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01.09.09

Dirty Secrets of College Admissions

In a Daily Beast exclusive, college admissions officers reveal the shameful truth about the selection process. Rich kids from New York, boring Asian math geniuses, and oboe-playing poets need not apply.

In a Daily Beast exclusive, college admissions officers reveal just how whimsical the selection process can be. Boring math geniuses, oboe-playing poets, and rich kids from New York need not apply.

While you’re anxiously mailing off those college applications this week, you might want to recalibrate your expectations based on your race, your wealth, and whether the NFL team in the city where that college is located is on a losing streak. The shadowy world of college admissions has left millions of confused and frustrated rejects in its wake. (So stop practicing the oboe.) Current and former admissions officers from colleges and universities across the country talked to the Daily Beast about why attending a good high school can hurt your chances, the perils of too many recommendations, and why white girls from Jersey barely have a chance.

On the arbitrary nature of admissions

Former admissions officer at elite, small liberal arts college in the Northeast, age 25

“One year I had a student with a near-perfect SAT score and straight A’s. I’d originally put him in the submitted pile, but then we had to reduce the list. I reread his essays and frankly, they were just a little more boring than the other kids. So I cut him. Boring was the only justification that I needed and he was out.

One night, I got food poisoning at a restaurant in Buffalo. The next day, I rejected all the Buffalo applications.

I got sluggish in the afternoon after lunch, so maybe I wasn’t as scrupulous about a candidate as I would have been if I were fresh. Or even if my favorite sports team was in a slump, it affected who made the cut. If the [Pittsburgh] Steelers lost a game and I read your file the next morning, chances were you weren’t getting in. Where I could have been nice, I just didn’t go out of my way — I was a lot less charitable. Those are things that you, the applicant, have no control over. Which makes it all the more funny — the frenzy that parents and students work themselves into around getting in.”

Current admissions officer, state university in the Northeast

“All in all, we’re less selective than some of the elite schools or the Ivy League. But there are still some factors out of an applicant’s hands. One night, I got food poisoning at a restaurant in Buffalo. The next day, I rejected all the Buffalo applications. I couldn’t stomach reading them.”

Current admissions officer, Ivy League university

“Some 70 percent of kids who apply are qualified to come to school here, and we have space for one in ten. We can be as choosy as we like. It almost always comes down to whether or not you’re a likeable person. Let’s face it, some people are just more affable or more likeable than others. An admissions officer is really asking himself, ‘Would I like to hang out with this guy or gal for the next four years?’ So if you come off as just another Asian math genius with no personality, then it’s going to be tough for you. An admissions officer is not going to push very hard for you.”

Former admissions officer, Ivy League university

“Some middle-tier schools will reject top applicants, too — Kids that should have no trouble getting in. But the admissions officer’s attitude is, ‘Oh, he just applied here as a safety. He’ll never come.’ They don’t want to lower the yield they have to report for the college rankings.”

Joie Jager-Hyman, former admissions officer at Dartmouth College, author of Fat Envelope Frenzy: One Year, Five Promising Students, and the Pursuit of the Ivy League Prize

“People tend to like people like themselves. I could almost predict the application files my colleagues would support: this admissions officer likes the athletes; this one prefers the quiet, creative loner type; one person cared a lot about SATs; or another would be more likely to excuse things like teenage arrests than other colleagues.”

On advantages in the admissions process

Current admissions officer, Ivy League university

“Any admissions director who uses the line about needing an oboe player is lying. There’s no admissions person in the country with a clue what the student orchestra needs. More likely, Mommy and Daddy gave a $1 million donation. That oboe thing is just a PR ploy.”

Former admissions officer, Ivy League university

“Of course there are files every year that the dean simply says aren’t debatable. It’s pretty easy to Google those kids and see Daddy is a U.S. Senator or gave the university $7 million. But it really takes paying for a building or endowing a chair to have that kind of privilege. Only about 70 percent of the other VIP kids get in, because it can be equally embarrassing if some big celebrity’s son fails out or gets arrested on campus. There have to be some standards.”

Former admissions officer, elite, small liberal arts college in Massachusetts

“Our school did away with on-campus interviews a few years ago, but if you were the child of a donor or an alum, you could get an unofficial interview. A face-to-face sit-down with the admissions office most people don’t get.

