Stanford University did not release its admit rate this year, but it doesn’t take much to dig it up: a quick look through the Common Data Set will show that approximately 56,378 students applied and approximately 2,075 were accepted. That makes Stanford’s 2023 admit rate 3.7 percent, which means that 96.3 percent of the students who applied were not admitted.
There’s a term for colleges and universities like Stanford: highly rejective schools. There’s also a Bible passage (Matthew 19:24) about a camel and needles and rich men, which can easily be adapted for our present moment: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a high school valedictorian to enter the hallowed gates of ____ [fill in the blank with the name of a college with an admit rate of less than 20 percent].”
And yet every fall, hundreds of thousands of students hurl themselves through application portals, hoping to enter the hallowed gates of those colleges, and people like me help them, and their parents lie awake at night and worry about their future. It’s a process that churns up angst and anxiety and longing, and culminates in either wild joy or crushing despair or, for the students who have been waitlisted, a slow-building sense of resignation as they commit to their second- or third-choice school. The accepted students (and their families) feel validated—they have beaten incredible odds, their hard work has been recognized, they have reached the pinnacle of success, and now they’re standing on that pinnacle clutching their golden ticket. The students who have been waitlisted or denied admission (“rejected” is a word admissions officers try to avoid) feel that they are somehow lacking, that they’ve done something wrong. That they have failed.
The truth is far more complicated. Stanford, and its peer institutions, could fill their class of 2000+ admitted students with students who were not admitted and be none the worse for it. The admission process is arbitrary—far more arbitrary than any applicant who has ever thought “Why not me?”—would like to believe. The decision might have been different if their application was pulled on a different day, in a different week, in a different context. The decision might have been based on opaque institutional priorities, which are intentionally opaque, because imagine what would happen if Harvard suddenly announced that they were looking for tuba players from the upper Midwest, or Yale announced a critical shortage of climate activists with an interest in childhood language acquisition in their student body. A decision from those schools is not a reflection of a student’s merit. It’s a reflection of how arbitrary and inscrutable and, yes, unfair the admissions process becomes when over 55,000 students apply for 2,000 spots.
To say, “It’s not you, it’s them,” is a worn cliché, but clichés are clichés for a reason: they’re the truth on steroids. You did not do anything wrong. You are the best version of yourself that you can be at 17 or 18 (or 16, if you’re graduating early). You have a whole life ahead of you, and you have no idea how that life will unfold. You gave the highly rejective colleges your best shot and it didn’t work out, but if you are kind, curious, imaginative, and passionate, if you have goals and the willingness to work hard for those goals, if you don’t let this one moment define you—your life is not ruined. In fact, there might come a day when you’re a big deal inventor, or activist, or artist, or scientist, or entrepreneur, and the university that broke your heart invites you to deliver the commencement address and because you have so many other offers and you also believe that revenge is a dish best served cold, you tell them you’re grateful and deeply honored and you would love to but there are so many other demands on your time that you must regretfully decline.
Irena is the author of The Golden Ticket: A Life in College Admissions Essays - a memoir that explores the college application process from the perspectives of a parent, college counselor, and admissions officer. Scheduled to publish on April 18, she has given us permission to feature an excerpt that is highly relevant to the grit and calm that we need to cultivate in our students in the face of highly competitive college admissions.
In 1999, the Office of Undergraduate Admission, located in the Old Union, was a heady place. To get there, you walk through a palm-lined courtyard, go up creaky stairs, and follow the signs in a hallway with a red linoleum floor. A cavernous room marked “Credentials” holds the paper files of every single applicant for that season; people who work in Creds are responsible for collating students’ transcripts, test score reports, teacher letters of recommendation, and essays, placing them in color-coded files by geographic region, and supplying each file with a yellow work card on which readers write their summaries and recommendations. Down the hall is the Office of Undergraduate Admission proper—a warren of offices and cubicles, fronted by a desk where Mireille, an unflappable woman with a hawkish profile and piercing black eyes and a heavy French accent, answers the phone. The air smells like dust, old masonry, paper, and power.
The Admission Office is scrupulously organized. People who work there walk briskly and talk quietly and say purposeful-sounding things like “decide and commit.” The reading process is regimented and orderly. Every Wednesday, we pick up files for the week and meet to discuss the files we reviewed the week before. Files are divided by region; my files are purple and green and include parts of Texas, parts of Connecticut, a large swath of Southern California, and occasionally local schools that are the dean’s purview but need a second (or a third, or a fourth) read. At some point, I stop calling students “students” or “applicants” and like everyone else, begin to call them “files.” A colleague jokes that a former dean used to call them “my little flat friends.”
The work card at the front of each file is pre-printed on heavy yellow stock, with a section for the first reader responsible for the initial sort in which applications are divided into Competitive (C) and Non-Competitive (NC) piles. NC: anyone with more than two B’s, SAT section scores below 700, a disciplinary infraction, or unremarkable extracurricular activities. Sure, there are the occasional exceptions: a first-generation student, an English-language learner, a student who had been suspended because she organized a student walkout to protest a patently unfair school policy; the student might not have extracurricular activities because he worked full-time to support his family while also attending school. But for the most part, the initial sort is straightforward, and about 65 percent of the applicants, an “NC” for non-competitive circled at the top of their work card, exit the application process. The C’s—about 30 percent of them—continue on. About 5 percent of the applicants fall into a third category called “clear admit”—a category reserved for students so exceptional (like, graduate-student level, Olympic-hopeful, Nobel-prize-candidate exceptional) that they float to the top of the pile. The senior deans can reverse the recommendation, but the clear admit designation is a big deal, not to be taken lightly. Weeks can go by without a clear admit, and during other weeks they cluster and shine like jewels in a shipwreck.
The competitive files are the hardest. The year I start reading at Stanford, the university has an admit rate of 12.5 percent. For every ten competitive files I read—competitive meaning that any one of them could potentially be admitted—I have to deny seven of them, no matter what. The remaining three are “swims,” which means the application continues to committee but has at least a 50 percent chance of being denied later in the process.
Then the second-round read: a comprehensive evaluation of the competitive students. A full read plus the write-up is meant to take twenty minutes. In my first year, the reading and write-ups take me at least twice that time. In addition to reviewing the transcript and reworking the student’s GPA onto a standardized scale, we compare self-reported and official test scores, read through the counselor’s letter, the two teacher letters of recommendation, and often, an optional letter of reference from someone outside the classroom. Then we review the extracurricular activities, and then we read the essays. And then comes the hardest part: in a space no bigger than 2” × 4”, we sum up the application and our reasoning for the decision—deny or swim.
We at Polygence are grateful to Dr. Smith for offering to share this exclusive excerpt of her book and the view it provides into the Stanford admissions office. While it may be cold comfort for students in the midst of the college application process, her broader message is one we believe fiercely: that all students have potential to make a meaningful impact on the world, regardless of where they go to college, provided they have the skills and experiences needed to make that difference. Polygence was founded on this belief, and we continue to reach towards the mission of democratizing access to research experiences, having supported more than 2000 student projects…and counting!
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