Chapter 11

The Admissions Game

The first thing to recognize about the admissions game is that it is a game. It has a large element of chance, as well as much strategy and counter-strategy between college applicants and admissions officials. The admissions game has its rules but its outcome is often much like the erratic bounce of a football, which can make all the difference between a touchdown for you and a touchdown for the other team. There have been experiments done where the same set of credentials were submitted to the same college under two different names, with one being accepted and the other rejected. If admissions decisions were computerized, this would not happen but human beings on an admissions committee cannot keep all the applicants in mind simultaneously or rank them all against one another.

In any game, you first need to know the rules and then know the other players. Only then can you plan strategy.


There are different versions of the admissions game, each with its own rules, and the popularity of each version varies from place to place and from time to time. The most straightforward rule is that whoever meets the requirements gets admitted. For colleges, universities, and engineering schools with this kind of rule, your main concern may be to make sure that you meet the requirements. But, even here, it gets more complicated.

Just as you are playing the game for your benefit, so institutions are playing the game for their benefit. Many state universities know that the more students they admit—the more warm bodies they have on campus—the more money they can get out of state legislators. Their admissions standards may therefore be set low enough to ensure that they always have enough warm bodies on campus, even if many of those admitted do not survive the freshman year.

It is not at all uncommon for 30 or 40 percent of the freshman class to fail to make it through to the sophomore year at some state universities. Barely half the entering freshmen have graduated five years later at the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Vermont at Burlington, the University of Wisconsin at Madison or the University of California at Santa Barbara. Less than half have graduated in five years at the University of Washington at Seattle or the University of California at Santa Cruz, Riverside, or Irvine. These are by no means the worst, or even exceptional, though there are other state institutions like the University of Virginia, William & Mary, or New College, where the survival rates are much higher.

With state universities, another factor that enters into the admissions decision is whether the applicant is from within the state or not. At the University of North Carolina, for example, an out-of-state applicant who graduates in the top 5 percent of his or her high school class must have combined S.A.T. scores of 1100 to have better than a 50-50 chance of being admitted, while a North Carolina resident in the top 5 percent has a 4 out of 5 chance of being admitted with a combined S.A.T total of only 800. Whether tougher standards for out-of-state applicants take the form of higher test score requirements (Minnesota), higher grade point averages (Berkeley), or a numerical limit (Vermont), there is usually a double standard of some sort. It is one of many double standards—for athletes, alumni children, ethnic minorities, and others.

In the admissions game, "winning" cannot be defined as simply getting in. At a minimum, it must also include reasonable prospects of survival, and it should of course include more than that. Athletes, ethnic minorities, and alumni children are not the only ones for whom easy admission can turn out to be a trap rather than a favor.

Many private and some state institutions play by a different rule that sets admissions standards at a level that corresponds to some reasonable prospect of successfully completing the academic work. Obviously that level varies from institution to institution but the principle is still pretty straightforward. Complications arise, however, at schools with far more applicants than they can admit. Here the problem is just the opposite of that at many state universities. Here you may be perfectly capable of doing the work and still not be admitted. In this situation it is possible to lose in a number of ways.

The biggest losers in this version of the admissions game are not simply those who are not accepted at prestigious schools they had their hearts set on. It was inevitable from the outset that most would be rejected when the applicants greatly exceeded the places. The real and sometimes lasting harm is that many students take their rejection as a sign of some personal failing, that they didn't "measure up" to a high standard. Many carry the feeling of being a "Stanford reject" or "an Ivy League reject" with them to some other college, which may in fact offer them a better education than they could have gotten at their first-choice institution, and which in any case often has intellectual resources far beyond what anybody can exhaust in four years.


The sad irony is that most college admissions committee decisions today bear little resemblance to the process envisioned by students who think that they just didn't "measure up" to some objective academic criteria. With so many applicants with similar academic credentials applying to a relatively few well-known colleges, admissions committees choose on subjective grounds that range from the fashionable to the ideological to the ludicrous.

A student may be favored by a committee member because of personality, interests, or an essay that hits home to the committee member. Some activity that strikes one committee member as exciting and showing initiative—perhaps hitchhiking around Europe in the summer—may strike another committee member as old stuff, a copycat idea or even a sign of irresponsibility. Personal meetings between visiting committee members and the student may provide the interest that makes that committee member fight to get that particular student admitted. Or there may just be bad vibes. Scientific it ain't.

