Review: Who Gets In and Why (Part 1)

Part 1 in a two-part series reviewing Who Gets In and Why by Jeff Selingo (Scribner, 2020).

Twice a month I meet with a group of other educational consultants to discuss trends in admissions, how to better serve our clients, and other professional development topics. This fall we’ve been discussing the book Who Gets in and Why by Jeff Selingo (Scribner, 2020).

Selingo spent a year interviewing high school seniors and embedded in three college admissions offices (Emory, Davidson, and University of Washington) as they review applications and selected the incoming freshman class. He uses this access to “pull back the curtain” on the admissions process. One significant contribution the book makes to the college admissions discussion is driving home the fact that there is not a single set of priorities for colleges or a single path to admissions for students.

Buyers and Sellers

Selingo categorizes colleges as Sellers or Buyers. Sellers are colleges that are consistently in high demand. They have large endowments and recognizable names. They turn down far more students than they admit and have no problem filling each freshman class. They are “selling” an education and an experience that commands a high price. The colleges that reported significant increases in early application submissions in fall 2020 were primarily schools that Selingo would label as Sellers.

By contrast, Buyers are less well-known nationally, though they may still offer outstanding academic opportunities. They have smaller endowments and may depend on tuition revenue to fund annual expenses. These schools have to expend greater effort to attract applicants and may use tuition discounts in the form of tuition grants or merit scholarships to “buy” a full incoming class.

Most colleges in the US are Buyers. They tend to have lower selectivity and admit a large number of students in order to enroll each new class of freshmen. While a handful of the most selective colleges like Harvard, Stanford, Tulane, and UCLA get front page coverage for their selectivity, 80% of colleges accept more than half the students who apply. Buyers may include well-appointed public institutions and nurturing liberal arts colleges.

Students who shift their attention from Sellers to Buyers may find an array of colleges that are highly interested in attracting them and connecting them with on campus opportunities. Features like Honors programs, specialized Living Learning Communities, support for undergraduate research, and small class sizes are often benefits collected by students who are willing to think broadly when building their college list.

This category can also include colleges on the edge of viability – low yield (the percentage of admitted students who enroll) and widespread tuition discounts are common traits of colleges at risk of closing. It takes time and effort to distinguish between high value colleges that are less well-known and institutions that are on a downward spiral.

Drivers and Passengers

Selingo’s second pair of labels is for high school students themselves. He describes many as either Drivers or Passengers. Students who are Drivers are focused on college goals well before senior year. They might adopt an earlier timeline for completing standardized testing and may spend the summer before senior year engaged in resume enhancing activities or working on college application essays.

Students who are Passengers often start senior year with a less definitive understanding of the college admissions process, the cost of attendance at typical colleges, or what type of college might fit their needs and goals. They may expect to go to college after high school, but aren’t sure of the steps needed to reach their goal. In mid-November of senior year, Passengers may still be considering where to apply, while many Buyers have completed early applications – which often come with higher rates of admission and stronger financial aid offers.

This is not to say that being a Driver is good and being a Passenger dooms a student to a low-quality education. Drivers can spend a lot of energy prioritizing what they hope will impress admissions officers. They can miss the opportunity to pursue their actual interests, especially those that don’t fit a narrow mold of providing an admissions benefit. Meanwhile, students who were Passengers may take control in college, where they have more room to personalize their education through their choice of majors, minors, and individual courses than was possible in the narrow confines of their high school.

The biggest advantage that Drivers have over Passengers is time. Because they start thinking about college months or years earlier, Drivers have the ability to contemplate what really matters to them and investigate what colleges are most likely to offer what they are looking for. Passengers may miss critical deadlines like priority dates for scholarship consideration or honors college applications. One example of a Passenger in Who Gets In and Why is Chris, a high school football player at a rural high school. Because his school is well off the beaten path for college admissions reps, the spectrum of colleges he considers is fairly small and he probably misses colleges that could have been good options. The lesson for parents and adults who work with high schoolers isn’t that they need to force all students into a Driver mold, but that earlier explorations of college can be beneficial. Students and families who start the college search process earlier have more time to identify high value colleges where there is a strong chance of admission. They also have the ability to choose courses and pursue activities that will prepared them for success as college students.

Read Part 2 of Review: Who Gets In and Why to learn more about the way colleges consider applications.

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