As you know, college admissions have become more competitive.

Does it matter that the most competitive colleges are harder to get into than they used to be? It certainly matters at Weston, and I’m sure at other top-ranked high schools as well. The question is whether the net effects are positive or negative.

First of all, let’s establish the facts. The Daily Beast reports that “the results aren’t encouraging for most ambitious seniors, and they’re especially dismal for ‘unhooked white girls.’

You may be wondering what that last phrase means. Apparently it’s “the euphemism for smart girls with really good grades and solid SAT scores, but who lack some special ‘hook’ or positioning — for example, being a star athlete, concert pianist or first generation to go to college.” Oh. So let’s check the numbers. We have to start with Harvard, which accepted 5.9% of its applicants last year. The Daily Beast refers to this situation as “insanely competitive,” and you can see why.

Needless to say, it’s not just Harvard. The admission percentages are 6.6% for Stanford, 11.9% for Duke, 12.3% for Penn, 18.2% for USC, and so on and so forth. Using Harvard as the most extreme proxy for the other competitive colleges, we compare today’s 5.9% with 1961’s 23.6% — a gigantic change, but probably not much worse than the other schools listed…and those are just typical examples.

What’s the explanation for this change? There are probably two: a lot more students are going to (and therefore applying to) college these days, and the Internet has made it easy to apply to dozens of colleges rather than just a handful. There’s of course a vicious circle here: a lower admissions rate makes the college harder to get into, which makes it necessary to apply to more colleges, which increases the pool of applicants, which in turn lowers the admissions rate….

So, is this change good or bad for high-school students? Clearly it increases stress and anxiety, but I want to raise a different point. I used to think that it makes juniors and seniors more focused on doing well, in order to increase their chances of getting into the college of their choice. But one of my colleagues argues convincingly that it has had the opposite effect:

If only one out of 16 applicants gets into Harvard, we know that a great many fully qualified, excellent students will be turned down. Admission becomes apparently random, not a badge of merit. Work really hard, do lots of extracurriculars, get all A’s…and you still probably won’t get into Harvard. So why try? You’re not going to get in anyway.

While I would like to think that most of my students reject this defeatist attitude — especially in a place like Weston where so many students think that their destiny is to go to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Stanford — I suspect that my colleague is right. Not only are there no guarantees, but a majority of even the best students won’t get into their first choice. Why bother getting A’s if it won’t get you into Harvard? So the only thing to do is to apply to 25 colleges and hope for the best. And the cycle continues.

Categories: Teaching & Learning, Weston