Part of any game is knowing what the other players are like. The kind of people on admissions committees varies from institution to institution. However, a world-class physicist or chemist who is doing pioneering research is unlikely to put it aside, in order to sit on an admissions committee from morning till night, perhaps 6 or 7 days a week, several weeks in a row, reading application folders. So, while you may be applying to Harvard or M.I.T. to study under scholars like that, or in hopes of becoming one yourself, the people who decide whether or not you get in are likely to be very different. A doctoral dissertation studying the admissions process at Harvard concluded that most Harvard admissions committee members had been neither "brilliant students" themselves nor "truly original and independent minds." Yet they are expected to select students with the very qualities that they themselves lack.

At Harvard as elsewhere, administrators rather than faculty members tend to predominate on admissions committees. Most tend to be youngish people—often in their 20's—and at best fringe members of the intellectual community. They share, among other things, a belief that they can discern psychological nuances that matter when choosing among applicants—even though there is not a speck of evidence that they can. The Harvard admissions committee is by no means unique in this respect. The college admissions literature in general is full of attempts to play up amateur psychology and play down academic criteria. This literature includes persistent and even reckless attempts to discredit test scores in favor of undefinable qualities like "leadership," "commitment," and the like. The University of Virginia admissions brochure, for example, says:

Recognizing that superior performance and promise do not necesssarily guarantee success or happiness at any university, the Committee tries to understand each applicant in personal terms, and accordingly seeks evidence of good character and social habits, facility in self-expression, leadership, commitment to service, and any other predictors of positive contributions to the University community.
Obviously, nothing on earth will "guarantee success or happiness"—at a university or anywhere else. It is pathetic that anyone would be shallow enough to use that even as a straw man—much less that such people should control the gateway to an outstanding university. It is equally pathetic that there are grown men and women who seriously believe that they can divine elusive "predictors of positive contributions" (for more than 10,000 applicants, in the case of the University of Virginia). But the cold fact is that such beliefs are widespread—and affect the admissions game. Widespread emphasis on finding evidence of "community service" in the student's application folder is one consequence of this fashionable illusion.

Whatever the merits or demerits of amateur psychology applie by admissions committees, and completely aside from whether the various activities under the nebulous label of "community service" are in reality a service or a disservice to the community, the practical fact remains that this is one of the ingredients in the admissions process at many institutions today. It is part of the game. How much weight it carries is unknowable and no doubt varies from institution to institution. However, note that half the people admitted to Notre Dame got in without "community service." But the mere fact that this was one of a number of high school "activities" tabulated at Notre Dame shows the general drift. Their brochure points out that more than two-thirds of all Notre Dame freshmen led one or more activities "as President, Captain, or Editor-in-Chief," while in high school.

However impressed some admissions committees may be with this particular conception of "leadership"—which would miss people like Einstein or Beethoven—the cold fact is that millions of students must be admitted to thousands of colleges if those colleges are to survive, and all these students cannot be the ideal applicant, as visualized by admissions committees. How much of your time it is worth investing in scoring points by doing things that look good on an application form is something that only you can decide. If there is some extra-curricular activity that you like for its own sake, then the decision may be easy. If it's just part of a game, then it should be coldly assessed in terms of what it may cost you, by encroaching on your school work, other things you like to do, or perhaps your self-respect. Applying to more colleges to spread the risk from this random factor may be a better use of your time.

With admissions officials, as with other people, it is always a good idea to distinguish what they say from what they do. The admissions office at Carnegie-Mellon University, for example, says: "In our review process, SAT scores take up a very small part of our decision." After various disparagements of S.A.T. scores, including the incredible assertion that these scores are supposed to measure "a fixed and innate quality," the admissions office concludes: "In the long run, the well-rounded student with perhaps the 'average' SAT scores will win out at Carnegie-Mellon." In practice, however, Carnegie-Mellon students' average SATs are 300 points above the national average!

Any student with average S.A.T.'s (900 composite) who entered Carnegie-Mellon could be in for a big shock. Data analyzed by Professor Robert Klitgaard of the Kennedy School at Harvard show that S.A.T. differences of that magnitude have very serious effects on grade-point averages. Always remember that it is not the admissions committee that will flunk out of college if they give you bad advice. Moreover, very few admissions offices make any real effort to collect hard evidence to test any of the fashionable things they say or do. On the contrary, many who have the boldest rhetoric are the most secretive when it comes to preventing any data in their office from being seen by any independent researcher.

Remember too, when admissions office representatives give talks at your high school, if the representative from some college you respect sounds like a jerk, that does not mean that there is something wrong with the college. Admissions personnel are not necessarily like either the faculty or the students at their institutions. Don't give up on a good college just because its admissions representative sounded shallow. Many of them are.


