Where, when, how, and why did US college admissions go wrong? Or did it?

I am observing CC threads on kids with astronomical standardized scores (e.g. 1500 plus and above) wanting to retake the test. I am seeing kids and parents talk about ECs and how to max out the impact. I am seeing folks “discuss” college rankings/ratings. In addition, I am hearing comments that colleges at the “top” levels using marketing techniques to enhance “selectivity” and “excellence”.

I am very new to all this, after decades having passed when I myself applied to colleges/ I just wonder: what the hell happened to the college admissions process? I know there are many threads related to this, but I wanted to see if there could be a robust discussion on the specifics of all the things that went wrong (assuming I am correct).


First, you need to understand that CC isn’t particularly representative of students/parents overall. Most people here have high achieving kids or are high achieving kids. Many are looking for admission to tippy top colleges (and seeking advice about how to maximize their chances). In the world beyond CC, most kids aren’t applying to or attending these super selective schools. They are attending colleges that don’t require a 1500+ on the SAT or a long list of superlative ECs.


I do understand that, having been a CC member for a number of years.

Let’s get beyond the parents and kids. What’s up with the tippy top schools? That’s the specific focus of my question.

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To me a lot of it is supply and demand. Back in “my” day, you could pick which in-state school you wanted with your C-average, mediocre score, minimal EC kid. Now there are so many more applicants, but schools haven’t proportionally increased class sizes. Also, schools are crafting their acceptances to promote a more diverse, interesting student body. So it’s not just about academics. Applicants are scrambling to find that story or experience to help them stand out.


What happened is that more and more kids are applying to elite schools which has driven down admission rates to minuscule levels. Some of that is probably due to the ease of using the common app (versus typing out each application back in the old days). And, yes, some top schools do a lot of marketing - much of it to kids who have no chance of being admitted. For example, my son has gotten a lot (A LOT) of emails from UChicago asking him to apply/attend a virtual event etc, etc. He has never indicated an interest in UChicago and although he is a very good student with a very solid gpa, he does not have the stats for admission. There is no chance he’d get in (and, of course, he has no plans to apply) but out there are students who take these marketing emails to mean that the school must really want them and apply - although they too have ZERO chance of being admitted.


This is the kinda’ stuff of I’m getting at. Marketing emails (and I understand UoC and some others are sending marketing emails to 8th graders!) is bad enough but understandable. But it’s the funny stuff that I am wondering is happening to increase the perception of selectivity etc is what I am getting at.

40 or 30 years ago, did this stuff happen? Maybe it did, but I am not aware of it. I am just wondering what were the confluence of events that caused these top schools to become quite nuts when it comes to admissions. Perhaps I am mistaken?

This is a decade-old article, but an interesting one:

Basically, the combination of USNews rankings obsession, the explosion of applications due to the common app, and the fact (unknown to most) that colleges’ and universities’ bond ratings depend on SAT scores and yield, has led to a data-driven clusterf—. Our kids all pay the price, and who knows how the admissions offices manage to read all those apps and stay sane. Not sure how the train stops (to use the article title’s metaphor), but let’s hope it at least slows down sometime soon.


The Jeff Selingo book Who Gets in and Why is a good read if you want to do a deeper dive, but the basic upshot imo is that the growth in the number of seats available to freshmen at “elite” universities has nowhere near kept pace with the growth of the United States, and there are far more full-pay international applicants than 30 years ago. Some of the surplus has filtered down and greatly enhanced the reputation and caliber of schools that we would have not considered “elite” when we were kids (USC, NYU, Tulane), but even so there are just a lot more applicants for T20 schools.

(Marketing plays a role, but it is still all very much centered around the PSAT score and your zip code, just like it was 30-40 years ago)


Thirty and forty years ago a lot fewer students applied to college than do today. That’s one difference. Second, more students became aware of these top schools with the advent of USNW ratings. Finally, the ease of filling out applications online using a single application made applying to many schools much, much simpler. As to marketing, that’s not new. I got tons and tons of marketing materials from all kinds of colleges back in the day and the trend has continued.


Our high school students are under massively too much stress.

I have long contended that the number of high school students in the US who are under medical treatment for stress is vastly greater than the number of students who ever attend any highly rated university, and that the stress of trying to get into one of those highly rated universities is a big part of the problem. Just getting great grades is not enough. You need the right ECs, and no one will tell you what the right ECs are. You need the right essays, and no one will tell you what the right essays are. And you need some sort of luck, but no one can tell you how to get this either.

I do think that both rankings and advertisements that we get from universities are part of the problem.

I like the “applying sideways” blog on the MIT admissions website because it tells students to do what I think they should do: Do whatever is right for you and just trust that things will work out.

Where I grew up (somewhere to the north in a place called “Canada”) if you just got really good grades and treated people well, then you got into the top universities.

We need to get back to treating people as people, keeping ahead in our work, and just trying to do our best in life. The top ranked universities are not magic and are really not important enough to justify all of the stress that we put on ourselves.


Totally agree with all the above but applying to schools has become a huge, huge business and cash cow for many schools. Plain and simple.


The cash aspect is what I am getting at specifically. But why wasn’t this there a few decades ago?

Or was I just naive back then (and now)?

Maybe because state legislatures are cutting back on their funding/support, so schools are looking for other sources of revenue.


