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Rejected? Not Really

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

The culture seems resolved to believe that college admissions is a meritocracy, and I get it. World-class achievers have adhered carefully to the prescribed formulas for success handed down to them by their dream colleges. They follow all the rules, rushing toward the goalpost, and we want to believe their efforts will suffice. Unfortunately, most of them are tackled at the one-yard line, courtesy of a bunch of unwritten rules which were never in their playbooks. Then—because they are 18, after all–they typically turn their negative energy on themselves, lamenting that they somehow fell short or failed.

The reality, though, is that students don’t understand the limited role of merit until they have earned it. Merit is necessary, but it guarantees nothing at highly-selective colleges; students have to bring something else to the table, too. Those colleges which have an abundance of 4.0/36-type applicants leverage their popularity to perfect all their rosters and smooth demographics. Often, decisions are made based on factors which are outside a student’s control, such as state of residence or ability to pay. Students who seek to understand the reason for their deferral or denial cannot count on solid feedback, because institutional needs are met under the umbrella of holistic review.

The practice of making admissions decisions on a holistic basis was developed to benefit students who deserved to be evaluated in the context of their own struggles or extraordinary circumstances. Unfortunately, a tool created for the public good does not have to be used as such. In 2022, holistic admissions effectively absolves colleges of accountability to its own applicants and robs us of transparency. And so the next class applies in even bigger numbers.

Can you imagine going into Caesar’s Palace, laying a thousand bucks on the roulette table, and then watching as the croupier takes your money behind closed doors, only to emerge saying, “Sorry, hon. We spun the wheel back there, and you didn’t win?” That wouldn’t fly.

The difference between Vegas and highly selective admissions is that Vegas is regulated. I’m not typically a cheerleader of government interference in worlds as far-flung and nuanced as higher ed, and until the last couple of years, I was a holdout when it came to referring to selective admissions as a lotto. It now feels very much like an unregulated lotto, though, with admit rates threatening to dip below 1% in regular decision rounds and nobody accounting for decisions made. I cannot imagine a way it can be repaired without regulation for the simple reason that no one in higher ed is incentivized to fix it. Quite the opposite, in fact: at the schools where very few kids are admitted, the house always wins. It wins big. Harvard and Notre Dame picked up over $500,000 apiece in fees from rejected applicants this fall.*

Lest you think I am railing against colleges, I’m not. A lot of great folks work in college admissions. It’s not fair of us to expect them to work counter to their own job descriptions. Why would they provide the kind of transparency which would turn off such a revenue machine which also drives admit rates down, thus enhancing their brand? We cannot expect one college—even Harvard—to do such a thing unilaterally. Moreover, we cannot expect “colleges,” taken together, to change a dynamic which serves most of them very well. I think it’s time for regulation, but lawmaking falls outside of my pay grade.

I used to hate it when people called admissions a game. Now, I’m not sure how else to consider it. Official rules, unwritten rules, strategy, and secrecy. It’s not about education, and it’s not a meritocracy; it is, instead, a gargantuan exercise in missing the point. Every minute we spend obsessing about why Billy got into Dartmouth when Sally did not, we ignore the big questions of priorities, student well-being, and the responsible use of a quarter million dollars.*

Why write about this? I cannot, after all, personally conceive of a way to clean up the mess of confusion and stress. What I can do is encourage you to help your student understand how little their deferral/denial had to do with them personally. Coach them away from catastrophizing the bad news, because if they allow it to inform their very identity, their temporary disappointment will be cultivated into a more serious need for external validation.

The good news for denied and deferred students is that their decision is not personal. The bad news is that it never was.

  • Class of 2027 admissions data is provided by, and application fees are found in the Common Application. We do not have information about how many applicants used application fee waivers, so the numbers provided are admittedly a bit inflated. Unfortunately, without access to fee waiver information, we must stick to the theoretical calculation.

  • “A quarter million dollars” is a conservative number for students considering the most highly selective universities in the country. Our dataset includes over 30 colleges whose total cost of attendance for 2021-2022 exceeded $80,000. Again from the dataset, we see a number of these colleges where more than half the student body pays full price.

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