I wrote a book some years back, America’s Best Kept College Secrets, a guide to colleges that get overlooked in the annual rat race in college admissions. The book never got much traction, but I revised it every few years, adding another twenty or twenty-five colleges and universities to the list with each new edition. My hope was to provide high school seniors and their parents with excellent options beyond the relatively small group of colleges attracting the greatest number of applications. I had been a college counselor at several ambitious private schools and had seen the desperation with which families threw themselves at the Ivies, Stanford, Chicago, Georgetown, Williams, Pomona, Duke, Middlebury, and a few others.
The most competitive of the bunch statistically don’t accept anyone.
Before I trot out the acceptance rates, however, please understand that the rate of acceptance for ordinary superior students is even lower when legacies, athletes, donors, and special talents take up space in the freshman class.
Without correction for considerations other than grades, scores, and character, the statistics regarding the most competitive admissions contests should be overwhelming, or at least I thought as much when I wrote my guide.
In the last admissions cycle, Harvard accepted 3.4% of applicants, Columbia 3.7%, Princeton and MIT 4%, Duke 4.3%, Yale 4.6%, Stanford 5.2%, Brown 5.4%, Penn 5.7%, and Dartmouth 6.2%. The next batch (Cal Tech, Vanderbilt, U. Chicago, Pomona, Swarthmore, Williams, Amherst, Johns Hopkins, Colby, Bowdoin, Annapolis, Northwestern, Rice, and Tulane accepted fewer than 10% of applicants.
Once again, a bit of context: The total number of applicants for the Class of 2025 at Harvard was 57,435. Stanford only saw 44,000 applicants. A total of about 2,000 were admitted to Harvard; roughly 1700 to Stanford. I thought the other 55,435 who didn’t get into Harvard might want to know about options other than Princeton, Stanford, Pomona, and Dartmouth.
But, I forget that there is some cachet in applying to Harvard. Until the acceptances are posted, every applicant is equally unaccepted.
How much do special talents such as athletic ability affect admissions? It depends, a bit, on what sport they play and in which Division they play that sport.
Division One athletes are given considerable attention in major sports, by which, of course, I mean men’s sports, by which, of course, I mean football, to some degree basketball, and for a few ice hockey. We’ll get to Stanford’s admissions profile in a moment, but just to establish the place of athletics in one of the nation’s most esteemed universities, consider this: At least one Stanford team has won a national championship for the last 44 years. Stanford athletes have won 270 Olympic medals of which 139 were gold medals, putting Stanford the 9th all-time gold medal magnet, ahead of Canada, Japan, The Netherlands, and South Korea.
There are some sports that are virtually regional. Water Polo, for example, is a major sport in the PAC 12. Ice hockey is a major sport for the colleges that play ice hockey. Williams, a perennially strong Division III school has about 23 hockey players suited up for game day, with another 20 who practice and might come off the bench. Of the 23, one is a graduate of a public high school, Duluth East, Duluth, Minnesota. Two are graduates of Shattuck St. Mary’s, the boarding school in Minnesota that produced 85 graduates drafted by the NHL, including Sydney Crosby, Zack Parise, Jonathan Toews, and Derek Steppan. Williams attracts athletes, but one former Director of Admission confided that some of the ice men were what he called a “Deep Stretch”.
The recent and highly publicized college admission scandal uncovered the back doors, side doors, and trap doors, primarily with regard to faked athletic resumes, and the scale of the corruption at the athletic offices was startling, but really, nothing should surprise anyone who has had an eye on college admissions for the last fifty years.
The only significant difference between the tumult of college admissions this year and every admissions season since the establishment of the first American university in 1693 (College of William and Mary) is that Division I coaches were paid to add applicants with no appreciable skill in water polo or crew or soccer or tennis or sailing (sailing?) to the list of recruited athletes at Yale, Stanford, Texas, USC, UCLA, Wake Forest, and Georgetown. Some of the manipulation was unremarkable; a name appeared on a list of students to be given a place as requested by a coach. Other schemes were bizarre, including the photoshopping of applicants’ faces on the torsos of real athletes. Yeah, and I have a picture of myself stepping out of the Saturn V on the surface of the moon. That ploy just seems sadly embarrassing. To be clear, the recruitment of athletes to Division I athletic programs has long been problematic, witness the FBI’s current and vigorous investigation of NCAA basketball. The celebrity admission scandal breaks new ground in that coaches may have been (have been) paying recruits for generations, but applicants have not been paying coaches.
Well, not directly.
Creepy celebrity malefactions include buying or manufacturing diagnoses of particular sorts of disabilities that demanded special, and thus vulnerable, testing and the even creepier hiring of stand-in test takers to wallop an SAT or SAT score notably more impressive than the testing of the actual applicant would have been. Test proctors were bought off, test sites may have been compromised, faked applications were certainly purchased and presented.
