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Admissions Messages vs. Admissions Realities

A book excerpt from College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy.
University Business, Apr 2006

With the re-publication last fall of College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy (Harvard University Press), a challenge was issued to IHEs to break free from the pressures induced by commercial "ranking guides" and get back to doing what they do best. The book explores current admissions policies and applications strategies, and suggests ways "to help both colleges and applicants to rediscover what college is really for. It's not just a ticket to financial success, but a once-in-a-lifetime chance to explore new worlds of knowledge."

The book, edited by Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy (, features essays written by admissions deans and senior administrators at a host of colleges and universities around the country. As Thacker notes in the introduction, "Deans struggle-often with their own consciences-to land the most desirable, though not necessarily the most qualified, students using strategies that rival those of corporate recruiters. College presidents, for their part, must balance the integrity of their academic community with the need to craft an image imposed by the 'ranksters.' As a result, what was once a rite of passage for American youth has become a high-stakes competition with too many players." This chapter, by Reed College (Ore.) Dean of Admissions Paul Marthers, looks at what he says is a deceptive, though too common, approach to "hooking" prospective students.

Admissions decisions are not random or arbitrary, but neither are they infallible or exact science.

Some students enter the college application process by choice; they send colleges letters or e-mails, or fill out contact forms. Others get drafted into the process by taking a standardized test, such as the PSAT or PLAN. In either case, once a student is in, watch out for the avalanche of college mail. For a high school student unaccustomed to getting stacks of letters, there can be a feeling of instant popularity.

How many students have been contacted by a Stanford or an Oberlin and have concluded, "They must want me!"

College admissions officers can send mixed messages. Up to the judgment day of the decision letter, we seem to smile at each and every applicant. Then we turn on the frown and cease all contact with most of our applicants (perhaps even 90 percent of them), sending a brief and vague rejection letter that conveys a message between the lines: You were not quite good enough for us. Certainly no college comes right out and says that. Most speak euphemistically, referencing the curmudgeonly "admission committee," citing the vast number of applications received for the "limited number of spaces" available. Every admissions dean has sent such letters. Many of us even received them when we applied to colleges.

Recipients of rejection letters, no matter how unrealistic their prospects may have seemed to objective observers, are often stunned. Just ask anyone who has been a high school guidance counselor during the month of April. I have been there. As a counselor, I felt the pain. As an admission dean, I have caused the pain. Along the way I have often thought that if colleges communicated to prospective students and parents more like a neighbor chatting across the back fence, rather than like a politician spinning to advantage, we might be seen as more trustworthy.

I suspect that prospective students and their parents wonder sometimes whether admission deans are educators or sales managers. We can seem like masters of the bait and switch. While engaged in recruiting mode, colleges and universities send letters and e-mail containing near-promises of admission. The biggest tease letters go out in "the search," to PSAT, PLAN, or ACT takers with high scores and high grades. Prospective students and their parents probably do not realize that many colleges, Reed among them, sometimes contract out the writing of the search letter to direct mail firms, skilled at crafting catchy phrases.

When his daughter was receiving search mailings, Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews observed that students may feel "courted, then dumped" by colleges that pursue applicants initially, then turn them down later. Mathews' article referenced a sentence from my own search letter for Reed College: "Listen: College admission people all over the country, including me, have decided that you are the kind of smart student they want." Mathews also cited an Ivy League university that sends a window decal for prospective applicants to "display proudly." An odd practice, considering that the university in question denies 90 percent of its applicants. Should that university's rejection letters include a utensil for decal removal from the family car's back window?

Mathews asked if I would ever revise the letter or brochure if the applicants and their parents found it misleading. In fact, the Reed letter he quoted was one I inherited and authorized, with minor revisions, during my second week on the job. Reading Mathews' article, I became concerned about the implied message in my letter.

So I revised the letter to read, "Colleges and universities-Reed included-are already vying for your attention, proclaiming their offerings." The new sentence, I hope, is less of a tease.

Colleges are places of learning, where students and faculty commune with ideas. But colleges, like all nonprofit organizations, face bottom-line pressures. Prospective students and their parents need to understand that all admissions communications, from websites to view books, reflect institutional self-interest. Colleges and universities want to provide stimulating and vibrant educational environments, so they seek to attract bright, motivated, talented students who, collectively, bring diverse backgrounds and interests. Because we believe that high-quality students seek high-quality institutions, we promote our best features.

