If working in the field of college admissions has taught me one thing, it’s that years ago, when I went through the application process myself, I had no idea what I was doing. That’s hyperbolic, of course—I knew that it was important to do well in school and go on to college, and I knew the basics of the application process—but for a variety of reasons, from being a first-generation college student to simply not asking the right questions, there was a lot I didn’t know.
The application process went very well for me, and I got admitted to a college I loved, but I started to get an inkling of my own naivete not long after I arrived at college. As my classmates chatted about their recent application experiences, I became uncomfortably aware of how easily I could have been rejected. Now, having worked in the field, I know all the details of how difficult it is to get accepted to top-tier schools, and how much work, assistance, and strategy goes into a lot of those successful applications.
How did I get accepted to my dream school? The answer to that question is more complicated than many of us might like to admit. Certainly, my own hard work and talents mattered a great deal, but I’m just as certain that another factor played a role: sheer luck.
There are no guarantees when it comes to college admission season, and acknowledging this fact early on will help you to keep your expectations for the application process realistic. Here’s how to make peace with the role of chance in the application process without letting it discourage you from pursuing your dreams.
Facing College Admissions Realities
When you’re embarking on any project or life change, it’s helpful to maintain a realistic idea of what you can expect. That’s why it’s so important to do your research about the college application process and choose colleges for your list carefully— before you apply, you should know what the process will entail, what will be required of you, and what life at that college is likely to be like if you eventually end up there.
Building up these realistic expectations isn’t always pleasant. No one wants to think about the possibility of being rejected. We’d all like to think that if we just work really hard, we’ll be able to guarantee our desired outcomes. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works—especially when it comes to admissions at competitive colleges in the 21st century.
Here’s the reality of the situation: top-tier colleges attract a large number of applicants, and many of those applicants are highly qualified. With a limited number of spots to fill, this means that a large number of smart, talented, accomplished students, applicants who could add a great deal to campus, must be rejected. There simply isn’t enough room for all of them.
Currently, the most selective college in the U.S. is Stanford University, where, in 2017, only 4.65% of applicants, less than one in every twenty, were accepted. Flip that around—that means that a whopping 95.35% of applicants were rejected. Think about how many exceptional students with compelling applications must have fallen into that 95.35%. Next year, one of them might be you.
There is always some chance that you’ll be rejected from a college you apply to. Even if you’re a spectacular student, a legacy admit, or the most enthusiastic applicant of all time, in the vast majority of cases, you’re not guaranteed admission. Even if you appear to have done everything right, you’re not necessarily going to be accepted, and you absolutely must prepare for that possibility. There’s always an element of unpredictability to contend with.
You Can’t Control Everything
When you’re preparing for and applying to college, you spend a lot of time trying to control a whole slew of variables. Your application is, in many ways, an attempt to control your image—not by lying, which would be unethical, but by putting your best foot forward. You’re attempting to present the version of yourself that colleges will find most appealing, from the right grades and test scores, to a set of interests and goals that make you an interesting addition to campus.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to control these factors to the best of your ability. Working hard to keep up your grades, build your extracurricular resume, and prepare for your career goals will pay major dividends, no matter what college you end up at or what path you eventually take. Making sure that you meet the requirements and recommendations of colleges you’re interested in will help give you the best chance at application success.
However, it’s equally important for you to recognize that some things in life are beyond your conscious control, and this includes some important aspects of the college application process. You can (and should!) do your best to demonstrate that you’re dedicated, hardworking, and talented, but at the same time, the final outcome is out of your hands.
One reason for this is that college admissions standards aren’t entirely cut-and-dried. Most top colleges use what’s called “holistic” admissions standards, meaning that they view your application as a whole rather than simply breaking it down into quantitative elements like GPA and test scores.
There’s much to be said that’s positive about holistic admissions standards, but they do make college admissions a less predictable process. Admissions officers like to see applicants demonstrate qualities like passion, dedication, or innovativeness, but deciding whether a particular applicant has these qualities is somewhat subjective.
More generally, admissions officers are people, not computers. In my experience, they make a strong effort to treat all applicants equally and evaluate them as individuals. However, they have their own opinions and preferences, and it’s always possible that outside circumstances might affect how they view a particular applicant. They’re only human.
With so many applications to read and decisions to make at popular colleges, admissions officers are stretched thin, and there’s a limit to how much time they can spend assessing each applicant. Sometimes a high-quality applicant slips through the cracks, or just doesn’t happen to pique the interest of the right person at the right time.
Another reason for this uncertainty is that, at most top-tier colleges, whether you get accepted isn’t solely dependent upon the application you submit; it also depends upon how you stack up relatively speaking against that year’s applicant pool. It may happen that you’re a very strong applicant, but you happened to apply to a certain college in a certain year in which its applicant pool is truly exceptional in its strength.
The reasons for an acceptance or a rejection can be murky, especially to someone standing outside the admissions office. Maybe your application arrived amid a stack of others that were very similar, so you didn’t stand out as much as you might have otherwise. Maybe your admission officer felt particularly motivated to advocate for you for some reason.
Who knows? I certainly can’t say. All I can tell you is that the set of factors that can potentially go into college admissions decisions is large and varied, and you never know what might happen once your application is submitted. The sooner you accept that some things are out of your control, the better—otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for unnecessary anxiety and, potentially, a major disappointment.
Doing Your Best in an Uncertain World
Obviously, there are things you can do to help your chances of getting admitted to the college of your choice. The existence of this blog and CollegeVine as an organization testify to how much students are seeking information and guidance in order to improve their chances of admission.
You can put forth effort in school to get good grades and prepare yourself academically for college. You can study for your standardized tests, which is clearly shown to result in higher scores. Outside the classroom, you can participate in extracurriculars and personal projects, take up meaningful volunteer work, and/or work at a part-time job.
You may not have access to every opportunity you’d like, but for the most part, you’ll have the opportunity to make choices during high school that demonstrate that you’re serious about your education and future. Making wise decisions helps colleges to see your potential and appreciate what you’ll bring to the campus environment—always a good thing when it comes to your applications, even though it doesn’t guarantee acceptance.
It’s unfortunate that hard work isn’t always a guaranteed path to success, or at least not to the exact type of success that would suit you best. Sometimes we put a lot of time and effort into things that don’t work out. Other times, we find that something we’d like to do is nevertheless something that just doesn’t come easily to us, and perhaps that effort is best spent elsewhere.
As for me, I’ll never know exactly what my admissions officers saw in me that led them to choose me for admission above other candidates, some of whose applications were far more prepped and polished than mine. All I know is that I’m glad it happened, and especially now that I know how easily things could have gone differently, I’m always grateful that I got that chance.
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