College Admission is Not a Competition

Submitted by: By Grace Cheng Dodge,
Appeared on the ET Journal Spring Issue 2024


Our schools are used to having strong college-going cultures, and families may be choosing to apply to and attend our schools based on the historical college admittance track records of previous gradu- ates. However, instead of understanding that the college admissions process – especially to US colleges and universities – is based on the concept of individual “fit” with each institution, the entire college admissions process has morphed into one competitive game that is unfortunately driving up anxiety, stress, and mental health issues of not only our students, but our entire school communities. What may be factors not under anyone’s control has now turned into a lucrative external industry trying to make sense of decisions that only colleges and universities know why they were the right ones to make in crafting each new freshman class.

At the EARCOS Leadership Conference 2023, I presented a session titled “What Heads Need to Know About US College Admissions”, as a crash course on how US institutions make admissions deci- sions and how schools on the K-12 side can help calm their com- munity’s anxieties through understanding the work of admissions officers and the crucially important work of their own counselors. Counselors who work at secondary schools are the primary liai- sons with universities, with the critical responsibility of acting as each student’s advocate and making sure the secondary school and all its unique offerings, grading policies, and graduation requirements are introduced to colleges and universities around the world. It is a key distinction that should be highlighted in your communities that school counselors are the real college experts, many with extensive experience having worked in a college admissions office or another secondary school’s counseling office, and are the only individuals who have direct access to admissions colleagues who will read your students’ actual application files.

Experienced counselors also know how to help a student (and fam- ily) manage expectations throughout the process. For example, the entire set of Ivy League institutions in the US should be catego- rized as “far reach” schools for all students around the world, simply because of the high volume of applications these institutions will receive. No one is guaranteed to be admitted, nor should be led to believe they are entitled to be admitted, or that someone else is “taking their spot”. Counselors are also responsible for ensuring students apply to a balanced list of colleges, and to continually con- firm that a student is equally as excited to attend all the schools on the list, no matter the selectivity. This is why researching schools thoroughly before filing an application is so important; sadly, this part of the process is usually rushed or overlooked when students make up their college lists, especially when there is too much outside in- fluence. Students then end up applying to schools without knowing why they would even be a good fit with a particular institution. Not knowing why a college would genuinely be a good fit automatically puts a student’s application at a disadvantage, as any essay questions about perceived “fit” turn out to be incredibly difficult to answer and painfully generic to read.

The ideal situation happens when how students describe them- selves matches what adults say about them, and a picture of who will show up on move-in day is consistent with what the college is looking for in order to craft the freshman class it wants. It is easily confirmed through the school transcript and scores (if required) that the students can do the academic work on campus. But this also happens more than there are spaces available for everyone who would be “qualified” to be admitted. This is where it is also crucially important for school communities to understand that in many cases, the admissions process is incredibly human. A GPA or a test score or a certain number of honors/AP/IB courses is not the reason anyone gets into college. Instead, admissions officers verbally fight it out in many committee discussions about which students will add more to the experience of their classmates.

No one could have predicted the educational disruption caused by COVID-19. Many of you already knew that standardized test scores have always only been used to corroborate the academic strength of a student, which was already presented via transcripts and rec- ommendation letters. High test scores are often misinterpreted by students and parents as a way to compensate for lower grades at school. However, to colleges, test scores that are much higher than a GPA should indicate introduces even more questions to colleges. Is the student even learning at school if the grades don’t seem to match the testing ability? Does the student refuse to do homework? Does the student refuse to participate in class? Did the student waste money to receive really good test prep for a test that doesn’t even measure real academic ability? It opens up more questions about how this student will do in college. There are many other stu- dents for the college to choose from than try to understand why a student has test scores that may actually seem too high as compared to their high school record and how their free time could have been used more productively than going to tutoring.

It’s important to keep in mind that at selective private institutions, there are many people reading every application and each admit- ted student had an advocate that helped convince other members of the admissions committee that the student would be a good fit. Again, no one is using the argument “But this student got a XXXX on the SAT/ACT!” or “This student comes from this particular high school!”. It’s important to keep in mind that students may be admit- ted despite a low submitted standardized score. Then the admissions committee conversation becomes really interesting as in, “Can we disregard the score that the student submitted - and didn’t have to. She brings this and this and this to the college and we already know she can do the work here.” That student would also have been counted in the statistic of students who submitted their scores but was actually admitted in spite of her scores. The goal is to be the student that admissions officers fight for!

As I hope has been made clear, a GPA or test score or a certain number of honors/AP/IB courses or the name of your high school is not the reason anyone gets into college. On the flip side, not get- ting into a top choice college is NOT a judgment on a student or the high school, period. Colleges that admit fewer than the number of students who apply must make decisions about “fit”, and in the majority of cases, “fit” is something that cannot be controlled by the student, the high school, or the family. The most honest and bluntest way to explain US college admissions is that perhaps a school is only looking for oboe players which are desperately needed to complete the school’s orchestra. One could be a top student-athlete on paper with off-the-chart grades and scores, but if they are not looking for cello players who also captain the soccer team, that is no one’s fault, but that top student is most likely not going to be admitted that year. We all know the gossip in that student’s international school com- munity is the disbelief that this cello-playing-soccer-captain didn’t get into his top choice school while the college went and accepted a student from a smaller local school who is the exact oboe player they need, who also reassures the university she can also handle the academic work. This is a perfectly realistic scenario that shows that the university can do whatever it wants to formulate its freshman class and that it has made the right choice about institutional fit. The best we can do is to encourage students to be themselves, choose to study and participate in activities they love, and to be able to demonstrate a lifelong love of learning that will carry them way past their college years. The more a student’s life is curated, the more we actually lose sight of who the actual teenager really is and how they make decisions for themselves.

The selective American college process is all about trying to figure out who a student is, and who they will be on a college campus. If a student has been properly counseled and has a balanced college list, they should be applying to colleges where everyone else like them looks the same on paper when it comes to academic factors. Schools need to be assured students can do the work when they get on campus. That question is most easily answered as soon as ad- missions officers see a transcript and read some recommendations. So admissions officers focus more on what do students bring to campus and every application is evaluated for non-academic aspects of what the student will bring.

Here in Asia, we are all trying to best explain and reconcile more familiar Eastern philosophies of education with Western college re- sults that many families desire. Past history of acceptances from your high school have no effect on what is going to happen this year, as US institutional priorities continue to expand to populations and schools that have never sent applications to colleges before. The best we can do is to stay true to your school missions, trust the ex- pertise and networks of your counselors with those who will read your students’ applications on the other side of the desk, and cheer on all students alongside your faculty and counselors. We are all on the same side to help each student find their perfect college match, and the more we all understand this unique American concept of fit and don’t get discouraged by things that are not under anyone’s control, the better we can celebrate the strengths of each individual student, no matter where they will go after high school graduation.

About the Author
Grace Cheng Dodge retired as Head of School of Taipei Ameri- can School in July 2023. She served as the school’s second Direc- tor of College Counseling in 2011. Grace is also a former Director of Admission at Wellesley College and former Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Harvard University. She currently consults for Heads and trains school counselors to increase their knowledge of US college admissions and can be reached at grace@


>> Read more on the ET Journal Spring Issue 2024 page 36