An Expert Shares Secrets of the College Admissions Process

New York Times Bestselling Author Jeff Selingo visited AIS to give advice on the College Admissions Process to currents students and parents.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly disrupted college enrollment, generating more uncertainty about the admissions process than ever before. But when higher education journalist Jeff Selingo visited Agnes Irwin School as a guest speaker on September 21, he had plenty of words of wisdom – and reassurance – to dispense. Selingo, the author of two New York Times bestsellers, College (Un)Bound and There Is Life After College, writes regularly for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Drawing on findings from his most recent book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions (Simon & Schuster, 2020), he provided AIS parents with a clear roadmap for success in today’s shifting admissions landscape.

Although elite institutions have dramatically pruned their acceptance rates over the past 20 years – Yale’s, for example, plummeted from 17 percent in 1990 to 4.62 percent this year – the national average still hovers around 65 percent. “Most colleges in the U.S. accept most students,” Selingo noted. Instead of betting on a handful of applications to “name brand” schools, he encouraged families to widen the scope of their search. “If you’re going to leave with any piece of advice tonight, it’s this: have a balanced list of schools that gives you a good academic, social, and financial fit.” Families should consider criteria such as academic program offerings, size and location, pathways to career opportunities, and the availability of merit-based aid.

“If you’re going to leave with any piece of advice tonight, it’s this: have a balanced list of schools that gives you a good
academic, social, and financial fit.”

Once a list has been compiled, how can students craft the strongest possible application? According to Selingo – who spent a year observing readers at Emory University, Davidson College, and the University of Washington – it’s an art, not a science. An impressive high school transcript “will get you halfway to the finish line,” but a perfect GPA doesn’t necessarily guarantee acceptance. Admissions officers are most interested in evidence of a growth mindset: that an applicant is intellectually curious, has challenged themselves in the past, and will seek out new experiences on campus. Yet there’s no one size fits all approach, Selingo cautioned, and students should strive to remain true to their authentic selves. “The applicant pools are so wide and deep that you just can’t game the system,” he said. “Admissions treasures what is rare and different, so do what you actually like to do.”

Still, an application’s fate often rests on the broader needs of an institution. “It’s not about you, the applicant,” Selingo explained, “it’s about them.” Each school has a set of institutional priorities that are delivered through the admissions process, which means that decisions are sometimes based less on merit and more on the strategic “shaping” of an ideal class. A school might reject many qualified applicants in favor of packing that year’s class with, for instance, more athletes, English majors, or women.

While the ambiguous nature of college admissions makes it nearly impossible to predict the likelihood of acceptance, Selingo reminded parents that aiming for authenticity over name recognition will reliably yield positive outcomes. In any case, he added, “the most important thing about success after college isn’t where you go, it’s what you do while you’re there.”

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