Deja Vu All Over Again

April 23, 2022

A Response to the Wall Street Journal’s Revelation that “Extraordinary” Isn’t Enough for the Ivy League

With apologies to the always jocular Yogi Berra, I feel his oft-quoted observation after witnessing Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hit back-to-back home runs time after time best sums up the Wall Street Journal’s recent (04/21/22) observation: “To get into the Ivy League, ‘Extraordinary’ isn’t always enough these days.” It’s deja vu all over again. Every year, some news outlet desperate for clicks, likes, or whatever metric they can sell to advertisers publishes the same story…ADMISSION TO SELECTIVE COLLEGES IS REALLY HARD AND UNPREDICTABLE…AND SEEMINGLY HEARTLESS. Cue Billie Eilish’s iconic lyric, “duh.” 

This year’s tragic victim is Kaitlyn from McKinney High School in Texas. Without question, Kaitlyn appears to be an extraordinary student and person. Near perfect SAT score, two B’s her sophomore year in an otherwise rigorous and unblemished transcript, and remarkable extracurriculars. Her teachers speak highly of her character. As so many of my parents like to say, “she checks all the boxes.” While I am still searching for this proverbial list of admissions-assuring criteria, I understand why it has become ubiquitous. Everyone says the same thing from books, blogs (present company excluded, of course), YouTube videos, friends, rumors, etc. Follow this recipe, and you will get in. But, alas, as we all know in our heart of hearts, there is a mysterious, non-quantifiable side to selective admissions. It must be a dirty little secret shared only in darkened rooms that require a whispered password to gain entry.

SPOILER ALERT: There is NO secret. There is NO algorithm. There is NO ritual handshake. So, stop looking. Don’t forensically examine a rejected application as if it were a lifeless body at a crime scene. I beg you to simply accept the reality that there are way more qualified students than spots available at the most selective schools.

Econ 101: Too Much Demand, Not Enough Supply

Indicative of most Ivy League schools, Harvard’s numbers are revealing. In 1982, Harvard admitted 2,200 students from an applicant pool of 12,000 high school seniors. Four decades later, more than 61,000 students applied to Cambridge’s finest. Drum roll, please…only 1,954 of that staggering group received the coveted big envelope welcoming them to the Class of 2026. That’s right. Over the past forty years, the number of applications has grown 5x while the number of “seats” has actually gone down. (I will address why that number has remained steady while tuition prices have skyrocketed on another day.) 

Schools like Harvard have an embarrassment of riches from whom to choose, which is shared by most in the US News & World Report Top 50 schools.  While I don’t endorse rankings, it is informative to note that most of those institutions boast a 20% or less admission rate. Simply put, Kaitlyn is not alone. In fact, Kaitlyn’s story is commonplace. 

Last year, Princeton’s Dean of Admission, Karen Richardson, was asked how many students were denied a place in Princeton’s incoming class despite being “roughly as good” as the 1,800 admitted. In other words, how many “Kaitlyns” were rejected? Hold on to your hat…”18,000…we say ‘no’ to about 90% of the students fully qualified for the rigorous academic curriculum at Princeton.” There are more than 25,000 high schools in the United States alone. By definition, there are at least 50,000 valedictorians and salutatorians, all of which are being told by their teachers, friends, and family to apply to the top schools. They are kids like Kaitlyn.

So, who are the “lucky” ones? No one can tell you because, apart from being a recruited athlete, legacy, or offspring of a generous donor, there is no clear answer. Classes are crafted to be well-rounded and reflective of our diverse society, which many believe encourages the best learning environment. What this looks like from school to school or year to year is anyone’s guess.

So, what can you do?

In light of this admissions arms race, my best advice is to be realistic. A student’s goal should never be school-specific. Don’t fall in love! It too often will be unrequited. Rather, build a well-balanced list of schools reflective of your relative chances of gaining admission, your academic and non-academic interests, and your financial limitations. A good list will have more target and likely schools than reach schools. Find fit in all of them. Kaitlyn heard from Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell, Penn, USC, Berkeley, Rice, and Northwestern. Those are ALL reach schools…for EVERYONE. Ideally, she would have just as many target schools on her list. Unfortunately, I see too many students who fail to visit or research the actual schools they are most likely to be offered admission. It’s the sweatshirt schools that get all the attention.

If you meet the academic profile for a particular school, the next thing to focus on is your application narrative. What is your story? Does it match your academic interests? If you hope to study business, what have you done in the summers to demonstrate that interest? Do your essays tell a positive story about your best values and traits? Are you genuine in explaining why you think you are a great fit for a particular school? Did you pick teachers to write recommendations that support your narrative? 

In the end, there are many non-quantitative factors that ultimately play a role in an admissions decision. Headlines like to focus on the numbers, but that is not how the sausage is made. Take AP courses because you want to be well prepared for college. Do the summer activities that genuinely demonstrate an interest or passion. Volunteer in your community to make it a better place. Participate in sports, mock trial, debate, or music because they make you smile. Do all of those things for the right reasons and you will have a genuine identity that will flourish no matter the campus you call home. So, forget about the schools that said no and embrace the ones that want you.

It sounds like Kaitlyn found a home at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business. She is well prepared to find her calling at that wonderful institution. To all the Kaitlyns out there, continue to be extraordinary and prosper!