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Articles / Applying to College / Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Nov. 1, 2016

High school seniors who are headed to college, as well as their parents, should know how to translate the words they hear from college admissions officials. This also applies to what they read on colleges’ Web sites and in their related literature.

My College Confidential colleague, Sally Rubenstone, refers to this language as “AdmissionSpeak.” Shades of 1984′s “Newspeak,” perhaps.

For both applicants and their parents going through the college process for the first time, the tendency is to accept what they hear and read at face value. After all, why shouldn’t they? College admissions officials are merely trying to inform them about their respective colleges’ policies and practices. Right?

Well, maybe not. That where the infamous slippery slope comes in. The primary question might be: Why are admissions types saying what they’re saying? What’s their true agenda? What’s really going on here?


Sally addressed this issue in a thread on the College Confidential discussion forum: Can You Translate Elite-College AdmissionSpeak? where she says:

Back when I was house-hunting, I quickly learned to translate the language used by real estate agents. “Cozy” meant “Tiny;” “Convenient location” meant “Burger King across the street” or “Highway on-ramp in back yard.” And “Ready for your personal touches” was a sure sign that there would be Harvest Gold appliances in the kitchen.

More recently, when I went through the college selection and application process with my son, I realized that admission folks, especially at the hyper-competitive institutions, have a language of their own as well, but the translations aren’t quite as straightforward as they are in the realty world. When it comes to “elite” admissions, I discovered that the truth is often more about what is NOT said than what is.

For instance, I once heard a Harvard admission official claim something along the lines of, “We want you to pursue your passions, even if a schedule conflict forces you to choose orchestra over calculus.” Yet what the rep really meant was, “The vast majority of our successful applicants complete math through AP Calculus. So if you won’t be soloing in Carnegie Hall by November, you might want to consider taking the calc class … if not at your high school than at a local community college, over the summer, or even online.”

The Harvard example is typical of what AdmissionSpeak is all about. It’s kind of a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing kind of thing where top schools are trying to make you feel comfortable about some uncomfortable realities. Here are some examples cited by both Sally and posters responding to her thread:


– AdmissionSpeak [what the college is saying]: Course rigor and grades are more important than test scores.

What’s NOT said [what the college really means]: Our candidates typically have top grades in the Most Demanding courses. So test scores … including optional AP-exam results … often become the tie-breaker (especially if you are a middle-class or advantaged Caucasian, Indian, Chinese, or Korean kid from an over-represented geographic area with no athletic or other hooks).

– AdmissionSpeak: We are SAT-optional because we don’t believe that test scores are true indicators of how a student will perform in college.

What’s NOT said: However, if you are a middle-class or advantaged Caucasian, Indian, Chinese, or Korean kid from an over-represented geographic area with no athletic or other hooks (or pretty much anyone from New Jersey or Long Island),  then we will want to use your test scores to pull up our medians and, if you don’t send them, you’ll probably go to the back of the line.

– AdmissionSpeak: You are not competing with your own classmates.

What’s NOT said: Long-gone are the days when we admitted 67 candidates from Choate. Now our applicant pools include a far broader swath of students than ever before, and we aim to represent a wide range of high schools in our freshman class. So if you’re a recruited quarterback and your best buddy is a recruited point guard, and you both happen to have great grades and test scores (and being an underrepresented minority student wouldn’t hurt either) then, sure, it’s highly likely that we’ll take both of you. But, chances are, we won’t accept the lion’s share of your AP Physics C section, no matter how amazing you all are (and the fact that we took two kids from your public high school last year won’t help you either).

– AdmissionSpeak: I hope you will consider applying …

What’s NOT said: … so that we can keep our acceptance rate in the single digits when we regretfully turn you down … along with thousands of others whom we’ve incessantly emailed and encouraged.

Parents can help their often starry-eyed progeny, who are aiming for the most sought-after schools, to arm themselves with cynicism, skepticism, and a healthy sense of humor as they wade through the admissions maze. And, if your son or daughter can invent and patent an AdmissionSpeak translater app along the way, it might even boost acceptance odds. 



Now, here are some comments and examples from CC members, in response to the examples Sally posted:

AdmissionSpeak: We’re holistic. We look at the whole person, not just your scores and grades.

What’s NOT said: Even if you have excellent scores and grades, we may need a tuba player for the band, so your tuba-playing friend with lower stats will get accepted, while you won’t. Sorry.

– AdmissionSpeak – Every application is read in full by multiple readers.

Translation – Our readers are given a Herculean task – they literally must get through dozens per day, and quite often get to spend less than 7-10 minutes per application. We often sort applications geographically and by demographic status first – so if you are a first gen under represented minority from an under represented state we will actually read your application thoroughly. Otherwise, we yawn as the applications all start to look alike, here is another 3.9 UW GPA, 4.5+ WGPA, valedictorian with 2200 SAT and a half-dozen AP classes from the East Coast or from CA. On a rough day, we may only skim though most of these applications in under 3 minutes each because we know we have to reject most of them anyway.

– Admissions speak: We are need blind.

What’s not said: Of course we care if you check the box (or not) about financial aid — on page 1 of the common app. It’s one of the first things that we see! We have a sense about your financial need well before we even look at your course rigor, grades, test scores, and essays. Do you think that we’d admit an ENTIRE class of students that require financial aid? Get a grip. We are not going to ruin our endowment by doing that! No, to us, need blind means that if you fit into one of desired demographic groups we won’t care if you are full pay or not. For everyone else, that checked box about financial aid matters a lot.

– “AdmissionSpeak: I hope you will consider applying …

What’s NOT said: … so that we can keep our acceptance rate in the single digits when we regretfully turn you down … along with thousands of others whom we’ve incessantly emailed and encouraged.”


– Parent/Student at Info Session of highly competitive college:

“What’s better, an A in a regular class or a B in an AP class”?

Admissions Officer response: “An A in the AP Class”

What they really mean: You are competing against kids that get As in AP courses. If you get a B in an AP course, you are less desirable- plus the B drags down your UW GPA. So don’t take the AP unless you can get an A.

– AdmissionSpeak: We don’t differentiate SAT scores >2250.

What’s NOT said: You ask for rejection if you retake for a better score.

– Admissions websites often say that SAT Subject Tests are recommended. To me, that means, “If you go to a suburban school in an affluent area (or a private school) you need to consider them required.” That can sometimes be seen as a proxy for “If you are White or Asian you need to consider them required.”

– From personal experience, this is, in fact, truly the Harvard admissions’ office viewpoint: “We want you to pursue your passions, even if a schedule conflict forces you to choose orchestra over calculus.”

– There is definitely an admissions parlance that you start to pick up if you hang around long enough.

– How about ‘Interviews are non-evaluative’

What ‘s not said- non- evaluative unless the interviewer reports back with a less than stellar review

– Btw. Some with strong opinions/suspicions about admissions may want to consider getting involved with their own alma maters. See how it works, if they truly go gaga over expensive ECs, guess about FA needs, or have some bias against violin or tennis.

– I don’t want to hear anymore from the elite LACs that the only state they’re missing a student from is North Dakota. It’s a slap in the face for all top students to boil down their worth to where they live. Elite colleges have gotten way off track if that’s a top priority for them.


If you take the time to read the entire thread, you should be able to see what an emotional issue this is. In my view, you won’t be seeing too many (if any) college reps responding. If they do, then be careful that you aren’t reading further “speak.”

Think of holding a mirror up to a mirror. What do you see? Images of multiple mirrors cascading into infinity. Not to be punny, but understanding what college admission types say and write can often require considered reflection.


Check College Confidential for all of my college-related articles.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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