Lesson One: Selective Admissions—More Science than Art


The following is the first of four posts deconstructing highly selective college admissions. Stay tuned for more great information!


Leah Beasley and I met in the admissions office at the University of Michigan in 2002. Skinny jeans hadn’t been invented and Lady Gaga was still in high school. And the freshman application volume in our office was a much more manageable 25,000 compared to the 65,000 applications received for the incoming class of 2020.*


In those days, after a thorough review of an application, we decided whether the student would be admitted, deferred or denied. As applications have doubled, tripled, and in some cases quadrupled, in the nation’s most selective colleges, the decision process has changed dramatically. No longer is admissions an art and science. It’s much more science—data science—to be specific.


Highly selective colleges not only want to admit the most academically talented students but also those who they believe will actually enroll. However, what many aren't aware of is that they also have institutional priorities to consider, must admit to all academic schools/majors, and enroll a balance of full-pay students to offset those who need financial aid. And lastly, they want to admit as few students as possible. Why? Because that’s the sign of an elite institution—a low admit rate and high yield rate (those admitted who choose to enroll).


Colleges now use complex algorithms to assess who to admit based upon a student’s likelihood to enroll if admitted. So what goes into some of these yield algorithms? You might be surprised to realize it has very little to do with academic or extracurricular accomplishments. It includes factors such as:

  • Zip code

  • Percentage of students from your high school who go to 4-year colleges

  • Past enrollment rates from your high school

  • Family income

  • Parents highest level of education

  • The colleges your parents and siblings attended

  • Attendance at campus programs (e.g. tours, student panels, interviews, etc.)

  • Applicant’s engagement with the admission office including opening, reading, clicking on email links and following social media accounts

While what you choose to do inside and outside of the classroom is a critical component of the admissions process at highly selective colleges, it's important to understand that other things that aren't about you personally play a crucial role as well. This is why we often stress the need to look beyond the Top 20 rankings—to explore colleges where students have amazing experiences and successful outcomes—like Colleges That Change Lives.


In the end, we want our students to have a variety of options. And then, the ball is in your court, and you get to be the one to determine which crazy algorithm you will use to decide which college is for you—thermal physics research opportunities, the preeminent drone racing team or the frequency of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies in the dining hall—the choice is yours!


*https://obp.umich.edu/campus-statistics/common-data-set/

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