Perhaps the most controversial and high-profile aspect of institutional self-interest concerns the students we admit. Who gets admitted and why? The simple answer to that question is the applicants we want the most. But colleges and universities seem to say, or imply, that only "the best" or "the most qualified" get chosen. Does every (or any) college simply admit the most qualified applicants? Who defines most qualified? During my stints as an administrator at Bennington College (Vt.), Vassar College (N.Y.), Duke University (N.C.), Boston College, Oberlin (Ohio), and Reed, I have seen in nearly every case, a version of admission by category, with the categories determined by institutional needs and priorities.

Most applicants compete not with the whole applicant pool but within specific categories, where the applicant-to-available-space ratio may be more, or less, favorable than in the pool at large. Categories can exist for athletics, ethnic diversity, international citizenship, institutional legacy and loyalty, musical and artistic needs, component schools or special academic programs, and in some cases, even gender. Students in the selected categories, which vary from institution to institution, have a "hook" because they help meet institutional needs.

Books such as Elizabeth Duffy and Idana Goldberg's Crafting a Class; former Stanford admission dean Jean Fetter's Questions and Admissions; and former University of California, Santa Cruz, Vassar, and Bowdoin College (Maine) dean Richard Moll's Playing the Private College Admissions Game peer into the hidden reality of category admission.

If we want to provide useful back-fence counsel to prospective students, we must be frank about category admissions. The public is shrewd enough to extrapolate from books like Jacques Steinberg's The Gatekeepers the reality that most applicants are "hookless" and thus in fierce competition for a limited number of spaces, once the institutional priorities are filled. Our candid explanations of the reality of selective admission can help prospective students understand that behind every rejection letter, whether stated or not, is the undeniable fact that the candidates selected best matched the institution's needs. Admissions decisions are not random or arbitrary, but neither are they infallible or exact science. Sometimes we grossly underestimate the talent we see before us; I think of the student I wait-listed at Oberlin who went to Reed and earned a 3.6 GPA and a student I counseled who, after being spurned by Stanford, went to Washington University in St. Louis and became a Rhodes Scholar.

I suspect that prospective students and their parents wonder sometimes whether admission deans are educators or sales managers.

At the risk of redundancy, I need to say again that there are no random or arbitrary decisions in selective college admissions. Every decision is discussed, sometimes again and again, and again. Still, annually I encounter at least a dozen students who tell me some version of the following scenario: "I am going to apply to the University of Ultra-Selectivity and Prestige, even though I know I have no chance to get admitted. I know it sounds crazy, but maybe when the committee gets to my application, the dean will be asleep, or they will flip a coin, or they will stamp my file accept instead of wait list or reject." Sorry to break your illusions, prospective students, but just as there is no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny, there is no random quirk of fate that will overrule the reality of transcripts, test scores, essays, recommendations, and institutional priorities.

Do all colleges and universities practice category admissions vigorously? No. Most colleges and universities are not ultra-selective. Many quality colleges admit students up to the first day of classes. Even when practiced, the category admissions approach has different impacts, from institution to institution. Major state universities, for example, reserve slots for recruited athletes but in the aggregate those slots are a small percentage of the incoming class. Assaults on affirmative action have all but closed an explicit ethnic diversity category for state colleges. A few small colleges lack varsity teams and face no pressure to favor alumni children. Small colleges rarely admit students to individual departments or schools. Yet there is no avoiding the daunting fact that the most selective colleges and universities pose an admissions challenge-where applicants outnumber available spaces by multiples of 10 or even 20 to 1, category admissions cuts an unforgiving swath.

What does all this mean for confused prospective students who simply want to get a good education? It means you need to keep your options open, because there is no way to guarantee that you have what your first-, second- or third-choice college wants. That is not as bad as it may sound, because if all you want is a good education (and you want that more than you want a brand-name degree), you can get a good education just about anywhere. It also means rejection is less about you and more about the college or university doing the rejecting.

Remember that well-used break-up line, "It's not you, it's me"? This time it's true.

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