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Has favoritism gone too far in college admissions?

As a college counselor at a high school, my job is to get to know the students I work with, write the best possible letters of recommendation for them, and then go to the ends of the earth to advocate for them with the colleges where they applied. When I applied to college, I didn’t have a “college counselor.”

But that was 1993. Things were a lot different. I was an “untagged” student.

I didn’t know anyone important who could put in a good word for me at the college of my dreams; I wasn’t a blue chip athlete; and my parents weren’t well-connected. Mom and Dad were just two hardworking parents who told me that if I was a good person and worked hard, I would get what I want in life. But as a parent of three kids, a former dean of admissions, and a college counselor, I can’t look in my own kids’ eyes (or my students’) and tell them that’s enough these days. Well, unless they’re perfect. And, perfection is always in the eye of the beholder.

As always, I try to call every college my students applied to. When I am able to connect with admissions officers, I spend a few minutes breathing life into the faceless applications my students send. I want them to understand the applications in three dimensions. I want the admissions officers to get a glimpse of what I see in these extraordinary students every day. Not every admissions officer will speak with me, but it’s my hope that if they take my call they realize that I am going to fight for these students, especially if no one else will.

"Working hard isn't enough to #GetIntoCollege these days—elite colleges are picking favorites" TWEET THIS

Recently, before Early Decision and Early Action decisions were released, I had a difficult conversation with an admissions officer about one of the most interesting students I have ever encountered. She has all the “numbers” that most selective colleges expect:

  • Near perfect SAT scores
  • Perfect Subject Tests, and
  • All A's with just one B on her record

To back it up, she is genuinely interested in an unusual academic major that few students like her ever pursue. She has even done independent research, proving to any doubters how committed and passionate she is about the subject matter. And, she has received national attention for an extracurricular activity which has taken her to the far reaches of the world to do things that adults in the prime of their careers would never do. From my days in college admissions, I would call this student the “one we’ve been waiting for.”

But, during that conversation with the admissions officer, I found out my student was not getting admitted. When I heard the news, I sighed heavily.

The admissions officer commented, “Well you know this better than anyone, Sara. This is an untagged kid. You know the realities.”

He’s right. I know how rare it is for an untagged student to get into an elite institution. Simply stated, there is a different bar for untagged students. If you aren’t well-connected, you have to be perfect. Almost perfect just won’t do.

When I was speaking with this admissions officer whom I’ve known for over a decade, I was reminded of how I would have fared if I applied to college this year. I thought about him too. We were both untagged kids. We both applied to our dream schools. At the heart of the matter, we are regular folks, working hard and following our passion. We have a lot in common with the untagged students applying to college in this generation. The only difference is that there used to be room for students like us. Nowadays special interests coupled with soaring application totals leave little room for these underappreciated kids.

The irony is that untagged students always make good on their opportunities. Always. They don’t take anything for granted. Sometimes they end up giving back to a field that gave them a chance, and they find themselves working in an admissions office at an elite institution. They are the moles of college admissions. Without them, untagged kids don’t have a prayer. Colleges need to look hard at their values when faced with growing pressure to admit students with weaker applications. Admissions deans need to push for their president and board of trustees to create room for those untagged students who give back much more than they take. Admissions officers need to remember where they themselves came from—very rarely did they come from a life of privilege and opportunity.

Those moles have more power than they think. One by one, admissions officers can fight for these untagged kids just as someone did for them many years ago.

There is a breaking point in all this favoritism. Kids and parents are now trying to strategize. Many feel that they need to be a part of that “tagged” world to get admitted to an elite institution. This quest leads students down a path focused more on creating a false persona and extracurricular sleight of hand for a college rather than being true to who they are. Some would argue that this is just how the world works. I say that’s rubbish.

BONUS: Does going to the right high school really matter?

And, I bet those admissions officers would agree. They know as well as I do that without their advocacy for the untagged kids, elite higher education will become a bastion of privilege. By turning a blind eye to the smart, good kids, colleges are no longer the Ivory Towers we hold them to be. Instead, they become just as corrupt as any other big business misguided by favors, money, and different standards for regular folks like you and me.