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Admissions Madness

Tomorrow's Academy

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The college admissions “madness” that infects so many high school students and their parents these days can be directly traced to an academic culture where the quality of a college or university is believed to depend on how smart its students are. This same culture has chosen to define smartness primarily in terms of the student’s standardized admissions test scores, so it has helped to spawn an array of new commercial enterprises that promise to help students improve their test performance. 


The posting below looks at some of the factors that go into admission to elite colleges and universities.  It is from Chapter 2 – Admissions Madness in the book, Are You Smart Enough? How Colleges’ Obsession with Smartness Shortchanges Students by Alexander W. Astin. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102.

Copyright © 2016 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Academy

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Admissions Madness


Why do so many students work so hard to get admitted to one of the “best” colleges? What is it about these elite colleges and universities that motivates students, their parents, and their college counselors to invest so much time, money, and emotional energy in the application process?

Perhaps the most obvious answer to this question is that elite colleges have become status symbols. The more prestigious the college, the better the status symbol. People are likely to be impressed if you (or one of your children) gain admission to a college or university that’s ranked near the top of the institutional pecking order. The name of that college impresses not because it symbolizes wealth, power, fame, or social standing, but rather because it symbolizes smartness. “If you got admitted to University X, you must be pretty smart.” Many parents and grandparents will thus be tempted to impress their friends and coworkers by mentioning the college’s name. High school teachers and counselors similarly like to drop the names of prestigious colleges to which their students have been admitted. And secondary schools, especially expensive private schools and public schools that enroll students from middle- and upper-class families, typically publish lists of the prestigious colleges and universities that their graduates will be attending.

But the status of your college has implications far beyond the immediate ego gratification associated with gaining admission to an elite college or university. Just like the ancestry of thorough-bred racehorses, the name of the college from which you graduate constitutes a kind of pedigree that follows you around the rest of your life. Graduate schools, law schools, medical schools, and other professional schools pay a good deal of attention to your undergraduate pedigree when they are trying to decide which applicants to admit. And most employers will give considerable weight to that same pedigree when they are trying to decide whether to hire you. Indeed, when it comes to the prestige of the graduate school from which you receive your advanced academic or professional degree, some employers limit their recruiting only to graduates of a few elite universities and won’t even consider applicants from all of the other universities. This is especially true in fields like law, business, and engineering.

And in the event that you are called upon to speak to an audience of college-educated people, you certainly wouldn’t be surprised if the name of the institution(s) from which you received your degree(s) were to be included in the biographical material provided by the person who introduces you. And even when you die, the name of your alma mater is likely to be mentioned in your obituary.

The highest-achieving students in most secondary schools are familiar with the institutional pecking order described in Chapter 1, so each year they compete with each other to gain admission to a highly ranked institution; the higher the rank, the better. The very top students usually want to attend one of the top 15 or 20 colleges and universities. To hedge their bets, and in recognition of the reality that elite colleges reject 70% to 90% or even more of their applicants, it is not unusual for these top students to apply to 10, 15 or even more colleges.

To illustrate admissions madness in a more personal way, I could cite any number of recent experiences involving friends or family members whose children are applying to college, but one incident in particular stands out. My wife, Lena, and I were recently invited to a small dinner party at the home of a close friend, and as we walked in the door our host excitedly took us in tow and asked us to sit down next to each other in two chairs that he had arranged specifically for his forthcoming presentation. Lena and I obediently took our seats, and, after equipping us both with a glass of wine, he stood facing us with one hand behind his back and said, “Now I want you both to take a deep breath.” As we were exhaling, our friend whisked his hidden hand into view, brandishing a letter typed on expensive-looking stationery. We leaned over to get a closer look at the letter, which had a Harvard College letterhead. It turned out, of course, to be an acceptance of his oldest daughter’s application for admission for fall 2015. Our friend stood there beaming. As I took the letter from him to inspect it more closely, I carelessly spilled red wine all over it. Apologizing profusely, I tried to wipe off the wine with a napkin, but the letter appeared to be permanently stained. Our friend kindly reassured me, “Don’t worry, Sandy, I made plenty of copies!”