Once it is understood that getting admitted to college is not strictly a matter of academic qualifications, the whole admissions game can be approached in a different spirit—and its results viewed in a different light. The substantial element of chance means that you must apply to a number of institutions, regardless of how good your academic record may be. Nor should all but one college be regarded as "fall-back" options. It is better to apply to three or four institutions of a very similar academic level and type, with another couple where your chances are greater and perhaps one "safety valve" school where you feel sure of being admitted, if all else fails. Do not concern yourself at this point with the exact ranking of your choices or about what you will do if you get several acceptances. You can always say "no" but you cannot always say "yes" unless you have left yourself enough options.

Some prefer a strategy of applying to one college a little higher-rated or more "selective" than you might normally expect to be admitted to, followed by those where you meet the usual admissions standards, followed by one or more "safety valve" schools. Despite the symmetry of this approach, and its resemblance to an investment portfolio with diversified risks, I do not share the assumption on which it is based. If getting admitted to a "better" college were a special prize for which it was worth trying, this strategy would make sense. But if a match is better than a mismatch, then the highest academic level of college to apply to is the level whose colleges fit your performance. There is no point trying to "go for the gold" in terms of college prestige rankings, if that will mean four years of struggling to keep your nose above the water.

Councelors and Coaches
Some games require coaches, and college admissions may be one of them, at least for some people. In addition to high school counselors, there are also private coaches of various sorts, charging various amounts of money to coach you on everything from taking S.A.T. tests to taking interviews, writing application essays, and arranging the kinds of extracurricular activities that will appeal to the prejudices and mentality of those who sit on admissions committees. Some of these coaching or counseling services specialize in some aspects more than others but some take on all of them.

Among these coaching services are nationwide organizations like Princeton Review and Stanley H. Kaplan. There are also local coaching and counseling services, such as the College Admissions Preparatory Service (CAPS) on the San Francisco peninsula. The very fact that such organizations can survive and grow, in competition with public schools that provide similar services free of charge, may be a reflection on at least some of the public schools.

I never realized just how bad some public schools can be in this respect until I was sitting in the admissions office at Rockford College with my niece, who attended a ghetto high school in New York. When the admissions officer asked what her SAT scores were, she was baffled because she had never heard of the SAT. It had not occurred to me to tell her about it because it had not occurred to me that high school counselors would fail to provide such basic information.

Whether it will be worth your while to find a private coaching and counseling organization will depend on how well your teachers and counselors have done their jobs, and how your academic credentials stack up against the standards of the colleges you are applying to. Even if you meet the normal standards where you are applying, that is far from a guarantee that you will be admitted. The smaller the percentage of applicants a school accepts, the more likely you are to benefit from professional help in packaging your application or in raising your test scores. However, it is well worth remembering that there are many very good colleges that admit more than half of all applicants.

There is a log-jam of applicants to Ivy League schools, M.I.T., Cal Tech and a relatively few other places, so that the odds are against you there, even if you meet all their standards and are just as able as the students going there now. However, there are many other outstanding institutions—some world class—where things are very different. Nearly half the students who apply to the University of Chicago or to Johns Hopkins are admitted, as are more than half of those who apply to Oberlin, Occidental, or Brandeis.

Even at places where only 20 percent of the applicants are accepted, merely applying to three such places gives you just over a 50-50 chance of getting in at one of them. Applying to six such places would raise the over-all odds to two out of three in your favor. This assumes that you meet the standards, so that it is just the luck of the draw whether you or someone else equally qualified is admitted. Among the institutions where 20 percent or more of the applicants are admitted are M.I.T., Cal Tech, and half the Ivy League, with Harvard and Yale not far behind.

In short, while having the qualifications will not ensure your admissions at any given institution, those qualifications plus half a dozen applications will give you a very good chance of getting into one college at even the most highly selective level. If that is the level you are aiming for, then one or two fall-back applications in addition should cover you. If the colleges you are considering are not at that stratospheric level, meeting the normal standards should be enough to give you a good chance with perhaps 5 applications. At any level where there are colleges with good academic standards, making less than 3 applications is taking a needless chance.

In the light of this, the need for a professional counselor may not be urgent. But if you can afford it and have your heart set on one particular place, then perhaps it is a good investment. The other services of a counselor, in coaching you on subjects where you want some beefing up, and in making you aware of possibilities and getting you to think through your own priorities, may be more valuable. But if you cannot afford a private counselor, it is hardly likely to be fatal to your academic future—especially not for those who have read this far.

