7 Possible Reasons for Unexpected Rejections

Applying to College, Building Your College List

A rejection letter, especially from one of your “Possible” or “Likely” schools, can leave you scratching your head and wondering WHY? Why was your classmate with similar grades admitted, while you were not? When dealing with the frustration of rejections, it’s helpful to keep in mind that admissions officers are often making tough decisions based on a wide variety of factors that go well beyond your GPA and test scores. Here are some reasons behind surprising rejections; note that some are within your control, but others aren’t!


Students and parents naturally want to believe that recommenders will have nothing but praise, but this isn’t always the case. Teachers know you won’t be reading their letters, which allows them to be completely honest. Maybe your teacher expressed a concern about your motivation or follow-through, which could tip the scales against you. Or even more likely, perhaps your teachers wrote a lackluster recommendation that read more like a generic form letter (common for teachers who write lots of letters). These types of recommendations could put you at a disadvantage against students whose recommenders were thoughtful and specific.

The Needs of the College

Admissions officers are striving to build a balanced freshmen class, with a good mix of males and females, ethnic and racial groups, and students from various regions of the country. They also need to make sure they have sufficient students in each major that the college offers. Furthermore, they might also need to fill specific positions on their athletic teams or get students with particular musical or artistic talents. The needs of each college are referred to as “Institutional Priorities.” These priorities change year to year, and aren’t made public — but they drive many admissions decisions. So even if you are a perfectly qualified applicant, it’s possible you didn’t meet enough of the college’s priorities (more males, more history majors, students from the mid-west, trumpet players, etc.).

The applicant pool for your major

At many colleges, your choice of intended major can have a big impact on admissions chances. It’s well known that majors like engineering, computer science and business are often harder to get into. What may be less obvious are departments the college is seeking to fill – often the less popular majors such as Native American Studies or Classics. It’s also possible that in any given year a college saw a large number of Economics or History majors. And, keep in mind that some departments are seeking certain types of students – engineering always needs more females, for example, so males can be at a disadvantage when applying.

Who read your application and when

Remember that admissions officers are people too, with their own experiences, preferences or biases. While they make their best efforts to be objective, they are still human. Perhaps the person who read your application found your essay less inspiring than the next applicant whose essay really resonated with them. Or maybe your application came on the heels of a particularly impressive string of students, giving you a higher bar to reach. Timing can also makes a difference – a reader might be tougher with students whose applications they read at the end of the day, or at the beginning of the season.

A drastic increase in applications

Nearly every well-known college sees an increase in applications each year, so if you were on the border of eligibility for the previous admissions cycle, it’s possible you were bumped out in the year you applied. In some cases, colleges see a drastic increase in applications, forcing them to reject far more qualified applicants than expected.

Failure to show Demonstrated Interest 

This is the only one that is completely within your control! For a number of private colleges, especially those in the mid-tier of selectivity, demonstrated interest is critical. Applicants who have not engaged with the college are often rejected or waitlisted. Examples of schools that emphasize Demonstrated Interest include Tulane, Syracuse, Case Western, Lehigh and American. If you were rejected by a college that considers demonstrated interest, it might have been because you didn’t do enough to convince them you were a serious applicant.

The Data Worked Against You 

Alongside the demonstrated interest described above, colleges also use data from previous admissions cycles to predict who is most likely to enroll if admitted. Algorithms using a wide variety of data points (including the high school, zip code, GPA, race, parent’s income plus many more) help admissions officers predict how likely each applicant is to enroll. Sometimes this data works against a student without them even knowing it! For example, if students from your high school with a similar GPA have a history of being admitted to a particular college and NOT attending, it could lead that college to waitlist or even outright reject you.

Ultimately, it’s best not to spend too much time dwelling on your rejections, because you’ll probably never know the reasons. Instead, turn your attention to the colleges that did admit you – these are the places that want to have you as a student. Celebrate your choices and enjoy the rest of your senior year!