The New Language

In the past decade or so college admissions madness has reached such a fever pitch that an entirely new vocabulary has emerged. According to The Princeton Review, a match school is defined as one where your academic credentials – your secondary school grades and your SAT or ACT scores – are comparable to those of the average admitted student (Princeton Review, n.d.). If you apply to several match schools, there’s a reasonable chance of gaining admission to at least one of them.

If your academic credentials fall below those of the average admitted student, that college is termed a reach school. Given their poor chances of being accepted, most students don’t apply only to reach schools. If your credentials are really far below those of the admitted students at a given college, the Review condescendingly defines that college as a dream school. However, when examining the credentials of the applicant pool at most elite colleges and universities, there are very few applicants who are “dreaming.” There is, in other words, a great deal of self-selection when it comes to the college application process, so that most elite colleges and universities could choose among their applicants at random and still end up with an entering class that’s very smart.

Safety schools are those where you’re smarter than most admitted students, and where your chances of being accepted are therefore the best. Note that, depending on the absolute level of their secondary grades and standardized test scores, one student’s safety school could well be another student’s match or even reach school. Consequently, in order to identify reach, match, and safety schools that are appropriate to your academic credentials, you have to familiarize yourself with schools that span a particular range of the institutional pecking order. The very stop students tend to focus on the 15 or 20 most prestigious institutions at the top of the pecking order, whereas students with merely good (but not the best) credentials are more likely to apply to some of the 50 to 75 schools that rank just below the top. The institutional hierarchy is pyramid-shaped, so as you drop down in the pecking order, the number of possible choices increases substantially. At the same time, the status value of each institutional choice declines dramatically.

If we step back for a moment and ask what is really going on in the college application process, it seems that most of the “smart” students – those with substantially above-average academic credentials – are trying to gain admission to the most selective college that will admit them. There are, of course, other considerations that come into play – institutional size, location, special programs offered, financial aid, advice from others, the campus visit – but because the new language (safety, match, reach) is exclusively focused on institutional selectivity, it seems reasonable to assume that the entire process is being driven by the folklore about institutional quality or excellence, our shared cultural beliefs about which are the best colleges and universities. As pointed out in Chapter 1, this folklore is predicated on the faculty’s shared belief in the importance of enrolling the smartest possible class of new freshmen, together with their belief that school grades and especially standardized test scores are the best measures of smartness.

In recent years this obsession with college selectivity has fueled the development of several new enterprises, one of which is the private college admissions counseling and consulting business. These professionals work one-on-one with college-bound students to assist them in choosing appropriate colleges, performing well on college admissions tests, completing persuasive applications, composing impressive essays, and gaining admission. A typical private counselor in the United States might impose a one-time charge of $300, plus $100-$150 per hour. Many people who have recently gone to work in this industry are former admissions officers at elite institutions. These professionals offer a special appeal to affluent parents because they are likely to be personally acquainted with admissions officials at other elite colleges and universities. It is not unusual for the total costs charged by the most sought-after counselors to range from $5,000 to more than $10,000.

The Growing Power of Test Scores

The most extensive new business being driven by college admissions madness, however, is probably the test prep industry. Commercial test preparation services used to be confined largely to sample practice tests that were sold in bookstores, but there is now a flourishing industry offering a wide variety of online and personal courses in test preparation. Even the College Board, which manages the SAT, and U.S. News, which publishes the most widely used college ratings, are now offering extensive programs in test preparation. Students can avail themselves of online programs or personal tutoring, at costs that typically run in the neighborhood of $1,000. One of the test preparation courses offered by the Princeton Review includes a money-back guarantee if your SAT composite score fails to improve by at least 200 points.

