article

04.06.11

F-Bombs and 'Jorts': 9 Craziest College Rejection Reasons

In the toughest college admission season on record, acceptance rates plummeted at many schools, including the Ivy League. Kristina Dell explores some of the arbitrary and whimsical reasons that applicants were rejected.

For high-school seniors, the stress level of the past two weeks hit an all time high last Wednesday when Ivy League decisions came out. You've probably heard by now that for many schools, this year was the toughest college admission season on record. Take a look at the grisly acceptance rates: Harvard, 6.2 percent; Columbia, 6.9; Yale, 7.4; Princeton, 8.4; Brown, 8.7; Dartmouth 9.7; University of Pennsylvania, 12.3; and Cornell, 18. Even a school like San Diego State—best known for its beer and basketball-loving student body–saw its acceptance rate plummet to a jaw-dropping 10 percent.

With so many students applying, it's no wonder that some of the rejections feel arbitrary and whimsical. Many had to be. "You are denying perfection," says Eric J. Furda, admissions dean at the University of Pennsylvania. Adds Jim Miller, an admissions officer from Brown University: "The truth is that the differences are ludicrously slender and it's very hard to say to a kid why their candidacy played well or didn't play well."

The Daily Beast caught up with a number of exhausted deans and admissions officers from top colleges around the country to get a glimpse of what happened behind closed doors. What follows is the good, the bad and the ugly of this year's red-hot admission season, as told in the admissions officers' own words. Getting accepted at any of the schools we talked to required stellar SAT scores, solid grades, a tough curriculum and a whole lot of luck. Some deans and admissions officials preferred not to identify themselves, or their universities.

1. Essays Resulting in Instant Knockout

• Jim Miller, admissions officer at Brown University:

"There was a really strong candidate we didn't admit because he used an enormous amount of profanity in his personal essay. He had a string of F-bombs that was pretty remarkable. I am not opposed to profanity and sometimes it can work. But, every third word doesn't work. Otherwise, he would have gotten in."

"We received pies this year, two from the same person. We didn't take her, but we ate the pies."

• Admissions dean at a top liberal arts school:

"The tone of the essay matters a lot. One kid wrote about why men shouldn't wear "jorts," which I guess are jean shorts. How it's a bad fashion statement. I was waiting for the punch line."

2. Things Raising a Red Flag

• Ivy League admissions officer:

"We had one great line. A young woman wrote that she took a summer course and she meant to say in 'organismic biology' but she wrote 'orgasmic biology' and went on to say it was the best course she'd ever taken. We didn't reject her for that outright, but it makes you look twice."

• Top state school admissions officer:

"We had a few people camp out in our lobby and they refused to leave. The person said I am going to stay here until I talk to the people I need to talk to. He talked to everyone who was there and still didn't leave. We finally had to ask them to leave. The person was very respectful and didn't do anything that threatened anyone. But after the third person talked to the student, it's fair to say the person's persistence wasn't working in his favor."

3. Unconventional Gestures by Applicants

• Top state school admissions officer:

"We had a student this year who sent a life-sized poster of herself in a box with a catchy jingle. It was attached to helium-filled balloons. When it was opened, the life-sized poster was supposed to go up in the air and unfurl before us like we were in a Harry Potter movie. But the balloons didn't quite work. I don't know that this hurt the student, but investing a few more minutes on the essay would have been a better use of her time. I just thought, 'Wow, I hope it works out for her.' I didn't go look her up to make a statement one way or the other."

• Admissions dean at a top liberal arts school:

"We received pies this year, two from the same person. She was trying to say she's not an athlete, but a really great baker. That was really sweet. We didn't take her, but we ate the pies."

4. Unhelpful Teacher Evaluations

• Ivy League admissions officer:

"Pick teachers who know you. Sometimes teachers will damn you with faint praise. One teacher wrote about a student: 'He is not just an athlete. There is so much less here than meets the eye.' Another teacher wrote about a different student: 'Over time, he has developed a set of friends who have learned to tolerate and even accept him.' Both of these students didn't get in."

5. Choosing the Wrong Sport

• Admissions officer from a liberal arts college in the Northeast:

"We had one kid who was an accomplished race-car driver who competed in some professional-level races. He would have been an extraordinary student, but we took others first and put him on the waitlist. It [racing cars] is really interesting, but it doesn't necessarily translate into something he could do while he was here."

6. Serendipity Playing a Part

• Richard Nesbitt, director of admission at Williams College:

"One applicant talked about how she loves to bake bread. The person who was reading her essay happened to have focaccia bread baking in the oven at the time of reading the application. The reader was on the same wavelength and even emailed the student to say, 'I really liked your essay and here's my recipe for focaccia bread.' It's a funny coincidence, but even the second reader who wasn't a bread baker was similarly impressed by the application."

7. Expressing Interest in the School

• Dan Parish, director of admissions and recruitment at Dartmouth:

"As we make admissions decisions we try not to focus too much on people expressing an interest in Dartmouth. We should respect their application and try to convince them to attend on the other end. We don't keep track of the number of times a student communicates with us. A student's expressed interest in Dartmouth doesn't play a role in our admissions decision."

• Eric J. Furda, admissions dean at the University of Pennsylvania:

"We wanted to know, why Penn? Did you submit a generic essay that was part of a school's supplement—another school's supplement? You may need to do a little bit more research before you hit the submit button. Take notes during the campus visit, and even if it isn't your top choice, still understand that you need to speak to that school and show what you are going to contribute to that campus. Articulate why this school is for you. Students who do well will start citing faculty and programs they want to explore."

• Admissions dean at a top liberal arts school in the Northeast:

"One school's horrible essay is another school's favorite. It's all subjective."

• Top state school admissions officer:

"We end up with a lot of essays that sound like they were written by people who were prematurely middle-aged."

8. Lack of Guarantees

• Eric J. Furda, admissions dean at the University of Pennsylvania:

"When you are admitting [12 out of 100 students] there is no one who is a shoo-in anymore. There is no foregone conclusion about a student being admitted. You go through the selection process and before you mail them out that week you look at the decisions you've made. We change the decisions up until they are posted."

• Paul Seegert, admissions officer at the University of Washington:

"We did reject someone this year who had a 4.0 who was an in-state resident."

9. Committee Comments Pushing a Decision One Way Or the Other

• From a top liberal arts school in the Northeast:

I just don't feel any spark from this application.
What would he/she bring to campus that we don't already have?Would he/she be someone I would want to room with?
English grades/scores are great, but this isn't seen in their Common Application essay.
How does the applicant compare to a sibling that we took/didn't take?
Will the decisions make sense to the high school?
Alum interview notes that he/she has that 'fire in the belly' that we are looking for.

Kristina Dell is an editor at Newsweek.com and runs the education website. Previously, she wrote for TIME magazine. Her stories have also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Reader's Digest.