Essays and Interviews
Among the things professional counselors can help with is preparing the essay which many colleges ask for in their admissions forms and preparing yourself for the interview with an admissions officer.

Ethical questions may arise as to how far someone else should go in helping you prepare an essay that is supposed to be yours. General advice about writing grammatically, avoiding slang, not bringing in controversial issues, and generally being straightforward, is fine. But when the counselor begins to outline the essay for you, you are entering a gray area.

The widespread use of paid counselors by people who can afford it also undermines the easy assumption that admissions committees can discern things that enable them to judge "the whole person." They may in fact be judging a person and a half. What the counselors essentially do in this case is simply enable their client to play the game better—to stand out a little from many other applicants with similar credentials. What makes it a game in the first place is the assumption by admissions committees that they can do something which there is no evidence whatsoever that they can do. While the University of Virginia admissions brochure refers to using "predictors of postive contributions," these are undefined, untested, and unverifiable—not only at Virginia but in general. A vast literature of such vague and lofty expressions can be surveyed at great length without discovering either a single piece of hard evidence or even a basis for testing any of the claims made. There may indeed be things that catch an admissions committee's eye but discovering what they are is essentially a game, whether played alone or with a professional counselor's help.

The college admissions interview may also be a game, though you can make it worthwhile by asking whatever questions you may have about the college and the surrounding community during the interview. With the interview, as with the essay, the best advice is to be straightforward and to be yourself. There is no point being clever with people who have seen thousands of interviewees and have heard all the ploys. Some college guides give a long list of do's and don'ts—followed by the advice to relax! Common sense will tell you not to do outlandish things—and for someone who doesn't have common sense, no list can cover all the ways that that fact will come out.

The advice to relax is good advice for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most important reason is that the interview probably won't make much difference in the admissions decision, one way or the other. Some admissions officials themselves say so privately. There may be some other admissions officials who are fatuous enough to think that they can play Sigmund Freud and see deep meaning in a phrase here and a gesture there during an interview. But there is no way to become fool-proof. Applying to a number of colleges is one way of allowing for such risks.

The Colleges' Strategies
In any game, it is well to understand the other players and their strategies and limitations. College admissions officials are generally maximizing the well-being of their institutions, as they define it according to current beliefs, fashions, and conditions. They must, for example, admit far more students than there are places in the freshman class, just as airlines "overbook" flights because they expect "no shows." This is, in effect, the admissions committee's counter-strategy to students' multiple applications to different colleges.

Students feeling admissions pressure as they try to get into the college of their choice should be aware that colleges are also under thier own kind of admissions pressure—which is a matter of institutional life or death. For many institutions, it would be a financial disaster not to fill the freshman class or the freshman dormitories. Even colleges with enough surplus applicants to be sure of having enough warm bodies must be concerned to have enough of the "right" kind of students, not only as the admissions committee sees it, but also as the faculty sees it. Even schools with excess applicants, such as Wesleyan and Stanford are out recruiting as far away as Europe.

Vassar College illustrates the way admission pressure cut both ways. Just under half the students who apply to Vassar are admitted—but only about a third of those admitted actually enroll. The specific numbers vary from college to college but the general pattern is very similar. Even Yale gets only a little more than half the students it has accepted. Colleges across the ountry and across the academic spectrum, have no real choice but to admit far more students than they can handle.

The net effect is to make it easier for any given student to be admitted to be admitted a given college, because colleges have been forced to grant more admissions as the practice of multiple applications has spread. This offsets many of the fashions and prejudices of admissions committees as to what an ideal applicant should be. It does not restore academic criteria but reduces the impact of numerous non-academic fads, such as "community service" and other extra-curricular criteria.

The students jeopardized by the strategies of admissions committees include many who seem to be favored—athletes, ethnic minorities, and alumni children. Where they are admitted without meeting the usual standards, their survival chances are correspondingly reduced. At many institutions, the proportion of athletes and minority students who never graduate are a scandal—and they deserve to be at other institutions which keep these statistics under lock and key. The effect of special admissions on the survival rates of alumni children or students with better "outside activities" and "community service" records than academic records could stand study as well. The same general principle is involved.

If you are in any of these categories, consider yourself at risk rather than favored, if your academic credentials are not in the same league as those of the other students at the college where you are applying. This is one of the dangerous parts of the admissions game.

Copyright 1989 by Thomas Sowell
Reprinted with permission