In effect, what we have today is a situation where our most elite colleges and universities essentially limit their choices of which applicants to admit to America’s smartest high school students with the principal yardstick of “smartness” being the standardized test (SAT or ACT). Smartness – having very high test scores – may not be a sufficient condition for gaining admission. It can also help if you are a member of an underrepresented group, the child of an alumnae, or a good athlete, or possess some other special talent – but being very smart is for most other applicants certainly a necessary condition to be considered for admission. Keep in mind that it is not the admission directors or their staffs who decide that smartness is to be defined in terms of SAT or ACT scores. This is a faculty decision, so the admissions personnel are merely carrying out the will of the faculty.

Given that test scores and grades are numerical, it takes little effort to scrutinize and compare them, but reading essays and recommendation letters is much more labor-intensive. So if a highly selective institution is inundated with applications, admissions personnel can reduce the amount of reading that has to be done by first screening out those applicants with the lowest grades and test scores. The remaining applicants’ entire applications can then be subjected to more careful scrutiny. With such a rigorous system of quality control, very few “not so smart” students will slip through the cracks.

In response to criticism about overemphasizing test scores, some admissions officers these days like to suggest that standardized test scores don’t carry all that much weight, that they’re not necessarily “deal breakers,” but the data suggest otherwise (Clagett, 2010). In every elite college that releases the relevant data, applicants with the highest test scores have a much better chance of being admitted than do applicants with lower test scores, and applicants with the lowest test scores are almost never admitted. A typical example is Stanford University, which in fall 2014 offered admission to only 5% of its applicants. However, if an applicant scored 800 on the SAT writing test, his or her 5% chance of being offered nearly tripled (to 14%). On the other hand, if the student scored below 600 on that test, the odds of being admitted dropped by four fifths (to only 1%). Moreover, given that Stanford competes in NCAA Division IA sports and often fields nationally ranked football and basketball teams, it could well be that many of the 20 or so Stanford freshman who scored below 600 on this test are scholarship athletes.

Why do the faculty at elite colleges and universities choose to rely so much more on test scores than on secondary school grades as the prime indicator of the student’s smartness? One of the reasons commonly given for preferring tests over grades is that test scores are believed to be comparable from school to school. Grades, on the other hand, may not mean the same thing across schools, as they are relative measures indicating merely how well each student has performed compared to other students at that school.  But perhaps the most important reason for preferring tests over grades is the dramatic grade inflation that has occurred during the past four decades. Back in the late 1960s, there were more freshmen entering college with secondary school averages of C than A. Among today’s (2014-2015) freshmen, A students outnumber C students by 18 to 1 (Eagan et al., 2015)! Thus, in the past 45 years the number of freshman reporting high school averages of A has tripled (from 17.5% to 53.1%), so that the A average is now the norm!

As a consequence of all this inflation, 4.0 (A) averages are now commonplace, so that admissions officers at most elite institutions cannot easily use secondary school GPAs to differentiate among their applicants. Thus, for each of the 2,145 applicants to whom it extended offers of admission for fall 2014, Stanford received applications from 11 students who had earned secondary school GPAs of 4.0 or higher! Even if Stanford had automatically rejected all applicants with GPAs less than 4.0, not even half its applicant pool would have been eliminated (Stanford University, n.d.).

Students with GPAs of 4.0 are obviously smart, but test scores are more useful to elite institutions because, in the minds of the faculty, they help to differentiate the really smart students from the merely smart. So although only 9% of the Stanford applicants earned perfect scores of 800 on the SAT writing test, these high-scoring students accounted for 23% of the applicants who were offered admission.

Even though most of the 100 or so institutions that fall just below the elite ones in the pecking order are not able to be quite so picky, their faculty nevertheless follow exactly the same approach to screening applicants: Standardized test scores (and, to a lesser extent, school grades) are employed to identify the smartest applicants. These second-tier colleges and universities know full well that enrolling smart students is the surest way to maintain their modest academic reputations and, if possible, to move up in the pecking order. In other words, no matter where colleges or universities rank in the pecking order, virtually all of them are seeking the same commodity: smart students.

