Reflections on the Admission Decisions of Highly Selective Colleges | James Wickenden | 10 Min Read

June 23, 2022

Having served as the Dean of Admission at Princeton University from 1978 to 1983, I learned enough about the admission policies and practices of a selective institution of higher education to write annual statements that were published in the Princeton Alumni Weekly. I was motivated to do so because I wanted to inform the Princeton alumni, especially those who volunteered their time to interview candidates from their respective geographical regions. I also wanted to pass my thoughts on to the college counselors across the country who had the unenviable but important job of advising the students at their respective schools about the factors that contributed to whether or not a candidate would likely be admitted. 

INTRODUCTION 

Even though the college admission landscape has become more complicated in the last four decades, my interest in the policies and practices of highly selective colleges and universities has not changed. The many changes in admissions at Princeton are as follows: 

  • The applicant pools have increased significantly. During my last year as Dean, Princeton received approximately 12,000 applications. In the 2021-22 academic year, the number skyrocketed to 37,601. This phenomenon was not unique to Princeton. 
  • While the number of applications increased almost four-fold, the available spaces in the entering class increased only marginally. 
  • As a result, the percentage of those admitted to Princeton went into free fall, declining from 18 percent in 1983 to 3.98 percent in 2022. 
  • It is also significant that the composition of the applicant pool changed significantly. For example, the number of women applying to Princeton increased annually and recently outnumbered the men who applied. Affirmative Action also resulted in a significant uptick in applications from people of color to independent, well-endowed universities. This, in turn, resulted in increased representation in the incoming freshman class of Blacks, Latinx candidates, and AAPIs. Combined with admits from 164 different countries, 68 percent of the Class of 2026 at Princeton is composed of people of color. Given the significant uptick in the number of women who enrolled at Princeton, the job responsibilities of the Director of Athletics became more complicated as requests were made to add more varsity teams for those women who wanted to continue their athletic pursuits. Currently, there are 38 varsity teams, the most recent addition being women’s rugby. As a result, the Director of Athletics and the Dean of Admission share a common goal of creating a robust program for both the men and the women. 
  • The diversity umbrella expanded when the leadership of the highly selective colleges and universities agreed to give special attention to first-generation college students, the majority of whom do not come from affluent backgrounds. Using Princeton once again as an example, 22 percent of the Class of 2026 fell into this special group. 
  • The diversity umbrella expanded further with the increased number of international students. Specifically, 168 countries are represented in Princeton’s Class of 2026. 

The applicant pool expanded more when some colleges and universities adopted a “test-optional” position. In so doing, some students who might have a transcript with all A grades may have concluded that registering for the standardized tests was a risk they were unwilling to take. 

Thus, the supply of interesting, talented, diverse, well-educated young men and women rose exponentially while the number of spaces in the freshmen classes of these highly selective colleges and universities rose at a rate comparable to those who have summited Mount Everest. 

FACTORS OVER WHICH CANDIDATES AND COLLEGE COUNSELORS HAVE CONTROL 

The following six factors over which candidates and college counselors have control are based on the experience I had while working in the Princeton Admissions office for two different five-year stints. 

  1. Academic Excellence: There are nearly 24,000 public and private secondary schools in this country. The standards or curriculum for each vary. Students applying to colleges and universities that have an acceptance rate of under 10 percent should provide the Admissions Office with evidence of significant academic achievement. This could include but not be limited to a class rank that is at the top, standardized test scores in the 700s, Advanced Placement exams with scores of 5s, grades of courses taken at a local university, as well as stellar recommendations by the student’s teachers and the college counselor. 
  1. Athletic Recruit: The highly selective colleges and universities have a broad range of athletic offerings. With the exception of football and perhaps track and field, the Athletic Department of these institutions will submit to the Admissions Office a comparatively short list of athletic recruits for each sport. Candidates who have not been contacted by a coach should assume that they are not going to be on the list submitted by the coach of the sport they love. If a candidate is a good, but not stellar, athlete who wants to play at the college level, he or she should consider Division 3 colleges rather than enrolling in a Division 1 university where he or she, if lucky, would be a “walk-on”. 
  1. First-Generation College Attendee: Colleges and universities with acceptance rates of below 10 percent have in recent years given special consideration to first-generation college attendees. While this is a noble initiative on the part of the leadership of these institutions, those candidates and their respective college counselors should focus on the likelihood of a student being successful academically than on the prestige of the institution to which they have been admitted. For example, candidates from schools with less than stellar science and math programs should think twice about matriculating at a university with an engineering school that populates their freshmen classes with students whose SAT scores are in the 700s. 
  1. Students of Color: While there has been a sea change in admissions in the last 50 years in highly selective institutions of higher education, Affirmative Action is no longer in effect at many state universities. With respect to colleges and universities that have the freedom to give serious consideration to people of color, there nonetheless will be groups within those of color that are treated differently. For example, the number of Asian Americans applying to the most selective colleges and universities has standardized test scores that exceed the averages of all other ethnic groups including whites. Thus, which racial groups receive special attention could vary from institution to institution depending upon the ethnic composition of the applicant pool and the different policies of each university. 
  1. Evidence that one has overcome adversity: Resilience is a quality valued by the vast majority of admission officers who read and rate the candidates from their respective geographical regions. Candidates who have encountered significant challenges are likely to receive serious consideration from the admissions officers reviewing their credentials. Thus, candidates and college counselors should not hesitate to explain how one has handled adversity. That being said, I am not implying that candidates should submit a list of each injury or illness they have incurred. However, if one has been raised in a home where the parenting was poor, a parent has been incarcerated, a sibling or parent has struggled with an addiction, or if a candidate has incurred a health issue that cannot be treated effectively, then the resilience one develops under these challenging circumstances should be a major plus. 
  1. Significant achievement in Debate, Journalism or the Arts: The most selective institutions of higher education will receive hundreds if not thousands of applications from secondary school students who have won debate tournaments, been editors-in-chief of school newspapers or literary magazines, have performed in a lead role in a play, or have been honored for the quality of their paintings. Examples of one’s achievements should be submitted. Debaters who have been successful at the national level need not be modest. Musicians who have experienced success in that field at their respective secondary schools should supply the admissions offices with recordings of performances they have given. Journalists should submit samples of their work. The same is true for artists. At the risk of stating the obvious, the samples of one’s extracurricular achievements are evaluated and rated, not only by the admissions officers but also by faculty members in the related departments. 

