4 Secrets About College Admission

In Game On: Why College Admission Is Rigged and How to Beat the System, veteran academic, journalist, and mother of four recent college grads, provides the tools and insights families need to guide them throughout the college admissions process. Read on for an excerpt from Game On, which is now available.

Susan F. Paterno
5-minute read

In slick ads and media marketing pitches, colleges hint at qualifications students need to get accepted. Too often, though, especially at the most selective colleges, the criteria are kept deliberately mysterious, confounding students trying to parse the precise measures they must meet for admission. Those seemingly unsolvable riddles have produced a Hydra-like admissions industrial complex claiming to sell certainty.

Getting into college is not the same as paying for it, as the nation’s $1.5 trillion in student debt attests. Only a few dozen colleges nationwide promise to charge what families can afford—all elite schools, with billion-dollar endowments and generous aid. They also routinely reject 90 percent or more of their applicants, admitting more students with family incomes in the top 1 percent than in the bottom 60 percent.

Buy Now

As an Amazon Associate and a Bookshop.org Affiliate, QDT earns from qualifying purchases.

Money and fear drive admissions at every income level, contributing to the crippling anxiety so many teens feel about getting into college. While rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse are highest among affluent teens, the vast majority of high school students grapple with the fear that earning a degree is a dream beyond their grasp. That worry is real. Those born in 1980 to the highest income families were several times more likely to earn degrees than middle- and moderate-income Americans, a 2018 study in the journal Demography reported. More than half who start college drop out within six years, and only 33 percent of Americans ages twenty-five and older hold a bachelor’s degree. Students report unprecedented angst, academic pressure, and rejections from dream colleges, crushing them emotionally and financially. How did it come to this?

The Winning Formula

Given the odds stacked against them, how can families win the Hunger Games of higher ed? By making the rules work in their favor.

First, it’s a numbers game.

Too many students apply only to elite or selective colleges with acceptance rates in the single digits or low teens, without realizing how little chance they have of being accepted. The first obstacle is overcoming the academic index score. Colleges with the highest barriers to entry require applicants to meet certain academic benchmarks to get to the first competitive decision-making round. To quickly review applications, many evaluators calculate student grades and test scores into a single number.

Check out Grammar Girl's podcast and blog for tips on best writing practices. 

Nearly all colleges and universities publish the average test scores  and grades for admitted students. At Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, for example, 75 percent of accepted students score between 1470 and 1490 out of 1600 on the SAT or between 31 and 33 out of 36 on the ACT. Those same schools report average admitted students’ grade point averages between 3.9 for Princeton and 4.2 for Harvard.

Second, hooks help the wealthy.

Students admitted to elite colleges with middling grades and test scores usually have “hooks,” or unknown, unstated advantages. Applicants with hooks—children of alumni and faculty, athletic recruits, celebrities, donors, families with the potential to do massive fundraising—enjoy special privileges everyone else yearns to have.

Ivy League hopefuls without hooks need to be superstars to stand out in a crowded field of stellar applicants. They need to excel in academics—math, science, humanities—and score in the top 1 to 2 percent on high-stakes  admissions tests. They need to curate publicly recognized and award-winning accomplishments, as artists or writers or scientists or humanitarians or linguists or environmentalists or filmmakers or public servants or nationally ranked athletes. But even that isn’t enough. They also have to convince elite colleges that they’ll go on to great achievement in life.

Third, elite colleges expect applicants to have a fervent support team of education professionals cheerleading for them.

Lackluster backing from high school administrators, counselors, and teachers puts even students with the highest academic index score in the elite college reject pile. While struggling for an A over an A− or an A− over a B+ might seem petty, Ivy League aspirants need the highest scores and the most laudatory letters of recommendation possible. At the best prep and suburban high schools, students compete fiercely for the few slots elite colleges give them.

Consider reviewing Public Speaker's How to Write Recommendation Letters before asking your recommendor for a letter so you both know what to expect. 

The highest-achieving students from low-ranked high schools often do better in college admissions than middle-ranked students at top-ranked preps. Why? Top-ranked high schools produce hypercompetitive superstars battling to win recommendations from the same few teachers and counselors. At lower-ranked schools, superstars stand out, attract the attention of influential counselors, and land the flattering letters admissions officers expect.

Fourth, the process is so secretive that colleges can reject students with impunity and no explanation.

Private—and some public—colleges and universities use holistic criteria to evaluate candidates based on intangibles beyond grades and test scores. Colleges define the subjective qualities they seek in students using their financial, social, cultural, and political goals. Those priorities, rarely made public, change annually.

So many applicants have perfect or near-perfect grades and scores that the Ivy League can fill their classes with just those kids, the academic equivalents of LeBron James and Michael Jordan. Cracking the code to elite college admissions is an unsolvable puzzle. Rules are hidden in bromides, decisions made behind locked doors. Secrecy makes it impossible for students to trace why seemingly qualified applicants are rejected and seemingly unqualified ones are accepted. Pinpointing why elite colleges accept or reject students is like finding a kitten on a volcano at night with a flashlight. It’s possible, but unlikely.

Read Money Girl's guide to "What Insurance College Kids Need and Tips to Save" for the best money tips for higher ed. 

The best admissions hedge is money. Money buys consultants with the experience and knowledge to position students in a way to attract attention. Consultants in wealthy cities like Washington, D.C., advertise $350-an-hour rates and $20,000 packages that exclude extras that, as one advertised, “provide reminders, check-ins and scheduling to keep students and parents on task.”

The next best approach is building a fail-safe brand. That’s what Cassandra Hsiao did. Like Dayo, she applied only to elite colleges. Unlike Dayo, she was accepted to every one of them, twenty-two total, including all eight Ivies. She was one of five students nationwide in 2017 to join what one news organization dubbed “the nation’s most exclusive college club.” After being accepted to Harvard early, she read the email twice, through tears, she said. “I just couldn’t believe it.”


Thank you for reading this excerpt from Game On by Susan F. Paterno. Copyright © 2021 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.