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The Psychology of Getting Into College

Jeffrey Selingo talks about his book, 'Who Gets In and Why."

Every year, parents and students face the daunting task of gaining admission to various colleges and universities. But what goes into the psychology of getting into college? And how does this relate to the big business that is now university admissions?

These are just some of the topics that Jeffrey Selingo tackles in his new book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions. David Epstein writes about the book: "It's an eye-opening business story: an inside look at the Moneyball-ization of education in which the incentives of institutions and students are often frighteningly misaligned."

I had the opportunity to ask Jeff some questions about his book, including how the admissions process really works behind the scenes, how incentives are different for students and families than for universities, how the pandemic might change admissions for the long-term, how more transparency might improve college admissions in the future, and what I should be thinking about what my own children might face one day when they apply to college.

The psychologist Paul Meehl synthesized the evidence on statistical vs. clinical prediction, showing that people often could not weigh different criteria in their minds in a systematic way, which is what admissions officers seek to do in college admissions. From the outside, the process is presented as largely objective to students, and I’m sure it feels objective to them, whether they are accepted or rejected. What would you like students to know most about the admissions process that might not be top-of-mind already?

Although it has the veneer of numerical precision, “holistic admissions”—as the application review process is known at most selective schools—is pretty subjective. This approach considers factors beyond grades and test scores that are usually gleaned from an applicant’s extracurricular activities, essays, and recommendations.

But unlike a test score where a 1300 on the SAT is the same in California as it is in New Jersey, the other parts of the applications depend largely on an applicant’s community and high school. There is no common high school curriculum, even within states. There isn’t a standardized grading scale. Some high schools use a 10-point increment on a 100-point scale. Others use a 7-point one. At many, the 5.0 has become the new 4.0. Points are added to GPAs for any combination of honors, AP, or dual-enrollment courses. Schools have multiple valedictorians as well as students with all As and a few Bs who rank below the top tenth.

Admissions standards aren’t applied consistently because they are applied in context. Admissions officers judge applicants’ achievements based on the opportunities they were given. What courses did they take from the classes available to them? How many students in their high school go to college? What might a college expect from them once they get to campus?

Your book really opened my eyes to how the incentives that many universities are under to attract students are often misaligned with what is good for students and families. Could you expand more on that?

College admissions is not about the prospective student; it’s about the college. It’s not about being “worthy,” per se; it’s more about fitting into a college’s agenda, whatever that might be.

Every school has different needs that change over time, sometimes even from year to year. Goals for the admitted class are set by university leaders and then left to the admissions staff to carry out. In a given year, that might mean more full payers, humanities majors, and students from the Dakotas. Sometimes the goals are narrower: a pitcher for the baseball team, a goalie for the soccer team, or an oboist for the orchestra. Many colleges give special consideration to applicants with deep and lasting connections to the school, such as the children of alumni and employees.

A rejection, then, is not about you; it’s about what a college needs the year you apply. Just because a college accepts 25 percent of its applicants doesn’t mean you have a one in four chance of getting in. I don’t tell you that to raise your anxiety level, but to give you a reality check at the beginning of the process so that you expand your lens on the college search and look beyond the top 10 or 20 in some ranking.

As a parent of young children who now sees what’s in store for the future, what should I do to best prepare my kids for higher education?

Watching the reviews of applications and listening to admissions officers’ description of merit, I came to understand that they are often looking for a mindset in an applicant. They want to be sure students haven’t peaked in high school and are just going through the motions to go to college.

They’re looking for signs an applicant refuses to acknowledge a ceiling on her ability and keeps persevering at tasks. They want students who will come to college and can be challenged in their beliefs and have interest in taking new classes and trying new activities, and perhaps change their mind about what they want to do in life.

That’s why they scan transcripts for rigorous courses in a variety of subjects, appreciate when students collect a recommendation from a teacher outside of their major area and look for students who have committed to activities for a prolonged period of time rather than “sign-up clubs” to fill in the blank spaces on the application.

My best advice is, do what you love in high school, try your best, and let the chips fall where they may. So much is out of your control in the admissions process, so control what you can.

What are your thoughts on how a Biden administration might impact higher education and what you discussed in your book?

There’s likely to be a big focus on equity and student debt in the administration. The most selective colleges enroll more students from the top one percent of the income distribution than from the entire bottom half. There have been calls to require schools to enroll a certain threshold of students eligible for the Pell Grant—which goes to the poorest students—in order for all the students at the school to access federal student aid. That would force selective colleges to enroll more low-income and first-generation students.

On student loans, beyond the debate over forgiving loans of graduates, there’s going to be more discussion about expanding income-based repayment, which could encourage students to think less about what majors make money and more about what they really want to do after college.

Do you think the pandemic will have a long-term impact on the admissions process?

Yes. Among all aspects of higher education, admissions is perhaps the most tradition-bound due to its recruiting calendars and campus tours, common application deadlines, and rigid rating scales for assessing applicants. But a year since the coronavirus took hold, the debate among enrollment leaders is no longer about when the traditional customs of admissions will return, but what changes from this year will stick, and whether colleges should speed those changes along.

Nowhere is the virus’s impact more apparent than in how it is shaping the future of testing. Already dozens of colleges have announced an extension of test-optional policies for a second admissions cycle, including the entire Ivy League, Stanford University, and the University of Texas at Austin. It’s clear the SAT and the ACT will not return to their pre-pandemic prominence. Even the ACT’s chief executive admitted as much in a recent blog post. Some colleges will remain test-optional when the pandemic is over, but how far up the pecking order will that change stick? And will applicants trust colleges enough to judge them without test scores to stop taking the exams entirely?

And this debate won’t end when we return to some sort of normal. Many parts of applicants’ admissions files are baked long before they begin the college search — from the courses they take (or don’t take) in eighth grade, to the activities they start in elementary school, to the teachers they get to know as freshmen. As long as this generation of students makes choices about what they do or don’t do in school based on their experience this past year, the effects of the pandemic will live on in college applications for years to come.

If you were the emperor of college admissions, how might you change it?

One thing I say near the end of the book: more transparency. Here’s one possibility I lay out: a national clearinghouse created by colleges or another entity, such as the U.S. Department of Education. Teenagers would upload samples of their work starting as early as their first year of high school, along with basic biographical information. At any point, students could choose to make their high school file available for admissions offices to see.

Over time, such a database could render the very idea of an application meaningless. Rather than wait for applications to arrive, colleges could search the student clearinghouse using specific parameters, much as they do when they buy names from the College Board for marketing.

But to even the playing field in admissions and bring more transparency to the clearinghouse process, both sides in the transaction need to see what the other is doing. Colleges should disclose what they’re looking for. That way, students and their families can see if a specific college they’re considering is, say, looking for students from Southern California, or from five specific zip codes in Florida, or for students who want to major in history, or for those interested in Catholic colleges. At the same time, students should list the other colleges on their search list and the places where they eventually apply. In this ideal setup, colleges could even disclose what they actually charge students with various family incomes and academic credentials, and families could list what they’re willing to pay.


Selingo, J. (2020). Who gets in and why: A year inside college admissions. New York, NY: Scribner.

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