The Admissions Game

Some people apply to the most selective schools as if it were the lottery.  

One such recent case is that of Kwasi Enin. The son of Ghanian immigrants, Kwasi hit the proverbial jackpot by first applying to all eight Ivy League schools, and then, having scored a 2,250 on his SAT and placed #11 out of a class of 647 at William Floyd School, a public high school on Long Island, getting in to all eight. His father, Ebenezer, turned to Kwasi’s younger sister Adwoa and told her, “…if they build another Ivy League school, you’ll be the first one to get in all nine. Kwasi plans to study medicine and music at Yale, with one caveat: if the place doesn’t pan out he’ll not hesitate to transfer.

I have no idea where #1-10 in Kwasi’s class at William Floyd are heading for college, but one can only assume that if they attended Kwasi’s press conference in which he made his Yale announcement, each must have felt like the guy who bought the wrong lottery ticket in the wrong liquor store on the wrong day.

While Kwasi basks in Ivy glory, there are categories of applicants that no matter how exceptional their credentials, they are going to be challenged when knocking on the doors of the most select colleges: these are the ‘unhooked’ well-rounded girls. The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) projects that between now and 2019 female college enrollment will grow 21% while male enrollment will grow by 12%. (This is across all races and cultures throughout the US). Moreover, this gender gap is becoming more pronounced even though there are 800,000 more males than females in the ages 18-24. This means if you’re female and you outshine by a large margin most of the students in your high school, but you have no activity in which you’re especially exceptional, such as performing in a national orchestra, being a member of the Math Olympiad, or winning of the Siemens Intel contest, you won’t find the admissions process particularly easy or inviting among the most select schools in the country. There are simply too many good candidates with excellent track records to choose among.

Despite the odds, 80% of well-qualified applicants are accepted into at least one elite school. It’s just that now they have to treat the undergraduate application process much like the medical school application process: they must play the numbers game. According to a recent survey the number of high school students applying to at least seven colleges has more than tripled since 1990, to 29%.

Elizabeth Holmes is an interesting example of the type of candidate Stanford seeks in its applicant pool. Soon after her sophomore year in high school she wanted to learn Mandarin and decided to take summer classes at Stanford. She repeatedly called the admissions office only to be told each time that the program didn’t accept high school students. After a flurry of calls the head of the program got on the phone and said he’d give her the exam over the phone if she’d stop calling. He did, and she was accepted on the spot. Three years later, fluent in Mandarin, she applied and was accepted into Stanford as a President’s Scholar. Drawn to the work of Channing Robertson in the Chemical Engineering department, Elizabeth decided to major in chemical engineering. After discovering a revolutionary method of conducting multiple tests on a very small sample of blood, Holmes dropped out of Stanford to become CEO of Theranos, a Silicon Valley firm she founded to upend the staid blood testing industry.

If you think there are absolutes that make or break a candidate’s application: GPA, test scores, or extracurricular, think again. What the best schools want are the best, most inquisitive students who want to make a difference; as Marcus Aurelius in Meditations puts it, they seek those wishing to, ‘Live a purposeful life.’ This can be done inside or outside structured academia, and frankly, it has very little to do with the school attended and everything to do with the person attending.