Parents, Are We Totally Wrong About the College Admissions Process?
Leslie Tucker PhD, May 22, 2021
Discover why we should rethink how we view elite colleges and approach the college admissions process in a new way
The college admissions process was remarkably different when you were in high school, right? In the early 1990s, most elite colleges—including Yale and Stanford—had acceptance rates above 20%. Even the most selective colleges—Harvard and Princeton—had above 15% acceptance rates.
Fast forward to today, and most Ivy Leagues and prestigious colleges accept fewer than 9% of their applicants—some as low as 4%. And despite their increased selectivity, applications to these institutions are skyrocketing. It’s no wonder high school students are overwhelmed with college admissions stress.
We’ve bought into the idea that attending an elite college is “making it,” and attending a less selective college is a lower type of achievement. But where does that leave our teenagers?
Students are more stressed than ever trying to get accepted to prestigious colleges. With COVID-19 still disrupting education, extracurriculars, and standardized testing, many students and their families are in a panic.
How will virtual learning and test-optional policies affect their admissions chances? What else can they do to make themselves stand out? How will they get into elite colleges?
I’m worried about how all this college admissions stress affects student mental health. If you have a child approaching the college admissions process, you might be worried, too.
Keep reading as I debunk stress-inducing college admissions myths, introduce a new way to analyze colleges, and suggest how we should change our approach to the college admissions process.
3 major myths about the college admissions process
Some of the things people believe about college admissions just aren’t true. Let’s take a minute to separate fact from fiction.
Myth #1: It’s hard to get into college.
According to a report by the National Association of College Admissions Counseling, the average acceptance rate of four-year colleges and universities is 66%. That’s a major difference from the 10% acceptance rates we often obsess over.
Here’s some more information that might surprise you. Only 20% of colleges in the nation accept less than half of their applicants. So out of the nearly 3,000 colleges and universities, about 2,400 of them have higher than a 50% acceptance rate.
We have this conception that getting accepted to college is super challenging, but it isn’t. Getting into some colleges is hard, absolutely. But if you look beyond elite colleges, most students who want to go to college are able to get accepted somewhere—regardless of GPA, test score, and extracurricular experience.
Myth #2: The college admissions process rewards the best and most hardworking students.
This is a sad myth to debunk because we want college admissions to be fair. But we only have to remember the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal to realize this isn’t the case. Children of wealthy and connected parents have an easier time getting into prestigious colleges.
And even if we set aside this extreme example of injustice, looking at elite colleges’ admissions stats is an eye-opening experience.
Over 40,000 students applied to Harvard last year, but only 2,000 were accepted. And believe me, there were more than 2,000 high-achieving, hardworking students in the applicant pool.
So why did some students with 1500+ SAT scores and 4.0+ GPAs not get accepted while others did? It’s actually based on Harvard’s behind-the-scenes needs.
Here’s what I mean. Elite colleges want well-rounded classes—specifically in terms of student majors, home states, and areas of achievement. Not to mention, they have reputable departments, activities, and clubs they need to fill.
So maybe a college will admit a musician over a STEM major with the same academic profile because its orchestra has open seats.
Now, I’m not saying your child should go master the cello. What I am trying to tell you is admissions at elite colleges can seem random on the outside. Your best-in-class student might not have the right major, experience, or background the school is looking for at that moment.
That’s why the college admissions process doesn’t always reward the best or most hardworking students.
Myth #3: Getting into a prestigious college is the only path to a successful future.
Many students believe going to an elite college is the only way to guarantee them a happy, successful life. This myth just isn’t true.
In fact, research shows that where students go to college has only a small impact on their job opportunities and career growth later on in life. An Ivy League graduate and a graduate from a less selective college possess the same potential for success and happiness.
To further emphasize this point, just review the list of the best colleges for getting students jobs after graduation. You might be surprised that none of the schools in the top 10 are Ivies.
Here’s what does matter in terms of getting jobs after college and moving up the career ladder—the applicable skills and knowledge students gain in college.
Graduates who possess strong problem-solving and teamwork abilities are attractive new hires. So are students who gain work experience through college internships and part-time work.
Here’s the good news—your child can acquire these abilities and experiences at any college they attend. They are just as likely to have a successful future if they go to a less selective college than if they go to an elite one.
Colleges are either “buyers” or “sellers”
In his new book Who Gets In and Why, college admissions expert Jeff Selingo introduces a new way to look at colleges. He describes colleges as either “buyers” or “sellers.” Let me explain.
Prestigious colleges are sellers. The best students from around the world flood their doors with applications. They’ve “sold” us on their prestige. And since they have so many students to choose from, they don’t need to “buy” applicants with scholarships in order to fill their incoming classes. Although, they usually offer need-based scholarships to students who qualify.
Less selective colleges are buyers. Because they have less prestige and name recognition, they work hard to convince students to pick them. To that end, they offer generous merit-based scholarships to “buy” your child’s interest.
To put it another way, your child tries to woo “sellers” with their high grades and impressive achievements. But the “buyers” try to woo your child with merit scholarships and personal attention from the admissions office.
For instance, Princeton University doesn’t offer its students any merit-based aid. On the other hand, Rutgers University—a nearby state school—offers applicants merit scholarships up to $29,000 per year.
So if your child gets accepted to Princeton but doesn’t qualify for need-based aid, you’ll have to pay the $50,000 tuition cost out-of-pocket. If your pockets aren’t bottomless, you might be concerned. That’s why you should take a serious look at colleges that are buyers.
Not sure how to categorize colleges as either buyers or sellers? You can download the list created by Jeff Selingo. And rest assured, many buyers offer high-quality academics and college experiences to set your child on a successful, fulfilling path.
Changing our approach to the college admissions process
So what do we do with this information? How do we move forward with our children and help them have a less stressful, more healthy college admissions experience? Here are my tips.
1. Widen your child’s search beyond elite colleges.
If your child is truly interested in a prestigious college, they should apply. But they should also apply to less selective colleges that admit more than half of their applicants.
Encourage your student to think about why they love a specific elite college and find less selective colleges that can offer them those same things. If they love that Columbia is in New York City, there are plenty of other NY schools they can explore.
2. Balance the college list with “buyers” and “sellers.”
If your child only applies to expensive sellers, you can plan to break the bank paying for their tuition. On the other hand, if they apply to buyers as well, they might receive some merit-based aid to lower your out-of-pocket cost.
3. Research outstanding but lesser-known liberal arts colleges.
The perfect school for your child is out there, but you might not even know it exists yet. I suggest perusing the list of Colleges That Change Lives to discover small, liberal arts colleges that can offer your student a world-class college experience.
4. Encourage your child to pursue their interests naturally.
Students can feel pressured to make themselves ultra-competitive achievers so prestigious colleges will want them. But as you’ve seen, there are plenty of other less selective colleges out there who don’t need your child to have out-of-this-world accomplishments.
If your student is naturally driven to excel, encourage it. But if they’re burning themselves out just to appeal to elite colleges, it’s not worth it. Their mental health is more important than an Ivy League acceptance.
5. Engage a virtual college planning consultant to guide the search
You don’t have the time to research every college that could be a good fit for your child. After all, hundreds of schools might meet their criteria. That’s why hiring someone like me can help reduce the burden on your family. It’s my job to help your child find the colleges that are perfect for your child and will want them in return.
I hope you’re inspired to change the way you think about the college admissions process. I promise if you do, your children will be less stressed and more empowered to achieve the college experience they’ve always dreamed about.