Athletes’ applications at most schools go through a special committee. They’re read before all the other candidates’ files. That way the coach can push for the people he really wants and make sure they get a spot.

We were always looking for candidates from underrepresented groups. So if you are just a typical white girl from New Jersey and your application didn’t pass muster, it was relegated to the reject pile without a second thought. With a minority kid with the same stats, you just can’t do that. They always warrant a second or even third look.”

Michele Hernandez, nationally known private college admissions consultant located in Vermont. Author of the book A is Admissions: The Insider's Guide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges and former admissions officer at Dartmouth College

“40 percent of every Ivy League school is filled up with special cases: athletes, minorities, low-income, legacies or development cases. They’re tagged, and schools lower the admissions standards a lot for those kids. So you got to know how to use those tags to your advantage. If you’re a legacy and you apply early to the school, you’ve got a 50 percent better chance of getting in.

Most of the time you can’t predict what will push one candidate over the edge. Right now, for instance, schools are showing a large preference for non-college backgrounds—that is, applicants whose parents didn’t go to college. You have no control over who your parents are, but right now it helps if they didn’t go to college. Or Middlebury right now is on a kick for bringing in kids from outside the Northeast. They don’t want to be seen as a prep-school depository. Some 65 percent of their student body is from other parts of the country. Some schools even discriminate against the wealthy kid from Greenwich or New York City. They have to prove they have an actual love of learning and didn’t just spend summers flying to Europe on Daddy’s jet.”

Stephen Friedfeld, private college admissions consultant in Princeton, New Jersey. Now works as an admissions officer for Princeton’s graduate engineering program; former admissions officer at Cornell

“The biggest surprise for me was the difference in how much more contact private-school guidance counselors had with the admissions office vs. public schools. I went back to my own public high school alma mater and the guidance counselor asked, ‘Would it be okay for me to contact school regarding a student?’ I couldn't believe he was asking. That's just commonplace amongst the private school counselors or affluent suburban high schools. We brought in guidance counselors from a bunch of schools, most of them private high school counselors. And we visited those schools for events. We knew the private-school counselors by name and by face, and they've met the admissions officers from the most prestigious universities. That's a big advantage for students. Those counselors are pushing for them, advocating for them. I never got a call from a public school.

People think you don't have to have a lot of savvy to work in admissions, but almost everyone at Cornell, for instance, had a PhD or masters. Applications are read in tandem with faculty, and that provides a different take. People look at putting a candidate forward as a personal endorsement. If I take a risk on a kid and he fails, that reflects on me personally. There's accountability there, so they tend to be risk-averse when it comes to students who academically are just on the line.”

On definite “don’ts” in the admissions process

Current admissions officer, Ivy League university

“There’s an expression in admissions circles: the thicker the file, the thicker the kid. Don’t send in every newspaper clipping of your son on the high school honor role. That’s just redundant if we have his transcript.

Admissions officers want this to be a hands-off process. If a parent calls them repeatedly, that’s almost always an automatic rejection. They worry that parent or student might become a nuisance to the university for the next four years. They just don’t want to be contacted all the time.”

Stephen Friedfeld

“A big mistake is sending too many letters of recommendation. Send three or four. Admissions offices don't want to see eight. They get the feeling you're trying to justify something that's bad or missing.

And whatever you do, don't send poetry. That rarely works. A high school senior is probably not Shakespeare, so poetry is not going to help. Send sophisticated writing, answering the questions the application is asking. That's what admissions officers want to see.”

Joie Jager-Hyman

“After the letters came out, one father called me to complain his son hadn’t gotten in. He said he was an advisor on several TV shows and movies. So I asked him which ones, and he told me the show 90210. Well, that was my favorite show, so I asked him to give me some good gossip. Then the next day I got this huge package filled with stuff from the TV show: original scripts, autographs, etc. And I called him up and said, ‘Thanks for the cool package, but there’s still no way your kid is getting into this college.”

Kathleen Kingsbury is a writer based in New York. She's a contributor to Time Magazine, where she has covered business, health and education since 2005.