6 Unpredictable Factors in Admissions

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 – and some of these are completely out of your control!

  1. 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 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 were beat out by a similar applicant who happened to fulfill the needs of the colleges (more males, more history majors, students from the mid-west, trumpet players, etc.).

  1. Recommendations

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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 who wrote about overcoming a brain tumor. 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.

  1. 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. (This was certainly the case for the Class of 2021!)

6. Failure to show Demonstrated Interest

For many of the 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, Case Western, Lehigh and American. Pre-pandemic, failing to make a campus visit was often the “kiss of death” for applicants to schools in this group! If you were rejected by a college that considers demonstrated interest, it might have been because you didn’t convince them you were a serious applicant.

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!