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Why You Were Denied

(I have edited for length and clarity from the original by Jon Boeckenstedt, a longtime respected university admissions professional.)

As Early Decision admission decisions roll in, the understandable confusion from parents, counselors, and students rolls in behind them. Few are questioning acceptances; it’s the denials (imprecisely called “rejections” by students and families) that cause the stress.

We’re talking about the colleges everyone talks about. Those of us who sit on stage at high school events where stressed parents (and by osmosis, their stressed children) ask, “What do colleges want?” or “Why is it so hard to get into <insert college not listed above>?”

At the colleges not listed above, your ability to control things is less than you think.

  • Who reads your file: The admissions office may have dozens (or more) first readers. That person is subject to all the biases and random events that affect attitude on any day. The day your file pops up, they could have gotten an acknowledgment from a boss, or their dog might have died. They might like your sarcastic and ironic tone, or it might cause them to stop reading your file before finishing your essay.

  • When your file gets read: Your file might pop up after the application of a brilliant researcher or the one who submitted the worst essay of the year. It might get read at 10 am on a Tuesday, or 4pm on a Friday, with dozens more to read before the reader can knock off for the weekend.

  • What other people say about you: Your letter of recommendation might not be glowing, even though the teacher who submitted it loved you. When I worked at Grinnell, an Iowan student’s teacher wrote “she’s not afraid to ask questions if she doesn’t understand the content.” Any Iowan would recognize that as a compliment, but if you’re not from Iowa, let me translate: “Although her academic record shows that this student is the best our high school has produced in years, she is nonetheless still blessed with that humbleness we expect. She doesn’t think she’s better than her classmates.” One faculty member (a native of Brooklyn, New York read this and said, “Clearly, this student is slow on the uptake.”

  • Whether your grandparents’ have their name on a campus building: If your name is Barney Rubble VI, and the library is named “The Betty and Barney Rubble IV Memorial Library,” your file will get more attention, even before the Advancement Office signs the deal on the Pebbles and Bam-Bam Rubble Recreation Center. (Yes, Bam-Bam was actually named Barney Rubble V, and he and Pebbles did marry after the series ended.)

  • The college’s preferences: At some colleges, standardized tests are still important, even if the college reluctantly went test-optional during the pandemic. At some of those institutions, submitting tests can hurt you; at others, not submitting tests can hurt you. You have no way of knowing this or predicting which college is which (unless they come out and say it, like MIT and Purdue have done recently by re-instating testing requirements for Fall 2024 admission).

  • How a college views a choice you made in your senior schedule: At a New England prep school, a student said she would graduate with seven AP courses, but worried that if she took a pottery course she really wanted to take, she couldn’t take an eighth. She asked how her “top choice” might react to that, and what she should do. I thought for a moment and suggested that she consider: “If your top choice doesn’t value your decision, why do you think it should be your top choice?” She was not satisfied.

The lesson here is that you will never know why you were not admitted; it’s almost never one factor. And you won’t know if you missed it by a hair or a mile. It is perhaps a cruel but poignant lesson that will be repeated many times in your life. Sometimes things don’t go your way. And even when they don’t, they usually turn out just fine.


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