I’m just a simple consumer of popular culture, but photos of William Singer, founder and president of The Edge College and Career Network ought to have tipped folks off from the start. Seriously, in every shot the slime shines from every pore. Ok, maybe it’s just the haircut, but, come on, folks, this guy’s a bookie, a fixer, or a not-very-slick con man. His appearance aside, the enterprise he established looked a lot like a number of entirely legit consulting services offering parents and students assistance in negotiating the college admissions process.
I was a college counselor for most of my career in secondary schools, advised thousands of students, occasionally worked as a consultant to families that did not have access to the sorts of counseling opportunities my schools provided. I loved that work and have remained an observer of college admissions. I considered college counselling a privileged opportunity in that I met students, usually in their junior year, just as the school, colleges, parents, and the universe came at them with what were essentially impossible tasks. All they had to do, aside from take on demanding course work, prepare for SATs ACTs, AP tests, and rigorous coursework, was to imagine themselves five years in the future, assess the sorts of qualities that reflected their capacity for intensive work in whatever hypothetical futurescape they imagined, touch the truest elements in their character, write with originality and unforced brilliance about themselves (in a page or less) conveying an appealing blend of modesty and self-assurance.
All of this, of course, directed in an application to colleges that appeared on sweatshirts of the coolest kids, that had a name parents and grandparents immediately recognized, staffed by counselors reading essays by the hundreds.
Simply put, the instructions were clear: Give a compelling and comprehensive account of yourself, (in a page or less), address it to a nameless, faceless panel of judges who hold your future (and your family’s standing in the community) in their paws, and prepare to sit with increasing anxiety until decisions come your way in March or April, at which time, you will have something like three weeks to decide which of the remaining options are likely to match your sense of future self.
I worked in academically ambitious private schools which hired me to give individual attention to each of the students in my care. I had the time to work through many of these challenges with students, to make sure that their applications were completed on time and sent to an appropriate range of colleges so that, in March or April, they actually had some good options to consider. Most high school counselors do not have the resources that I did.
Every single kid I worked with started way ahead of the curve.
The statistic that is NEVER published, however, has to do with the relationship between what are known as “impact donors” and preferred admission. The most prestigious colleges and universities are prestigious because they have trotted out highly successful and financially advantaged graduates for generations. Without regard to a huge gift given in expectation of special consideration in admission, alumni have tossed fortunes into the coffers of a privileged few institutions of highest repute.
How much dough do these colleges have in the kitty?
Harvard – thirty-six BILLION dollars in endowment funds, Yale – twentyseven BILLION, Stanford – twenty-four BILLION, Princeton – twenty-three BILLION. There’s a big drop-off after these megaliths as MIT, Penn, Michigan, and Northwestern are only in the teens.
Even by those standards a relatively modest endowment, such as Duke’s – seven billion, or Notre Dame’s – nine billion, is still sitting relatively pretty when it comes to day-to-day expenses. I’m no expert at donating millions, but the rule of thumb I heard back in my college admissions days was that, in order for an otherwise less than equally qualified candidate to rise above the ordinary preference of a legacy application, we had to be talking “New Building Donor”. That’s a lot of donation; by comparison, “ordinary” largesse seems mildly affordable, to some I’m sure. Yale is remarkably up front about the endowment gifting procedure, allowing prospective donors to size up their gift before selling stock.
For example, currently donors may support financial aid for students in Yale College or the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences by creating an endowed fund with a minimum gift of $100,000. A named visiting professorship in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences or athletic coach’s position may be endowed with a gift of $1,500,000, an existing professorship with a gift of $3,000,000, or an incremental professorship, dean’s, or director’s position with a gift of $6,000,000.
Pretty heady stuff, this endowing a coach’s salary with a gift of a million five, but still waaaaay short of New Building impact. I’ve had two New Building applicants in my forty years of counseling, each of which was admitted to programs ordinarily ignoring candidates with their academic profile. In each case, some notably more prepared students were not admitted; they got it. One later transferred and sent me an email with a picture of a new building named after her former classmate’s father.
So, nothing really new as the rich get richer and continue to find advantage on almost every playing field.
Honest conversation about college admission has to begin with the bottom line: It isn’t about the applicant; it’s about what the college needs. Snappy New England college takes care of alumni, brings about twenty percent of the class in as recruited athletes, wants very much to bring diversity to a rural campus, has to keep the male/female balance close to 50/50, and guarantees a stable admissions season by taking roughly forty percent of applicants by Early Decision.
Oh, and a new building or two is always welcome.