College Admissions Hunger Games

Over the next few weeks thousands of high school seniors across the country will be receiving news of college acceptances.  Some students will be elated after getting accepted by their first choice school. Others will be heartbroken after receiving a “no” from their dream school.  Both students and parents will try to make sense of a selection process that can appear quite arbitrary.

They have good reasons to feel this way as highly selective schools have thousands more applicants than slots available leading to the oft repeated mantra in college admissions communications, “Sorry, we reject more qualified applicants than we can accept.”

There has been a simultaneous escalation in the number of applications received by schools and the number of applications prospective college students submit. The phenomenon is driven by a system that equates college value with selectivity measured by a low admissions rate.

Since colleges are incentivized to drive up the number of applicants they deploy a variety of tactics to achieve this goal. The most basic tactic is advertising to students via glossy brochures and post cards after obtaining home mailing addresses from PSAT, SAT and ACT test registrations. Schools may also entice applicants by waiving fees or sending a partially complete application that requires merely a signature. The college doesn’t need to care about the quality of the applicant, simply the grand total of admissions solicitations

It is no wonder that college admissions are starting to feel like an academic “Hunger Games.” Colleges select “Tributes” from different “Districts” guided by student application “targets” and admission “yields.” There is no denying who the “Victors” are in this scenario – the schools and college admissions advisors – not the students.

The students incur the expense of applying to multiple schools with admissions rates that border on a lottery-style chance of winning. In 2013, schools such as Stanford and Harvard accepted only 5.7% of students who applied in a pool of 35,000 to 38,000 applicants. Happy college admissions games, the odds are never in your favor.

Exacerbating the matter, the phenomenon is no longer exclusive to private universities. The University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) received an eye-popping 105,000 applicants for admission to the fall 2014 freshman class.

The college admissions business is further fueled by the proliferation of private for-hire college admissions consultants and coaches. While many parents are happy to delegate the stress of the process to a non-emotionally vested outsider; the use of coaches may only serve to feed the monster. After all, counselors benefit by demonstrating the admission results of their clients. They are able to capitalize on parents’ lack of time and fear that their child will not “get into the best school.”  A recent article in the Huffington Post claimed that “In 2013, 26 percent of all college applicants — three times as many as in 2003, hired a “private admissions consultant” or an “independent educational consultant (IEC)” to assist with their college applications.”

The new era of college admissions can seem daunting and perhaps a bit discouraging at first but there is hope.  I am on my third round in this game. After observing my own college-aged children and their friends only one thing seems to hold true. If a student is happy and has found a good fit at their college they will thrive regardless of the institution. Go ahead and open up those emails from college admissions offices in the next few weeks and don’t take it as a self-worth referendum. The happy and satisfied adults I know have many traits in common – the one they don’t share is where they went to school.

Carol Lewis Gullstad March 17, 2014


  1. Jo Haverfield says:

    Well stated – loved this one! I too am onto my third child! Take Care, Jo (Sierra’s mom)

    Sent from my iPhone, please excuse any typos.


  2. Diane Taylor says:

    Great thoughts–focus on the fit, and that means the type of people who go there, activities at school and nearby, and academic options and fit. Good luck those of you embroiled in this right now!

  3. Jill Simpson says:

    Your timing is very apropos as we are embarking on our college tours right now. Thank you for this explanation of the madness that has become college admissions. It was so much easier “in my day.” I only applied to 2 colleges, which was stupid even back then. Maybe students should be limited in how many schools they can apply to, or maybe yield shouldn’t be viewed as such an important factor. I wonder how much US News & World Report rankings have singlehandedly warped this process?

    • The Top 100 Lowest Acceptance Rates list by US News & World Report is unfortunately only one of many contributors to the College Admissions Hunger Games. The lists are nearly endless and extends to world ranking indexes. However there are other lists that include perspective from students and quality of life. I will do a follow up list with these resources so readers aren’t discouraged. As long as you keep in mind that college admissions is a business and review the material through that lens rather than an altruistic “educational higher purpose lense” you will at least be wearing the correct filter! Good luck with the search!

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