Top Myths of College Admissions, and What Really Matters

This week I attended a free talk that promised to cover the Top 10 Myths About College Admissions from well-known admissions consultant Mimi Doe. As expected, the room was overflowing with eager parents trying to figure out what they could do to help their children gain admission into the top colleges and universities. Most of them already knew that college admissions is a game that can be played, and they were no doubt hoping that Mimi would let slip some of the secrets to the admissions game that she typically charges families tens of thousands of dollars for.  

Mimi did a fine job during the presentation. She provided them with some basic facts about the admissions process, demonstrated knowledge on some of the finer points of college admissions, and most importantly, she induced enough anxiety within the attendees about the college admissions process that surely one or two of them will retain her. The only meaningful “secret” she really let slip was how to leverage early action/early decision to improve one’s chances of admission.

While she was right on many points, such as half the class at top schools being taken by applicants with hooks, she was factually incorrect on a couple of points. One glaring example was the remarkable claim that young people have a better chance of getting into top colleges from public schools than private schools. She pointed out that schools such as Harvard typically fill 55-65% of their freshman classes with students who attended public schools. What she failed to tell them is that although private high schools only enroll about 8% of all high school-aged students, they represent about 35% of the incoming Harvard class. From a sheer numbers perspective, it is significantly more likely to gain admission into Harvard from a private high school than a public high school, especially if it is a non-parochial school.

Diving even deeper, we find that not all public and private schools are created equal. The Harvard Crimson did an analysis of where the Class of 2017 went to high school and found that one out of every 20 matriculating freshman went to one of only seven high schools![1] Of those seven schools, only three were public, and only one of them did not require students to apply to gain admission (i.e., a local district school where many Harvard faculty members send their children). While these seven schools placed the most students in the freshman class, there were plenty of other feeder schools. Only 11% of the high schools represented filled one third of the freshman class. These schools, which are disproportionately private schools and large public magnet schools, are well known to college admissions staffs, and one can reasonably expect that in any given year they will have at least a couple of students gain admission. Meanwhile, three quarters of the high schools represented sent only one student to Harvard, filling less than 50% of the freshman class.

These numbers make clear that from a statistical standpoint, it is much less difficult to gain admission into Harvard from a private high school than a public high school. But people would say that there is less competition at regular district public schools, so perhaps it is actually easier to get into Harvard from a regular district public school. No, that is not the case. At the feeder schools, which are predominantly private schools, one does not have to be the best student every several years to be able to get into Harvard. One just has to be in the top tier of students, and have a good story. However, for unhooked applicants from the overwhelming majority of the 37,000 high schools in the country, to be seriously considered for Harvard you have to be the best student to have come through the school in years. Even in public schools that send more than a few students to top schools every year, such as Westlake High and Lake Travis High in Austin, TX, one still has to outcompete hundreds of other students to have a shot at securing a spot at these schools.

Perhaps Mimi made the claim about public schools to assure the parents in the room that their children still had a chance, if you retained her. Who knows.

After she was finished her presentation, Mimi opened up the floor for questions. Most questions followed the typical overanxious parent narrative, eager to squeeze the one helpful nugget of information that might allow them to work their overstressed child into the college of their (parents’) dreams. When I give my speeches on college admissions, I hammer home the point that college admissions is not only a game, it is an unnecessary game, and it does not guarantee those who play it well a great outcome.

Not expecting to hear any particularly good questions, I began surveying the room to see who else attended. I recognized a couple of parents who had previously attended my prior talks, and I wondered if any of them took my advice on how to allow their children to be free to lead remarkable lives.

Then all of a sudden, a woman spoke up who said she was stressed out by the college admissions process. She wanted to know what she could do as a parent to help her child succeed in college, not just get into college. It was such a relief to hear a parent asking a question that acknowledged that life extends beyond the college admissions process.

Mimi suggested that those applicants who were able to take control of the admissions process were the ones who would perform the best once they got to college. Sadly, it was pretty clear that most of those in the room were not the type of parents who would step back from the admissions process so that their children could take the wheel. But Mimi was right, applicants who take control of the admissions process do tend to do better in college.

Most young people spend their primary and secondary years just following the directives given to them. The “best” students are always doing exactly what they are told, neurotically shooting for perfect grades, and continually endeavoring to make their teachers happy. They are told that so long as they do what is expected of them to perfection, that they are setting themselves up for future success. But they are never given the time and space to figure out who they are, to engage in learning experiences that they find meaningful, and they never learn how to take charge of their lives because their lives are being directed by others.

Unfortunately for the woman who asked the question, she asked it several years too late, and she asked the wrong person. The best way to help prepare children to thrive in college (and beyond) is to trust them to lead their own lives while they are young. When they are the ones who are expected to decide what, why, and how they are going to learn, and they are expected to deal with the consequences of their decisions, they are much more likely to take their lives much more seriously. Those young people are more likely to go college with a plan. To identify the resources available at a college and utilize them. And to see the course catalog and syllabi as tools to be used in pursuit of a larger goal.  

Unfortunately for all the attendees that evening, no one pointed out that allowing young people to lead their own lives while they are still young is also the best way to position oneself to get into a top college.

1.     “The Making of a Harvard Feeder School,” The Harvard Crimson