College Admissions – Where to Start?

I just finished my first quarter at the University of California and decided, among other things, to start a blog over break using the old site I used to publish my comics on. After seeing a whole bunch of my high school friends post on Facebook about early college admissions this week, it didn’t take me long to figure out a subject for my first post.

Now, my experience with freshman year of college is that it’s basically a continual conversation about college admissions. (This phenomena was catalyzed by the fact that everybody in my dorm’s study program had to read a book about overachieving high-schoolers applying to college.*) Having just gone through a quarter of college, I thought it might be interesting to look back on my admissions experience as a high-schooler and compare it to my actual experience at a competitive university. Sort of a purgatory experience, if you will.

From what I understand, college admission processes can vary widely between schools and majors. For your typical science/technology major, though, it generally requires a standardized test (SAT or ACT), SAT subject tests in math and science, essays high school transcripts, and potentially letters of recommendation and/or interviews.

In theory, that seems like a quite well-rounded system of determining a student’s academic and creative potential. But what I found was that the parts of the process that were supposed to identify me as a person with unique interests where downgraded and desensitized compared to those components that categorized me numerically. Interviews became Q-and-A sessions about items already on my transcripts and in my essays. Essay questions were repetitive and contrived. Teachers automatically wrote enthusiastic letters because college acceptances reflected well on them. Sections for listing extracurriculars were too short and often reduced the subject to the question “how many hours did you volunteer?”

Meanwhile, I found out that some schools wouldn’t even read my application because my math subject test scores weren’t in the 95th percentile or so. Never mind that I ran a Cross Country race the day of one test. Or that I got a near-perfect score on history in the same sitting as the math test on another exam date. The applicants were all but numbers to them.

The other members of my dorm’s scholarship program (which, interestingly enough, was selected based solely on GPA and test scores) had similar stories. Being from more academically competitive high schools than me, they were slightly more knowledgeable about the process going in. As a result, they and their peers had stressed even more than I did about grades and test scores, to the point where some students were threatening to sue teachers for low grades.


Of course, we were all stressed out because we were trying so hard to get into “better” and “prestigious” schools. When acceptances, tours, and scholarship offers rolled around, though, reality sunk in. Some schools weren’t worth the money. Others, meanwhile had great reputations but horrible environments. What mattered in the end was where we could see ourselves living for four years, not what ranks US News assigned to colleges.

As a result, I settled for my 13th choice school (out of 17, with 8 acceptances) based on what I could afford and how much I liked the campus. I expected a less talented student body than some of my other options, but discovered that the situation was quite the opposite. Virtually every student in my dorm were better students than me, though admittedly not as dedicated to extracurriculars. (My high school’s grade inflation may have been part of my placement into the school and program). Classes were still challenging, stimulating, and fun. The school wasn’t rolling in money like some private colleges, but still provided luxurious dorms and many student resources.


Prestige is really, really relative. It depends on major, it depends on the school’s admissions
criteria, and it depends on who is polling whom on which schools are better-known. It causes many students to stress out over getting into a college they won’t be happy at.

But while students could do a better job of researching schools and examining them on face value, there are improvements I as a former applicant and current student feel that other parties could make as well.


  • Devalue (but don’t abandon) test scores. Look at the activities list, resume, and/or short essays first to find interesting candidates, then compare their relative talents in math, reading, writing, etc.
  • Abandon generic essay questions like “Why are you interested in our program?” that all but ask for a canned response. Either stick with a general personal statement or ask challenging and unique questions.
  • Give interviewers applicant profiles in advance (assuming the interview takes place after the app is submitted) to avoid redundant conversations. Even the forwarding of a transcript is fine.
  • Emphasize at the outset that there are too many applicants to give anybody a fair shot. Post detailed admissions statistics on the web and help students understand that a lot of rejections are caused by shortage of space available, not personal failings of applicants.

High Schools:

  • Devalue college acceptances during ceremonies such as Senior Awards. Commend students instead on how students impacted the community or pursued their own goals.
  • Don’t publish class ranks. Instead, publish anonymous grade distribution charts, so students can learn where they stand (if they even want to know) without being afraid that the numbers will be reported to colleges.
  • Have teachers deflate grades to make a perfect 4.0 a rare occasion. Let students know that one B doesn’t ruin an education, or disqualify students from awards, admissions, or scholarships.

Ranking Pundits:

  • Stop ranking schools based on admissions rates. All this does is cause colleges to give false hope to unqualified students so they can reject more people.
  • Stop ranking schools based on prestige. The only criteria that should matter are factors that directly affect the ability of the schools to educate their students (number of faculty, undergraduate spending, graduation rates, etc.). Vague, opinion-based factors such as “prestige” are affected by the media, publicity, hearsay, and (paradoxically) rankings themselves.

*The book I read was The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids by Alexandra Robbins. While it was interesting and caused me to think back to my admissions experience, I disagreed with it because it was biased towards upper-class East Coast students. Still, worth a read if you want an in-depth (and deeply critical) analysis of college admissions in America.

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