Admissions Decisions Unfair: Why You Didn’t Get into Your Dream School

You did everything right.

You participated in tons of high school clubs, took a dozen of AP classes, and volunteered in the library for four years (even if you hated every minute you spent there).

You did all you thought you had to do, so why you didn’t get into your dream school?

Here’s the truth:

College admissions can be unfair, particularly if the holistic review approach is concerned. While it allows admissions officers to see students as whole and unique individuals because they are evaluated beyond just their GPAs and test scores, holistic admission also provides the opportunity to favor some applicants over the rest.

To understand the admissions process better, you should understand the concept of a holistic process and how it does not care about students’ achievements but rather caters to institutional needs. During holistic admissions, everything matters, even your high school attendance.

tipping the scales

Holistic Admission vs. Admission by Numbers: What’s the Difference?

Admission by numbers is an admissions approach where academic factors such as GPA and test scores determine whether you are accepted or not. On the other hand, holistic admissions also consider non-academic factors such as personal essays, extracurricular activities and special talents in the review process.

Holistic admission, if truth be told, has been around for a long time already.

It all started in 1922 when Harvard University noticed that more than 20% of its freshman class consisted of Jewish students as a result of many of them getting admitted for obtaining high scores on the college entrance exam.

During that time, the Ivy League’s admissions process was the traditional kind. Needless to say, besides admitting students according to their entrance exam scores, Harvard also welcomed them to its campus based on their GPAs and class rank.

And all that simply because the prestigious school wanted to boost the number of wealthy Protestant men attending.

And that is why, in order to try to reduce the number of students gaining admission to it for purely cognitive reasons, Harvard introduced what would be known as a holistic admissions policy.

Extracurriculars, recommendations, personal essays — these and more were added to the university’s review process. All of this is described in the book “The Chosen” by Jerome Karabel (Amazon).

In time, the holistisc approach caught on and more and more prestigious institutions of higher education implemented the same policy.

After all, it was effective in improving campus diversity. As a matter of fact, based on an article in Florida Online Journals, in the last decade, around 95% of admissions officers claim that they adopt a holistic approach to reviewing applications.

Before a holistic admissions policy came into being, there’s traditional admission or admission by numbers. As mentioned earlier, it’s a review process that considers only academic factors, including especially the high school GPA.

Needless to say, eventually, many colleges and institutions turned their backs on this admissions approach as it involves the evaluation of students based on numerical data alone.

Without taking into account individual interests, experiences and achievements, traditional admission does not open doors for the attainment of a more diverse student body.

Pros and Cons of Holistic Admission

Diversity is the primary benefit of a holistic admissions policy.

For example, between 2009 and 2016, Miami University saw an increase in the number of underrepresented and minority groups application- and enrollment-wise by 116% and 95%, respectively.

However, holistic admission doesn’t come without some cons.

There is no denying that a diverse campus is extremely beneficial for college students.

Communication, creative thinking, problem solving, self-awareness — these are just some of the things sharing the campus with people from different backgrounds improves.

Also, based on a report by Queens University of Charlotte, students work better in a diverse environment, which positively impacts their academic performance.

Many colleges and universities use a holistic admissions process even though it requires more effort than the traditional approach, as you will learn in a few, because it does deliver some perks.

The following are some of the benefits of the use of a holistic method in the admissions process:

  • Encourages diversity on campus as a wider range of student qualities are taken into account
  • Allows admissions officers to consider each applicant as a unique, whole individual
  • Provides room for the evaluation of a student’s soft skills as well as achievements and potential
  • Makes it possible for admissions officers to predict the success rate of a student during and after college

However, because there’s an assortment of factors that can be considered in a holistic review process and that different institutions have different sets of traits and characteristics that they look for in students, there’s no one way of implementing the approach.

So, in other words, one school’s implementation of it can be different from the other.

And this is when the matter of tags comes in — we will talk about this in few, so read on!

Furthermore, tags aside, there are some challenges that a holistic admissions process poses, which, in some instances, can make it a less impressive approach than the traditional counterpart.

And some of those downsides include the following:


In traditional admission, admissions officers simply have to look at the numbers to determine who goes in and who gets rejected. In holistic admission, on the other hand, several people have to read and re-read applications for them to be able to make a more informed decision as well as to minimize committing biased choices.

unfair sign

Hard to explain

The college application process is, without a doubt, stressful. But what can make it even more nerve-racking is that a holistic process can sometimes cause admissions officers to make unusual choices.

Also, in some instances, straight-A students get denied admission simply because they lack meaningful extracurriculars or alumni relatives.

What are College Admissions Tags?

Basically, college admissions tags or simply tags are traits, characteristics or achievements of students that make them high priorities for institutions of higher education they are applying to. So, in other words, having certain tags can increase their admissions chances, especially where the admissions process is holistic.

Admissions officers at institutions that review applications holistically have to consider many different things when evaluating students. It’s for this reason why a holistic approach can take up lots of time and energy.

But the presence of the so-called tags changes everything as it allows them to conserve precious resources.

Just about anything that a college or university finds desirable in a hopeful can be regarded as a tag. It can be anything from being the child of an alumni member, being related to a generous donor to being a top student-athlete.

Needless to say, if you have something that admissions officers like, you are very much likely to get in.

In 1998, for instance, Jared Kushner, who once served as a senior advisor to Donald Trump, the 45th US president and his father-in-law, was admitted to Harvard University after his father donated $2.5 million to the Ivy League, according to NY Mag.

Unfortunately for some students, including those with stellar GPAs and test scores and phenomenal non-academic factors, they could end up rejected in favor of students with mediocre applications but have tags.

The majority of them are, of course, from low-income backgrounds and minorities such as Asian Americans.

Based on a write-up in the Los Angeles Times by an admissions officer who worked at the University of Pennsylvania and Franklin & Marshall College, in many instances, some students are denied admission for the lack of a tag.

You Are Not a Failure

If you didn’t get into your top choice school, in most cases, it does not mean anything.

If you worked hard at school, poured yourself into Common app, but were rejected, it does not mean you are not worthy of college.

It’s getting harder to get into college now compared to the time when your parents and grandparents graduated from high school.

Two-thirds of students who applied to Yale were admitted 50 years ago. Nowadays, the acceptance rate at Yale is around 4% (1 in 25). This means that uber-selective colleges now reject valedictorians and team captains all the time.

This, however, should not keep you from wanting to work on an undergraduate degree.

By doing your best in high school to have an impressive application and applying to the right college, too, getting admitted because of your achievements and potential is always a possibility.

The best way to hedge your bets and make sure you get an acceptance letter is to build a balanced college list. Read more on this topic here.

Related Questions

Are there colleges that will admit students with bad applications?

Some institutions of higher education, in particular non-selective ones, have an open admissions policy. Also sometimes referred to as open enrollment, open admission means that the only criteria for students to be accepted is having a high school diploma or an equivalent, such as the GED.

Can you get to a good college even if you’re from a bad high school?

Especially if you are applying to a college with a holistic admission policy, you can get accepted. It’s for the fact that one of the goals of the institution is to have a diverse campus. Still, you will have to prove that you are someone who can contribute something to the school and community, too.

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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