NACAC is pleased to bring you an excerpt from award-winning higher education journalist and New York Times bestselling author Jeffrey Selingo’s revealing look from inside the admission office. Meant for general audiences, it identifies strategies that will aid in the college search.
Who Gets In and Why provides an usually intimate look at how admission decisions get made, and guides prospective students on how to honestly assess their strengths and match with the schools that will best serve their interests.
Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions
By Jeffrey Selingo
Publication Date: Sept. 15, 2020
Trim Size: 6 x 9 in
Page Count: 320
Price USD: $28.00
Copyright © 2020 by Jeff Selingo. From the forthcoming book WHO GETS IN AND WHY: A Year Inside College Admissions by Jeffrey Selingo to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.
One question I get frequently from applicants and their parents is how colleges compare students from different high schools. The simple answer is they don’t—at least not in explicit side-by-side comparisons. What they try to do is measure an applicant’s academic and personal achievements based on what courses are available at their specific high school. But yet, as they review hundreds of files over many months, admissions officers can’t help making comparisons between high schools and taking that into account as they build a class. You see it when they agonize over accepting even above-average students from less-rigorous high schools. A key metric Davidson uses to judge the quality of a high school is the proportion of students who go to college. That number determines how “deep” admissions officers want to go into a school’s senior class to admit students—the more students who go to college from that high school, the more willing they are to take a chance in accepting students ranked lower in the class.
The best hope for applicants is that the admissions officer reading their file knows something about their high school from yearly visits. Admissions officers are assigned regions of the country and travel mostly during the fall to recruit prospective students. They don’t visit every high school in that region, just the ones that send lots of applicants every year or the ones they wish would send more.
If an admissions officer from a school on your list does visit your high school, remember that person may be the reader of your application, so make time for the visit. Attendance at these sessions also helps colleges track demonstrated interest. A high school counselor in Colorado told me that one of her students had applied early action to Tulane but was absent from school the day a representative from the university visited. Tulane deferred him. When the counselor called Tulane, she was told the student didn’t seem very interested. She sent a screen shot of his perfect attendance except for that one day. A few weeks later he was accepted.
Applicants interested in a selective college that doesn’t visit their high school might find it more difficult to get accepted. That’s the dilemma facing Chris, the senior from Pennsylvania. After his impromptu visit to Gettysburg College over summer vacation, he put the liberal arts college at the top of his list.
In mid-September of his senior year, Chris was scheduled for the obligatory meeting with his school counselor to talk about his plans after graduation. He was reluctant to go. “The counselor wasn’t much help when I was getting ready for the SAT,” he told me later.
On the morning of the meeting, Chris walks into the suite of administrative offices at his school, a run-down beige cinderblock box from the early 1970s. Unlike prosperous public schools with sizeable college counseling offices teeming with guidebooks and college brochures, Chris’s counselor is tucked away in a cramped office. It’s a subtle message to these students that counseling at this school is less about what’s next and more about the social and emotional problems in their lives right now.
While Chris waits, he scans the list of colleges visiting the school that fall. Seventeen colleges are on the list. Most of them are schools close by. Gettysburg isn’t on the list. Nor is any other selective college.
Few colleges in general visit high schools like Chris’s. It is rural. It is poor. It is small (about 100 students in the senior class). And only 30 percent of the previous year’s class went directly on to college. It’s just not worth the time or money for a college to send someone. In the fall of his senior year, Chris was more likely to see a military recruiter than a college representative roaming the hallways.
Suburban high schools welcome as many college representatives in a day as visit Chris’s school in September and October. Even though colleges say they want to find diamonds in the rough with Chris’s scholastic record—a 1310 on the SAT and A average—they rarely do because they either don’t look hard enough or they can’t come to terms with lowering the institution’s SAT average. If Chris were in a different high school—a suburban, affluent, competitive school—he would have an entirely difference experience. Dozens of representatives from colleges would have come to visit, counselors would have pushed a wider range of colleges earlier in his high school career, and he’d have five selective colleges on his list, not one. It’s just one example of how the high school sometimes matters more than the applicant.
But Chris’s path to college is about to change.
After a few minutes of waiting, the counselor greeting Chris is not the one near retirement and largely indifferent to his college plans. This time he is met by a woman who looks like she could be in high school herself. She introduces herself as Michelle Bailey, a 2017 graduate of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She explains she has been assigned to Chris’s school for the next two years as part of the National College Advising Corps, a national nonprofit that places hundreds of college advisors in underserved schools to supplement full-time counselors.
“Ms. Bailey took one look at my grades and SAT scores,” Chris recalled, “and told me there were a lot more colleges out there than the ones coming to the school in the fall.”