Potential students and their parents know this, so – no matter the level of a student’s smartness as reflected in his school grades and test scores – most applicants to college these days strive to enroll in the most selective college that will admit them, and many of them, with plenty of financial help from their parents, avail themselves of professional assistance to raise their SAT or ACT scores to the highest level possible (Park & Becks, 2015). Many students are willing to go to considerable time and trouble to gain an edge in the competition for admission to a selective college.

The statistical realties of applying for admission to an elite college almost guarantee that more and more college applicants will end up getting letters of rejection. As magazine and newspaper rankings of “the best” colleges proliferate, and as more and more businesses that promise to give the applicant an edge in the competition for admission to an elite college spring up, the crush of applications to elite colleges will keep growing, but the colleges will continue to enroll the same number of students.

Stressed Out

The angst that accompanies admissions madness appears to be taking its toll on the psychological well-being of secondary school students. In a national survey of the new crop of college freshmen enrolling in fall 2014, the number who frequently felt depressed during the previous year reached a new high, and the students’ self-ratings on emotional health dipped to a new low (Eagan et al., 2015).

The anxiety that high school seniors experience in connection with the college application process feeds on itself. As increasing numbers of students have sought to gain admission to elite colleges and universities, the competition has intensified, whereas the students’ odds of gaining admission to an elite institution have decreased. When the top-ranked colleges reject 85%-95% of their applicants, most applicants to these colleges are going to end up disappointed. Many will question themselves, asking: Where did I fail? What could I have done differently? Was I really not smart enough? Their parents and teachers might instead lash out at the institution for rejecting such a high-achieving and deserving student.

Most of these rejected students are highly motivated, extremely hardworking, and very smart. During four years of secondary school each of them spent several thousand long hours studying so their GPAs would qualify them to be considered for admission to an elite institution. Most of them graduated at or near the top of their school classes, and many of them worked several hundred additional hours solely for the purpose of enhancing their performance on standardized admissions tests. All of this dedication and hard work was focused on a single purpose: to gain admission to an elite institution. But the odds were against most of these students from the beginning, and as college admissions madness continues to escalate, the number of disappointed, disillusioned, and stressed-out students will only increase.


The college admissions “madness” that infects so many high school students and their parents these days can be directly traced to an academic culture where the quality of a college or university is believed to depend on how smart its students are. This same culture has chosen to define smartness primarily in terms of the student’s standardized admissions test scores, so it has helped to spawn an array of new commercial enterprises that promise to help students improve their test performance.

Given that the most prestigious colleges and universities today receive a surplus of applications from students with very high grades and test scores, they have found it necessary to rely increasingly on yardsticks such as essays and out-of-class accomplishments to select among the many applicants. These practices have helped to broaden the definition of smartness to include qualities like creativity, leadership, and social responsibility, but have also given rise to a growing cadre of private counselors and consultants who, for a price, will assist high school students in completing more persuasive college applications. Nevertheless, it should be kept in mind that high grades and especially high test scores remain the only necessary conditions for gaining admission. If you lack these essential indicators of smartness, your chances of being admitted to an elite institution are slim to none.

From the perspective of the students, admissions madness boils down to the challenge of gaining admission to the most prestigious or most selective college that will accept them. From the perspective of the college or university, admissions madness boils down to the task of enrolling the smartest possible freshman class.

From a larger educational perspective, the problem with the academic culture that supports admissions madness is that it has come to value acquiring smart students much more than developing smartness in students once they enroll. It is to this problem that we turn our attention in the next chapter.


Clagett, R.S. (2010, October 15), Middlebury dean says SAT or ACT score is “seldom a deal breaker.” New York Times. Retrieved from

Eagan, K., Stolzenberg, E.B., Ramirez, J.J., Aragon, M.C., Suchard, M.R., & Hurtado, S. (2015). The American freshman: National norms fall 2014. Los Angeles, CA: Higher Education Research Institute, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. University of California, Los Angeles.

Park, J.J., & Becks, A.H. (2015). Who benefits from SAT prep?: An examination of high school context and race/ethnicity. The Review of Higher Education, 39(1), 1-23.