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Review: Who Gets In and Why (Part 2)

This is the second half of a book review of Who Gets In and Why, by Jeff Selingo (Scribner, 2020).

In Part 1 of my review of Who Gets In and Why, I discussed the labels that author Jeff Selingo uses in to categorize colleges (Sellers and Buyers) and students (Drivers and Passengers). These contrasting labels for colleges and students are just two of the insights Selingo brings to college admissions. The main part of the book describes the “Reading Season” in which each college admissions team reviews applications and builds an incoming class. Each chapter focuses on a factor that might contribute to admitting or turning down an applicant. Understanding these factors and how they apply to specific college/student combinations will help families understand the admissions prospects in their situation.

In the chapter “Playing the Odds” Selingo dives deep into the use of Early Decision applications to protect college enrollment percentages. Early Decision is an application option that looms large with students applying to the most selective colleges. Students submit their application months earlier than Regular Decision and also sign an agreement committing to attend the college if they are admitted (the high school counselor and a parent are also required to sign the Early Decision Agreement). A student may only apply to one college during an Early Decision round. If they are admitted by their Early Decision college, they are expected to withdraw any other pending applications (submitted under Early Action or Regular Decision) and deposit at the Early Decision college – without waiting to learn if they were admitted and without the ability to compare financial aid offers or final cost of attendance. The only release from the binding Early Decision commitment is if the financial aid offer from the Early Decision college does not make attendance possible, in which case the student may decline their offer of admission in order to pursue admission to other colleges.

Colleges like Early Decision because it not only spreads their admissions reading season out over several months, but also gives them an applicant pool that has assured them of their intention to attend if admitted. Yield rate (or enrollment rate) is the percentage of admitted students who enroll and is often seen as a measure of how well regarded a college is. Stanford has a yield rate of 82%, while Tulane has a yield rate of 28%. Colleges like Tulane are sensitive to being viewed as fallback options, so they tend to look more favorably on applications from students they know will attend (ED applicants) if admitted. As a result, they fill around 40% of their incoming class via Early Decision. Admissions rates can vary widely between Early Decision and Regular Decision (Jeff Levy and Jennie Kent of Big J Consulting compile annual statistics on ED vs RD admission rates that are eye-opening).

Students aren’t stupid; they can see the game theory at play with Early Decision. Some students spend a lot of time trying to figure out where to apply using Early Decision, hoping to get a leg up on admission to a highly selective college. The significant increase in ED applications in Fall 2020, when many highly selective colleges were forced to use test optional applications, was a result of this pragmatic gamesmanship.  ED can feel like a token that is wasted if it’s not spent. What often gets missed by students who feel pressured to apply to an ED school is how much advantage the college holds. Not only does the college get to pick which students to admit, but because the ED agreement is binding, they don’t have to entice them with generous financial aid offers. The student not only loses the opportunity to compare admissions choices and net costs, but also has to pick a first-choice college months earlier. Students who attend high schools where many students apply to selective colleges often feel pressure to apply ED, whether it fits the individual student’s needs or not. It is worth remembering that around 95% of students do NOT apply using Early Decision. I think parents and school counselors are wise to help a student understand the different application options, so they can consider what they trade away when they use Early Decision and if it makes sense in their situation.

Other chapters are equally compelling. “Finding and Edge” explores the boost that legacy and athletes may see in admissions (the Varsity Blues admissions scandal broke during Selingo’s research). Sports parents may be surprised to learn just how few athletic scholarships exist at top-ranked colleges or that their student may have to choose a less well-known college to be able to compete at the collegiate level. The chapter “Comparing Grades” discusses how much the high school environment affects college admissions results. It would be especially useful for parents of younger students, who may not understand how middle school course selection can result in closed doors years later. The location, size, and demographics of a high school also affect which college reps visit and how much understanding a high school senior brings to the admissions cycle.

“Shaping a Class” is a revealing look at the conflicting priorities that influence final admissions decisions. (This essay in the Wall Street Journal is adapted from this chapter.) Institutional priorities like bringing in enough students interested in humanities or prepared for engineering compete with the need to fill the roster of the college sports teams, orchestra, and drama department. A desire to increase ethnic or economic diversity, to enroll more first-generation students, or to expand geographically beyond the local region may conflict with the need to balance the college operating budget, especially at colleges where revenue is dependent on annual tuition. An ideal class might not be the class the college can afford to admit. While a student’s application is intensely personal, there are many reasons why a student might not be admitted – often unrelated to the quality of their application or their potential as a student.

During my IEC group’s final meeting of 2020, Jeff Selingo himself joined our conversation. One observation he made was that college rankings have power because they confirm what readers already think is true. A ranking that puts Harvard, Stanford, and other well-known colleges at the top of the stack will be believed. If a ranking puts a little-known college towards the top, like Money magazine’s Best Colleges in America Ranked by Value which includes UC San Diego, UC Davis, Texas A&M, Washington and Lee, Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Virginia Tech, University of Delaware, and James Madison University alongside Yale, University of California – Berkeley, and MIT as schools that return high value for tuition costs, parents are prone to disbelief. Reading Who Gets in and Why in advance of the college admissions season offers an antidote to this brand-conscious approach.

Review: Who Gets In and Why (Part 1)

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