As a general rule, the thick envelopes contain good news and the skinny ones a polite but hurtful rejection. The thin ones are the toughest to deal with since they feel very personal and in many cases irrational.
If this is any comfort to recipients of thin envelopes, the best example of how to deal with rejection was created by someone I know very well. When this person opened a letter of rejection, she remarked, “Well, (expletive deleted)! I gave them their chance and they blew it. I wouldn’t want to go there anyway because they have bad judgment!” That response, while a tad harsh, was as good as it gets.
No one really knows how colleges make their decisions. Their needs are varied and often strange but the overwhelming constant is that admissions offices are filled with incredibly hard-working, sensitive and dedicated people. Here are a few unavoidable obstacles they have to deal with that often have little to do with the student’s character or talent:
Enrollment Management: Colleges have many fully-staffed departments and they want to ensure that each department has sufficient customers to justify their salaries and continued employment. Thus, in many colleges it might be easier to gain admission for a prospective geology student than for a business major. It is simply a numbers game.
Ethnic Diversity: Nearly every college is looking for more diversity in the student body. Colleges try to create an environment that mirrors the larger population of the country. What many minority students don’t realize is that a large number of terrific private colleges are begging for a greater number of minority students and are willing to back that demand with more flexible admissions policies and excellent financial aid offers. I often tell my workshop audiences that if you are a member of a minority group, you may be sitting on a winning lottery ticket but in order to collect, you have to get in the game and apply. Too few respond to that revelation but in truth the few that do may impact more academically qualified applicants. If that bothers you, don’t even think about the relationships between athletic ability, admissions, and intellect.
Wealth: Many colleges seem to be need-aware in their admissions policies regardless of bold statements to the contrary. Everything else being equal, most colleges will admit a student from a more affluent family rather than one from a low income household. Why, pray tell, are American colleges admitting so many foreign students when there are plenty of qualified American applicants to that college? The answer to this clearly rhetorical question is found in signatures on checks for very large amounts of money drawn on foreign banks and payable to colleges across the nation. Before you get annoyed, remember that colleges are also the victims of a sluggish economy one in which the federal government has failed to adequately support its own system of financial aid. Financial distress often leads to self-preserving policies and practices.
Special Needs of the College: Small and medium-size colleges are always looking for students who can do lots of different things. Every college wants to provide the full spectrum of intellectual and cultural offerings and to do that students need to bring a variety of talents to the school. For instance, almost every college has an orchestra and almost every orchestra needs a bassoon player or French horn section. That is why from time to time a less-than-sensational academic student is accepted ahead of a better student who doesn’t play an English horn or a viola.
Athletics: Many colleges that do not provide athletic scholarships are always looking for athletes. As a general rule and as a group, athletes do not seem to perform as well academically as non-athletes. Many athletes in high schools tend to take less rigorous courses to compensate for the time spent at after school practices every day and to ensure the maintenance of their academic eligibility for varsity sports. In these instances the college admissions office sometimes decides that beef trumps brains.
Likelihood of actually attending: There is a sinister term out there called “yield”. It refers to the number of students a college must admit to get one to actually attend. The greater the yield (the more likely an admitted student will enroll and thus the fewer applicants the college has to admit), the better (the more selective) the college seems to be. Colleges will do almost anything to protect their yield in a headlong rush to appear to be more selective. One time-honored way to do it is through the “wait list”, the bull-pen for colleges that may run into a base-clearing jam affecting their yield. I refer to it as the “Yield Shield” or the way to protect a college’s yield numbers. Using the wait list, a college can accept many fewer students and then if they don’t get enough takers, they can always tap their wait list without affecting their precious yield numbers.
I have seen colleges make interesting admissions decisions in order to protect their yield. I have witnessed terrific kids being turned down at “University X” because a parent attended “University Y”, a key rival of “University X and one listed in the student’s college application wish list. A fair amount of research would suggest that if the student was accepted at a parent’s alma mater, he or she is likely to attend. In those cases the “sins” of the father or mother may impact the life opportunities of their sons and daughters. The emergence of the yield specter isn’t necessarily the fault of the colleges but, rather, the creation of the many “who-asked-you-to-do-this?” college “evaluators” like the Princeton Review and US News and World Report both of whom are more interested in selling copy than actually providing a social benefit.
Add to this litany, issues like legacies, “insider trading”, the arrival of timely monetary gifts to the colleges, and simple errors of judgment and you have what is at best an academic crap shoot. But sometimes in a charged environment of disarray and hidden imperatives someone calmly makes sense.
Angel Perez, Vice President and Dean of Admissions at Pitzer College, an extraordinary, sensitive professional from a college enlightened enough to honor those gifts, said this:
“….To all these students, I say that where you get into college is not a representation of your worth, and please remind your parents that your college acceptance letter is not their final grade on the parental report card of life. If a school did not admit you, it’s not a personal rejection. In fact, most kids we turn away have done absolutely everything right, but given the seats we have available and the conflicting institutional needs that we have to balance, many kids are turned away because of the needs of the college, not because of a lack of achievement on their part.
We want an even representation of women and men, in-state, out-of-state and international students. We try to create a strong balance of socioeconomic and ethnic diversity as well. We need to make sure some kids can staff our athletic teams while others man our orchestra and theater productions. The list of needs is endless and seems to grow longer every year.
So for all of you getting the thick envelopes, the thin envelopes and everything in between this week, thank you for sharing the details of your lives and your aspirations. It’s what keeps admissions officers in this business – knowing that young people are doing amazing things and creating transformative experiences that will affect our world tomorrow.
Regardless of the decision letters you received, you have worked hard and have earned the right to brag about your accomplishments. You are indeed the hope we have been looking for.”
It has been said that 82% of Americans believe in angels. I am not among them but I do believe in this one.