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Who Gets in and Why: 7 Surprising Factors that Influence Admissions Decisions

By Laura Whitmore

When I attended the University of Notre Dame, I often wondered how their admissions decisions were made. I was a valedictorian with a 1420 SAT score, yet I would talk to other Notre Dame classmates who had vastly different metrics. One friend from Texas shared with me his SAT: 1100. I was surprised; I knew students who had applied to Notre Dame with higher test scores and had gotten rejected. Why did he get in and they didn't?

Parents and students alike have been scratching their heads for decades now wondering how admissions decisions are made. While the most seemingly accomplished and capable student on paper is receiving a thin rejection letter, a quantitatively weaker classmate gets a thick acceptance packet. Jeffrey Selingo decided to unveil the secrets behind admissions decisions in his book Who Gets In and Why. Selingo observed months of deliberations at three diverse institutions: Davidson, Emory, and University of Washington. I believe Selingo offers valuable insight to parents and students wondering how they can get an edge in the increasingly competitive admissions process, so I wanted to share that insight with you:

1. How Much Money Your Family Makes Matters

Admissions offices around the country have a dirty little secret: they consider if you are able to pay the tuition in full when making their decisions. This is called “need aware.” Thus, if you are a student who needs a hefty amount of financial aid, you are less apt to get accepted than a student whose family is able to foot the full tuition bill, even if your high school resume is more impressive. This is because the schools that you apply to have a fixed amount of spots for students who require aid. There are some schools who are “need blind,” meaning they do not take into account your ability to pay when making their decision. However, they are not as prevalent as their “need aware” counterparts.

2. Selections are Often Based on Regions

Admissions officers divide up their applicants based on geographical region. This allows admissions officers to ensure that they are creating a well-rounded class representing all parts of the country. They will accept roughly the same amount of students from each area. If you are from the northeast, you are within a more competitive applicant pool than any other area of the country and it will be more difficult for you to get in.

3. To Get into a “Brand Name” School, You Better Have a "Hook"

Students are more inclined to apply to schools that they have heard of before. Many students at the top of their classes develop the “ivy league or bust” mentality. The acceptance rates for institutions like Harvard or Princeton are in the single percentages. It is not enough to be valedictorian with a perfect SAT or ACT score: you have to have a “hook.” A hook means something that helps your application stand out from the pack, such as being a recruited athlete, a legacy, or having some exceptional musical talent. Because students have such a difficult time getting into the top-tiered schools, a myth has developed that there are not enough higher ed spots for the growing population. However, this is a myth and Selingo points out that there are plenty of spots if students are willing to take a look at what else is out there.

4. Grade Inflation is Real! Test Scores Provide a Clearer Picture

In the 1990s, less than 40% of students nationwide had an ‘A’ average; today, over 50% have an ‘A’ average. During the pandemic, many high schools adopted a pass/fail methodology that has further contributed to murky grade calculations. Although studies have shown that GPA is a better indicator if you will be successful in college than test scores alone, there is empirical evidence that the two indicators - grades AND test scores - together provide the best picture of a student’s success. Even though colleges and universities are temporarily test-optional, it is to your advantage to submit test scores. It provides an additional metric that helps admissions officers feel confident in you and your abilities. Thus, you are more inclined to get a “yes” than your peer that chose to opt out of the SAT or ACT.

5. It’s All About the Yield Rates, Baby!

To climb the U.S. and World Report College rankings, schools develop strategies to increase their yield rates. Harvard has roughly an 85% yield rate, which means 85% of the students they accept commit to their school. Less prestigious schools have much lower yield rates, so they have to get creative with how to get students to say yes. Some ways in which schools do this are by offering more competitive financial aid packages, trying to coerce students to switch to Early Decision (which makes the student legally obligated to go to that school) by insinuating that their application won’t get accepted unless they do, and deepening their wait list. Although applying Early Decision will increase your chances of getting into a competitive school, you are at a financial disadvantage, as you will be impeded from “shopping around” to choose the best financial aid package.

6. “Rounding Out” the Class May Leave You Rounded Out

Another reason why you may want to apply Early Action or Early Decision is because admissions officers start taking into account the future freshman class profile, especially in the regular decision round. Do they need more boys in the incoming class? More liberal arts majors? More students from the Midwest? Some of these seemingly arbitrary factors can cause your application to go into the reject pile, even if you are more qualified than another applicant who gets accepted at this stage.

7. Admissions Offices are More Apt to Admit Students Whose High Schools they are Familiar With

Some private schools and prestigious public schools go out of their way to send universities fancy marketing kits that showcase their high school. They have developed strong relationships with admissions officers and become feeder schools. If you are the only one from your high school applying or you think your school may not be on a college or university’s radar, you should go out of your way to tell them as much about your school as you can!


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