College Admissions: Now What?

High school seniors and their parents have just completed what is charitably known as “the college process.” For some students (and parents), depending on the general level of angst, this process may have started with pre-school, kindergarten, or during the elementary school years. Yes, that’s how intense and long-term the college process can be for some.

It can also be ridiculously competitive. I just posted a thread on the College Confidential discussion forum entitled Stanford dean: School’s ultra-low admit rate not something to boast about. I quote from the article:

“… Dean of admission and financial aid at Stanford since September 2005, Shaw said he understands the public fascination with a measure of selectivity that now stands at 4.7 percent, lowest in the nation among prominent colleges and universities. That means the private university in Northern California turns down slightly more than 19 out of every 20 applicants. But Shaw didn’t advertise that fact on March 25 when he announced the entering fall class.” …

admission ticket

Four. Point. Seven. Percent. I’m not sure if we should be impressed or frightened. Certainly, any aspiring, rising-juniors out there targeting Stanford this fall should be frightened and stand warned.

A while back here, I posited that eventually acceptance rates at some top colleges would reach their ultimate goal: zero. Frank Bruni, writing in the New York Times, must have seen my prophesy and wrote, College Admissions Shocker! where, among other satirical statements, he stated:

Cementing its standing as the most selective institution of higher education in the country, Stanford University announced this week that it had once again received a record-setting number of applications and that its acceptance rate — which had dropped to a previously uncharted low of 5 percent last year — plummeted all the way to its inevitable conclusion of 0 percent.

With no one admitted to the class of 2020, Stanford is assured that no other school can match its desirability in the near future …

Stanford isn’t the only school with nearly impossible admission odds. Take a look at this chart, a snapshot showing the “least” selective (a highly misleading term) to most selective from the Ivy League this past admissions season:

Ivy League overall acceptance rates for the Class of 2020:

8. Cornell University — 13.96%

7. Dartmouth College — 10.52%

6. University of Pennsylvania — 9.41%

5. Brown University — 9.01%

4. Princeton University — 6.46%

3. Yale University — 6.27%

2. Columbia University — 6.04%

1. Harvard University — 5.2%

You can also scan the Top 100 most selective colleges to see how tough it was this past year at maybe one of your prospective schools.

Of course, the insanity of college admissions at this level is reserved for only the most intrepid and well qualified applicants. So, you may be asking yourself, “How can I compete?”

Well, first of all, try to decide where you want to compete. Maybe the Ivy League or even some of the Top 100 (or even 200, etc.) schools may not be the best place to lay out your credentials, test scores, and essays.

What’s an about-to-be senior to do?

My suggestion is to take a look at what might be coming down the line in the way of college admissions practices. Take a kind of “look ahead” and try to anticipate what the near future of applying and getting into college might involve.

One good place to start would be an article from College Grotto: The Future of College Admissions. It presents some solid advice about how to merge from the on-ramp of high school onto the high-speed (and sometimes perilous) expressway of competitive college admissions. Here’s a sample of that wisdom that might add a few pieces to the puzzle of figuring out what to do:

There is growing concern that the current state of college admissions is flawed.

Many college officials are taking notice to a path to college acceptance that relies too heavily on personal accomplishments (grades and test scores). This promotes a selfish, me-first, everyone-against-each-other mentality rather than a care for the common good of others and greater good of society.

A recent report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education reveals a plan to be implemented over the next two years to improve the weight of community service and involvement in the admissions decision.

When the Dean of Admissions at all Ivy League schools get together and agree on something, you better listen.

The college admissions process is a major road map for how students choose to shape their high school experience. The future of college admissions will look at what students are doing to make the world a better place.

If you are a current high school student, there are a few things you can start doing that can help you get accepted to the college of your dreams …

Get Involved in your Community

… The key thing students need to understand is that in giving, they receive back in more ways than realized: new experiences, new opportunities, perspective, and they grow as individuals. In short: by helping and putting others first, you become a better person.