As far as cash goes I think the costs of running top schools has ballooned over the last few decades. The amenities (dorms, dining facilities and options, athletic centers, new buildings, lab and maker spaces for example), support systems, course and major offerings etc…offered and expected are way beyond what was happening back in the “dark ages”. And they’re competing with each other for ranking bragging rights on top of it.


Fine for state schools…wouldn’t apply to privates schools, right?

Also, I am very curious as how colleges are “dealing” with rankings to give the impression they are more “selective” than other schools, which adds to the feeding frenzy. Again, am I totally off-base in saying there is using the college rankings to boost applications etc?

I truly don’t know. I am just asking the question as to how things seemed to have drastically changed in the US for top schools, but not so much in other countries.

Of course US colleges manipulate their stats to improve their rankings. That translates into better bond ratings and a lower cost of borrowing money. That has been occurring for decades now


There are plenty of spots at plenty of perfectly good schools - a fit for every student. There are plenty of seats at public colleges, although not everyone is going to get into their flagship state U. They might have to go to a state college. There are plenty of seats at less selective private colleges; in fact, they’re often available at a substantial tuition discount. But not everyone is going to get into the top LACs. They might have to settle for a less popular LAC, but they will still go to a perfectly good college, and have access to an excellent education.

The situation is not a game of musical chairs. This is not like the residency match for foreign medical graduates. There is room for all - just not room for all at the top, most-competitive universities and top LACs. But most US high school students weren’t planning on going to top schools anyway - they were planning on going to in-state flagships or in-state 4 yr colleges or community colleges. This is really only an issue for highly qualified students from the US and from abroad, who aspire to get into T20 schools, or even tippy-top schools.

For them, yes, it is a nightmare. It’s not right that valedictorians with perfect SATs should not be able to get into all the top schools. They probably would, if half the seats weren’t going to kids who get boosted by “holistic” admissions policies - meaning those with lesser qualifications who are admitted because they’re “legacies”, donors’ kids, recruited athletes (when did the ability to play a sport that doesn’t fill a stadium become a qualification to get into an elite school?), underrepresented minorities, or have extremely high EC achievement that has nothing to do with academics - the actors, the musicians, the olympic athletes, the social justice warrior who hit the news cycle just right.

But the reality is, if the tippy-top schools took students the way Canada does - just submit your grades and scores, and don’t bother with letters of recommendation - as long as those tippy-top schools don’t increase their student body, and do continue to take a number of students from abroad, then being first in your class with a perfect SAT score STILL won’t be enough to guarantee admission to a tippy-top school. But there’d be twice as many seats available to them at T20 schools.

So, if you really want the answer to when, where, how, and why did US college admissions go wrong, the answer is 1926, Harvard, the antisemite Abbott Lawrence Lowell, and the imposition of a restrictive quota upon Jews by means of “legacy” admissions preference (to preserve the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant makeup of the student body) and the use of “Character and fitness and the promise of the greatest usefulness in the future as a result of a Harvard education” in order to justify admitting WASP students with lesser academic qualifications, in preference to students of “The Hebrew Race” with better academic qualifications. Inclusion of a passport photo was also mandated that year - I suppose the committee was sure that they could tell if a student was WASP or Jewish just by looking at their photo. These policies were quickly adopted by the rest of the Ivy league schools, and just as quickly, City College of New York (a free CUNY college) became for the next thirty years the college from which so many future leading scientists, physicians, legal scholars, and academicians were graduated - because they had been kept out of the Ivy League by the antisemitic “holistic” admissions policies, initiated by Harvard’s president Lowell to exclude Jews and reserve seats for WASP students with lesser academic qualifications. If it sounds familiar to what was revealed in the recent lawsuit alleging anti-Asian discrimination by Harvard (in order to admit less-qualified legacies, donor kids, athletes, and underrepresented minorities), by means of a “holistic” admissions policy that gave students a “personality” rating, that’s because it is. And the end result will be the same - more amazing, high-achieving students attending their flagship state U’s, whose standards have just been going up, up, up.

It goes without saying that in 1926, and until the 60’s. non-White young men had little to no chance of admission, no matter what their qualifications, and of course women were not even welcome to apply until the Ivy League began admitting women mostly around 1970…


Thanks for this. I have seen this a few times on CC, and I didn’t realize bond valuations were tied to rankings. But, it’s naive of me to have thought it didn’t.

But I want to again restate the question. USNWR et al have been around for decades. When did things change? Have they always been this way?

If so, I guess I have been living under a rock for decades!

If you read Jeff book above it actually explains all of this from beginning to now… Maybe you can find the chapter somewhere online… Lol. I can’t recall everything but he does explain it well.

30 or 40 years ago applications were done by hand and mailed. I think a big turning point was the common app. I applied to 4 schools way back when, including 2 top 10s.(waitlisted at one/rejected at other) My match and where i went was CMU! Lehigh was my safety. I had decent SAT scores , and top 10 percent, wirh decent ECs, as a woman in engineering. That same me would never get in those school.
A friend whose daughter has perfect test scores is applying to 20 schools.
So this increases the applicants per school. And a student can only attend 1. Back in past Harvard and such likely got 1/4 of the applications they get today. Now TO has made it worse, as its a “why not apply”. No hand written apps and trips to the post office.