Why Do Colleges Accept Some Students Over Others?

By Danny Ruderman


As I often do, I'm going to illustrate the answer to this question by telling a story, but before I do, you should know that each college’s admissions office has different qualities that it looks for in students. Therefore, that is why you might hear how, if a student applies to 10 schools that are all about the same selectivity, he or she probably won't get into all of them. One of the reasons for this is because it depends on how a student fits with what a school is looking for.

I had two students a few years ago, a boy and a girl, both of whom applied to Tufts University. The girl had almost perfect numbers. She had straight A's without any A minuses and really good test scores. She applied into the International Relations Program at Tufts.  Meanwhile, the boy had decent numbers—a 3.6/3.7 unweighted GPA and 1900 or so on the old SAT—good just not spectacular.

Now if you look just at both applicants, one might think that she should get in and he shouldn’t right? Right well that's exactly the opposite of what happened. The boy got in and she did not. People often hear stories like this and ask me why. Well, to understand the answer, you’ve got to dig a little bit deeper.

First, the girl wanted to major in International Relations, which at Tufts is one of the most competitive and most popular programs, especially among girls. The boy wanted to major in English literature. How many of you know teenage boys out there who love literature? Probably not many of you because I don't come across them very often.

For the boy, however, his interest was legit…he had written for his school's literary journal; he got a recommendation from his high school English teacher; and he wrote one of his supplemental essays on his love of Kurt Vonnegut. When he got his letter of acceptance, the admissions officer actually wrote on the bottom of it, ‘I'm taking a chance on you because I loved your essay on Vonnegut.’

You see, for the admissions officer something clicked. Something allowed the admissions person to connect with the boy’s application, on top of the fact that Tufts’ English program probably don't have many boys applying into it. So even though the boy’s GPA and test scores weren't as good as the girl’s grades and scores, they boy’s application provided a good match for Tufts.

Should she have gotten in? Perhaps. She actually got into Wesleyan, which is where she really wanted to go, so everything worked out just fine. But because she was up against a much more competitive pool of applicants, and she didn't have a real background in government, languages, or travel abroad, she didn’t stand out.

The point here is that you know that it is simply not just about the numbers. This means that if you're freaked because you've heard from your friends that USC takes a 4.3 GPA and 1500 SAT score to get in, please know that there is a lot misperception out there so not everything you hear is true and also know that there are a lot of reasons other than just test scores and grades that can help you get accepted.

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