Friday, April 4, 2008

Rejected by the Ivy League

There have been quite a few headlines reporting on the record low admission rates at top colleges and universities in the US this year. Acceptance and rejection letters started going out this week and for some kids and parents there have been quite a few surprises and confusion.

The New York Times screamed "Elite Colleges Reporting Record Lows in Admission" while Reuters informed "Acceptance at Harvard tougher than ever" and Newsday said "Princeton reports record low admission rate". All schools confirmed that the acceptance percentages were the most selective in history. Of the applicants Harvard accepted 7.1%, Yale 8.3%, Princeton 9.25% , Columbia 8.7% and MIT 13%. For a comprehensive list rounded up check out US News.

While these figures may be daunting it is worthwhile to note that applications to these top tier schools were up this year causing competition to be stiff. In addition to an apparently high birth rate a decade and a half ago, appealing financial aid packages, aggressive recruiting, increased interest in college education and simple online application have contributed to the surge in applications. Yale's dean of admissions gives actual figures saying that Yale had 12,000 applicants ten years ago compared to 22,813 this year; while we learn in an op-ed piece in Forbes that there were 22,000 applications to Duke for 1,600 slots.

This is cold comfort to the many high achieving applicants who had their hearts set on attending their dream school. There are stories of rejections of students with perfect Sat scores, lots of AP's, National Merit Scholarships, high GPA's and great EC's and these kids are confused especially when their friends or classmates with lesser achievements are accepted. One poster on a forum said "I know people have not gotten in anywhere, some people got in everywhere", one dad asked "what does it take???"

There are speculations and attempts all around to give explanations to what seems like random, baseless decisions. One person reported that he was reminded by a college president that the admissions staff are assembling a class not admitting individual students. This dovetails with a piece of sage advice offered by a Dartmouth rep. In her commentary "Don't take it personally" she points out that,
"the job of the admissions office is to assemble a class of students that satisfies the institution's different priorities and limitations."
Ok. This seems to suggest that there is a method to the madness yet it confirms that there are no guarantees and that despite their counselor's advice to get good grades first and focus on spectacular EC's etc. kids would be better off recognizing that to improve their chances of admission at all they have to apply to a longer list (read broader range) of schools and hope for the best. There really are a lot of exceptional kids and too limited space.

More importantly however maybe these rejections can offer kids opportunities to explore other options like getting to know their "safeties" - which are usually excellent schools which are just not among the elite 8 or MIT, Stanford or Caltech -, exploring lower profile schools and their programs which might be a better fit, spending a gap year abroad volunteering, working and/or learning a new language. After all college will only involve a tiny part of your life and there will be so much more to enjoy and experience apart from campus life.

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