Rejected: Why You Didn’t Get into Your Dream School

You heard that your top-choice college had a holistic admissions policy.

That’s why you registered for a bunch of challenging AP classes, participated in extracurriculars that instilled leadership skills in you, and volunteered in all kinds of community projects and services.

However, despite everything, you still got a rejection letter from the college of your dreams.

So, why is the college admissions process unfair even if it’s not by-numbers kind?

While it’s true that a holistic review of applications sounds more equitable and non-discriminatory than a more traditional approach, it allows colleges to favor certain candidates over others.

Yes, college admissions officers who review applications holistically consider more things than just GPAs and standardized test scores.

They also put more weight on non-academic factors catering to institutional needs.

I will discuss some of the reasons why college admissions are unfair despite sounding reasonable and impartial, thus allowing you to learn that taking your achievements to the right colleges is also critical.

tipping the scales

Admissions by Numbers vs. Holistic Admissions: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Admissions by numbers is the traditional admissions approach.

The review process’ name says it all — college admissions officers consider only numbers such as:

  • GPA
  • Test scores
  • Class rank

Standing out in a pool of hopefuls is as easy as including some of the highest numbers on your Common App or Coalition App, though it’s not that simple as it requires a lot of hard work.

This approach is fair for college-bound teens who excel academically.

On the other hand, it’s not the most reasonable for students who shine in non-academic pursuits.

Enter holistic admissions.

As admissions by numbers, the name makes it clear that a holistic admissions process considers an applicant as a whole person rather than just focusing on certain factors only, particularly academic ones.

What’s Good About Holistic Admissions

A holistic review process gives every college-bound teen an equal fighting chance.

Besides traditional measures of academic success and college readiness, various other factors, including numerous non-academic ones, are also considerations in admissions at holistic institutions.

Recommendation letters and application essays are academic factors.

However, in most instances, admissions officers who adhere to a by-numbers decisions process do not consider them since they require thorough reading and assessment, not just looking at some figures.

At colleges with holistic admissions, recommendations, and essays are typically important criteria.

Meanwhile, various non-academic factors are role players, too, such as:

  • Interview
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Talent
  • Personal qualities
  • Geographical residence
  • State residence
  • Work experience
  • Volunteer work
  • Demonstrated interest
  • Relationship with an alumni member
  • Being a first-generation student

Incoming college students are not the only ones who can benefit from holistic admissions.

Colleges and universities themselves can gain from it, too, and that’s in the form of having a more diverse campus whose students are from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds and have varying strengths and weaknesses.

It’s worth pointing out that most colleges do not consider every non-academic criterion in the review process.

Besides including only those deemed vital, college admissions officers also put different weights on each considered factor — e.g., extracurriculars are more important than talent, or volunteer work is more important than residence.

What’s Bad and Ugly About Holistic Admissions

At face value, holistic admissions sound just and compassionate.

Unfortunately, postsecondary institutions can use a holistic approach to favor some types of candidates over the rest, and it’s as simple as giving certain admissions criteria more weight in the review process.

For instance, it’s not uncommon for elite colleges to favor legacy students over non-legacy ones.

By putting more weight on certain criteria, academic and non-academic factors alike, institutions can design the incoming class according to their own liking without much trouble.

There’s a characteristic of a holistic admissions process that many schools dislike.

And it’s the fact that it’s time-consuming.

Looking at GPAs, class rank, and SAT and ACT scores takes very little time and energy.

On the other hand, also taking into account personal statements, recommendation letters, extracurriculars, work experience, and others makes the admissions process long and draining.

Case in point: Arizona State University.

Every admissions cycle, ASU receives more than 60,000 applications, and going through thousands of essays, recommendations, volunteer work, and others is not the most practical approach to go about the review process.

As such, its admissions officers only consider the following traditional factors, arranged according to weight:

  • GPA
  • Class rank
  • Academic rigor
  • Test scores

With the exception of state residency, ASU considers no other criteria to save on resources.

Going for a more efficient review process, in some situations, is why the college admissions process is unfair.

unfair sign

Tag, You’re It: What are College Admissions Tags?

Remember what I said about how some colleges and universities put more weight on certain admissions factors to build an incoming class consisting of students they prefer?

Those criteria are tags.

Tags are often responsible for unfair college admissions, even where a holistic approach is present.

Any criterion or trait an institution can be a tag — it can be one’s religious affiliation that many sectarian schools consider or a student’s relation to a former student that many selective private universities regard.

Some common examples of tagged students include:

  • Recruited athletes
  • Kids of former students
  • Kids of donors or potential donors
  • Candidates with connections to influential people

You have an admissions advantage if you have the tags a college wants.

Meanwhile, no spot will likely be available for you if you don’t have a college’s tags.

True enough, the Los Angeles Times once reported that an admissions officer who worked at the University of Pennsylvania and Franklin & Marshall College admitted to denying applicants just because they had no tags.

You’re More Than Just a Tag

By now, we have established the fact that college admissions are unfair.

Even a holistic review process, in most situations, is an underhanded practice in the guise of fairness.

Refrain from assuming that you didn’t get into college because you are not college-ready or unworthy of a college degree — it’s just that maybe the institution is not worthy of what you have to offer.

Not having the tags that a college looks for doesn’t make you less likely to succeed in college and beyond compared to someone who brandishes each and every tag preferred by the school.

Here’s what you need to do:

Keep doing your best to excel academically and non-academically.

Besides getting high grades in your college preparatory courses and other classes and taking challenging AP courses, maintain participation in meaningful extracurriculars and volunteer work.

So, in other words, stay being a good high schooler.

Then, build a balanced college list that contains the right amounts of reach, match, and safety schools — learn more about this important matter by checking out this article.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.

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