Dec. 16, 2020
I am the mother of a high school senior who got denied almost everywhere. I am not trying to say he's perfect, but I am trying to figure how what could have gone wrong with his applications. He was denied or waitlisted from all of the following: Columbia, Princeton, Duke, Michigan, UNC, Vanderbilt and Northwestern. He got into our state schools (UVA and William & Mary) and I assume he will go to one of those if he doesn't get off a waitlist. But he has a 1600 SAT, perfect Math 2 and Physics SAT scores, he created an app that is now available in the iTunes store, he has never gotten a B (or even an A-) and had 12 APs. He has won engineering competitions and owns his own landscaping business in the summer. He's got a lot of leadership both in school and outside of it. So I am just flummoxed about how this could have happened. I'm not trying to appeal the denials or anything, just looking for insight.
Unlikely but possible: There was some "red flag" in your son's application, especially in a recommendation. At the hyper-selective schools on your son's list, where so many highly qualified candidates end up rejected, it doesn't take much to shunt an application into the "Out" pile. If, for instance, a teacher said something like, "Herman is getting much better at supporting his classmates when they speak in class," this might imply that — up until now — Herman has NOT been so hot when it comes to respecting others. Even a less damning comment along the lines of, "Outside of AP History, Herman is a leader, and now he is starting to find his voice in our discussions," could turn into the kiss of death where the competition is cutthroat and admission officers are looking for the next Patrick Henry.
Any chance that your son's applications — especially the essays — were heavily edited by a hired gun (or even by a parent or other adult)? Admission folks can sniff out prose that doesn't ring true and may have discriminated against your son if his writing was clearly not in an adolescent voice.
At Princeton, Columbia and Duke, the most common reason that students are turned away is because they are wonderful but not sufficiently special. While your son, as you've described him, sounds special to "The Dean," at the vaunted Ivy level, his achievements are laudable but not extraordinary. If you live in Northern Virginia, that's a strike or two against him as well. For the sake of geographic diversity, the most sought-after schools would probably favor a small-town boy from elsewhere in the state.
Meanwhile, the other schools you named — Michigan, UNC, Vanderbilt and Northwestern — are accustomed to playing second fiddle to that first group, and they might be more likely to accept an applicant who bent over backwards to suck up to admission officials rather than one who seemed interested but not a sure thing. If your son had applied Early Decision to Vandy or NU, his outcome might have been different.
Those of us outside of the closed admission-committee doors can never know what an institution's priorities are, and these priorities often vary from year to year. We've all heard the quips about classics majors or oboe players going to the front of the queue when a college's enrollment falls short in those areas. But the school that wants classics majors in one admissions cycle may be focused on chemists in the next. When the numbers of Latinas from the Northeast or working-class white girls from the Midwest start to dwindle, then the institution's needs can shift in those directions. Obviously I don't know any more about your son than what you've told me, but if he's a middle-class or upper-middle class kid from a city or town that routinely sends applicants to elite colleges, then he may not meet any of the most pressing priorities at his target schools.
The fact that your son WAS admitted to two extremely selective universities suggests that his recommendations and his applications were fine. I've heard tales of woe this spring about amazing in-state students who did not get into either UVA or William & Mary. So my best guess is that your son's denials and waitlists are the result of his credentials being strong but not head-spinning, perhaps coupled with a lack of over-the-top interest at the colleges that are clearly seeking it, whether they say so or not.
But as your son licks his wounds and prepares his waitlist-acceptance campaigns, I urge him to celebrate the very good news that he did get. I realize, of course, that familiarity can breed contempt, and so he didn't find the same thrill from his acceptances at UVA and William & Mary that a student from beyond Virginia might enjoy. But your son has not just one but two excellent choices. And if he does end up at one of them, he will likely look back later and say, "This is where I was meant to be all along," while you look back and say, "Wow! We saved a bundle of dough!"
Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean, please send it along here.