The Jigsaw Puzzle of Selective College Admissions

When I was area chairman for alumni admissions interviewing for Brown University, I often heard from people frustrated that highly talented students were being rejected. They asked “What does it take to get into a school like Brown?”

A Brown admissions officer explained it this way: “Brown receives over 30,000 applications each year, many from students at the top of their class with near-perfect test scores and impressive leadership skills. We accept fewer than 10%, meaning we have to say no to many qualified candidates."

[over 3,200 applicants for the Brown Class of 2018 scored a perfect 800 on the Math SAT, yet only 16% were accepted]

"Our job in making admissions decisions is like putting together a big jigsaw puzzle each year. We're looking to create a diverse community of talented people who each contribute his/her unique part to the whole. All our students are strong academically. Beyond that we may be looking for a specific piece with a certain shape to fit this year’s puzzle -- cellist for the orchestra, goalie for the soccer team, innovator for the robotics program, first-generation international student... Without this internal view, it’s impossible to appreciate or rationalize what goes into deciding among so many qualified applicants.”

The watchword used to be "well rounded". It was enough to be a top student with a portfolio of extracurricular activities. But with today's competitive admissions process, the new word is "pointy". Selective colleges aren't looking for well-rounded individuals, they want a well-rounded class that fits their needs. Top grades in honors classes and impressive test scores are a given. Beyond that, what's your "hook"? What makes you stand out from the crowd of qualified applicants? We're not talking about resume filler here, we're talking about demonstrated interest and talent that uniquely defines your shape.

What changed? Applications to highly-selective schools have skyrocketed in recent years. In the decades of the 1980s and 1990s, applications to Brown grew at a slow and steady pace from 12,000 to 15,000. In the eight years between 2003-2010, applications doubled to 30,000, while the acceptance rate plummeted under 10%. For more on that dynamic, see It Wasn't Like This When We Applied to College.

Keep in mind we're talking only about the most competitive (in terms of admissions anyway) schools here, the 60 or so colleges that accept fewer than 30% of applicants. There are 3,000 four-year schools in the U.S., with an overall average acceptance rate of 65 percent. The picture is very different -- and the competition much less intense -- when two-thirds of those who apply are offered admission.

Back to the jigsaw puzzle: it's also the case that each freshman class has spaces pre-allocated to those who receive special consideration: legacies (sons and daughters of alumni), potential mega-donors, recruited athletes, minorities, first-generation students and more. These buckets can account for 30-50% of each incoming class.

A note about athletic recruiting at selective colleges: In the Ivy League, 10-15% of admissions slots go to recruited athletes. At Division III schools like Amherst, Bates and Colby, more than 30% of students are varsity athletes, many of whom are supported by coaches in the admissions process. Recognize that since the number of sports and athletes is relatively consistent for colleges in the same conference, schools with a larger student body will have more slots available for non-athletes.

So what if you're targeting elite schools but you're not an All-American and your family name is not engraved on a plaque on campus? Get the best grades you can, of course, in the most challenging classes offered. If you're a freshman or sophomore in high school, focus on your passions and develop that hook. If you're a junior, demonstrate initiative and leadership. As a senior, identify those colleges that are more likely to be interested in your special gifts. Be sure to include some schools with acceptance rates higher than the odds of winning the lottery. Make sure that your application essays, recommendations and activities resume highlight the unique contributions you will bring to campus.

Students applying to selective colleges today need to have a range of options. Not just for Ivies, but for all schools with competitive admissions. You just don’t know whose puzzle you’re going to fit this year.

This metaphor works in the other direction as well. When you are a high school student considering colleges, look at how each school’s pieces fit together for you. Which schools match your passions? Go beyond the name and rankings. How do the academic programs and learning environment fit your priorities? What about social fit in terms of student body, school spirit, sports and clubs, Greek life, etc? Geographic fit in terms of campus setting, weather and distance from home? And financial fit – what are the all-in costs, does the school provide merit scholarships, is need-based aid weighted towards loans or grants?

It’s a challenge but if you focus on the pieces that are important to you, you’ll be happy with the finished puzzle!

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