even your best student to get admitted.

“But they did everything” They took all the hardest classes, aced the tests, spent summers in interesting ways, contributed to meaningful service programs, wrote amazing essays by themselves, and even got the teacher who is generally unimpressed to write a passionate letter. What more, you ask, could they have done?

The answer here is nothing. Assuming the application conveyed that the student was actually engaged in life and learning, the student did exactly what they were supposed to do, as did most of the other applicants. There may have been too many Neuroscience applicants, or they needed more applicants from Massachusetts, or they decided to revive the field hockey team. You didn’t know that. The student didn’t know that. Sometimes, the college doesn’t even know that until after the application deadline. So there is no second guessing.

It isn’t easy to accept a No you were convinced was a sure Yes—and if you feel that way, imagine how the student feels. Keeping these points in mind helps you move the student to the next phase, where they find the best home among their great Yes schools—and in the process, moves you to that next phase as well.

How lucky your students are to have you lead by example.


  1. If a student did a lot of hard work and lots of good, interesting extra stuff in high school, they they got a good education and learned something about themselves and who they really are (some, not all). It's call ... an education. I've been on scholarship review boards where you see the kid who's clearly built a college resume instead of a life, and those kids truly rankled all the board members. A kid who "did all the right stuff" in high school has a great head-start on a good life. College is just four years and, if you're just going there as a career move, there are other ways to get credentialed. Does anybody really care where someone went to undergrad after 30? And we know the people who do mention it, ("When I was in Cambridge...") are insufferable. Get a good education at a Yes school instead of trying to jump-start a career that won't exist in 10 years.