Find a way to volunteer or perform some type of community service that relates to your passions. Show a willingness to contribute to others in authentic and meaningful ways. Be genuine in your efforts: do something you actually want to do so your heart goes into your work. Colleges want genuine and authentic people who are dedicated to something of value.

grass cutting


If you have a passion for helping others and growing your community in some manner, colleges will want you. Colleges want difference makers.

Colleges want leaders. When individuals involve themselves in these activities, admission offices take notice and are able to look past the surface of test scores and grades and see the true greatness of a student …

… Colleges are looking for sustained, continuous service — work that allows time to make a deeper impact and build and establish relationships with a diverse group of people. What stands out are the people who are doing the service for meaningful reasons and not just showing up so it can be put on an admission application …

… Try and build up at least one year of continual meaningful service that engages you in the community.

  • Working in groups on community problems
  • Volunteering for a cause
  • Working on a local park that needs attention
  • Fixing environmental degradation
  • Working a job to provide needed family income

… Other ways of providing service can be done on a smaller level as well: contributing to one’s family, showing leadership within the household, caring for siblings, and taking on major household duties. If a family doesn’t have the resources to do something and the student steps up to help in some way, this can be seen as an individual who shows initiative and leadership …

I can vouch for this “contributing to one’s family, showing leadership within the household, caring for siblings, and taking on major household duties” aspect. When our son was applying to his colleges back in the mid-’90s, part of his applications included details about the work he did to assist my disabled mother. He did “heavy” tasks, such as reclaiming portions of her property by digging out and removing heavy rocks and then nursing that part of her yard back to “lawn” status. Grass cutting, miscellaneous chores, and other work that needed to be done was on his schedule. If the excellent results of his applications were any barometer, his ongoing efforts over the years must have been noticed.

The Grotto article concludes with an overview of things to keep in mind when applying to college. You can add any of these that aren’t already in your “How To” college process handbook to the list of approaches:

– Quality, not quantity, when it comes to extracurricular activities. Colleges are looking for depth here, so only list what is meaningful and activities you spent a good amount of time in. What is meaningful? You should be able to write a detailed beneficial account of the opportunity and the impact it had on you …

– Don’t pad your resume or overload your schedule with an excess amount of AP/IB courses. You’ll burn yourself out before you even get to college.

– Message to Parents: Don’t overcoach your student. Be comfortable with letting them make decisions. As mentioned before, admission offices can usually tell when an application doesn’t feel genuine …

– Don’t take an admissions test more than twice. Colleges understand some students just aren’t test takers. If you take it once and feel you can do better, take it again, but anything more than twice is unlikely to provide a major improvement in your test score. Like the advice about AP classes above, you don’t want any unnecessary pressure …

– Be Yourself: There should be no cookie-cutter approach to getting into your favorite college. Be yourself and let your true identity shine through and the right college will find you. People who are different stand out …

– Show a commitment to service. The true value you put in will be rewarded. This can’t just be some half-attempt at volunteering. You need to dedicate time to something meaningful to you and your community …


Granted, all the above is not a magic formula, by any means. Also, I would never discourage any of you from applying to any of these top schools. The admission “logic” at this level, however, is practically incomprehensible. Many people refer to it as “a roll of the dice.” Why some applicants get in and others don’t remains one of life’s great mysteries.

With some schools rejecting 95 out of 100 applicants, who can possibly know what the key to success is? The only sure thing about admission to these schools is that there is no sure thing.

Finally, to refresh you as to what future admission committee members may be thinking about their applicants, here’s another portion of Frank Bruni’s Stanford speculation:

“We had exceptional applicants, yes, but not a single student we couldn’t live without,” said a Stanford administrator who requested anonymity. “In the stack of applications that I reviewed, I didn’t see any gold medalists from the last Olympics — Summer or Winter Games — and while there was a 17-year-old who’d performed surgery, it wasn’t open-heart or a transplant or anything like that. She’ll thrive at Yale.”



Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.