FACTORS OVER WHICH CANDIDATES AND COLLEGE COUNSELORS HAVE NO CONTROL 

The next section of this article identifies five different sources of influence that could affect the status of someone’s candidacy. Granted this will be perceived by many as being unfair, but fairness is not what prompted me to write this article. 

  1. Candidates supported by those in the Development Office: Members of the Development Office are obviously eager to see admitted as many candidates as possible from wealthy families. I am not, however, reluctant to say that this relationship can vary from college to college. While this is a complex issue fraught with competing interests and concerns, I recommend that if there is a candidate from a family of considerable means who is applying to a highly selective institution, the college counselor should strongly consider informing the Director of Development at the college or colleges to which the student has applied. Once done, however, the college counselor does not know if the information passed on to the Development Office ever makes its way to the Admissions Office. 
  1. Influence Admits: Despite what some university presidents might state, there is always the possibility of directives being issued from above to admit an applicant that may have good but not stellar credentials. Examples could include but not be limited to the following: 
    • A child of a professor who is actively being recruited to strengthen an academic department. 
    • A child of a well-known and respected politician. 
    • A child of an extraordinarily generous alum. 
    • A candidate who is being strongly supported by someone important to the college or university. 
    • A promising, well-known actor or musician. 
    • A child of a long-term and generous trustee. 
    • A child of someone who is recognized as important to the institution.
  1. International candidates with excellent credentials and financial needs: Universities vary in terms of the financial aid the institution allocates to international students who need financial support. Universities with enormous endowments are able to provide aid to students in need. Other institutions might admit only those international students whose parents can afford the tuition, fees, room and board. In sum, college counselors at international schools should reach out to the person responsible for the admission of international students to determine where the institution stands with respect to the allocation of financial aid to those in need. 
  1. Candidates who express a desire to major in an under-enrolled department: Institutions that award faculty tenure can attract talented professors eager to have job security. As a result, if an institution has witnessed a precipitous decline in the enrollment of a given department, those in the Admission Office may be asked to look with favor on candidates who are interested in majoring in a program that, for whatever reason, has experienced a decline in those who opt to major in it. 
  1. Candidates who have achieved national recognition for excellence in a given field: Despite their age, famous actors, musicians, ballet dancers, singers or someone like the young woman from Sweden who received recognition for the work she did with respect to Climate Change may be viewed favorably by the Admissions Office because their presence at the university would likely result in positive PR. Although there are few applicants who would fall into this category that is no reason why they should not be mentioned. 

CONCLUDING COMMENTS 

How might what I wrote help college counselors do their important and challenging job? I recommend that high school college counselors use the aforementioned observations and opinions as a tool to advise candidates who wish to apply to highly selective institutions of higher education. My theory—and hope—is that if an applicant checks the boxes of 5 or more of the 11 different criteria presented in this article, he or she would stand a higher chance of being admitted. Conversely, those who check only three or fewer boxes should be encouraged to submit applications to a range of institutions.


You may also be interested in reading other articles by James Wickenden published in Intrepid Ed News.

Jim Wickenden

Jim is a Principal at DRG and Founder of Wickenden Associates, an affiliate of DRG. Having been the CEO of one of the premier education executive search firms in the United States, Jim brings unparalleled experience and networks to best serve clients. With over 30 years of experience identifying and guiding Heads of Schools and other senior administrators of schools across the country, Jim approaches each search with flexibility and openness that responds to the individual needs and concerns of schools and their leaders. Before founding Wickenden Associates, Jim served as the Dean of Admissions at Princeton University and Director of Student and Alumni Affairs at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A graduate of Tabor Academy and Princeton University, Jim holds a master’s degree in Counselor Education from Rutgers University, a master’s degree in the General Purposes of Education from Harvard University, and a doctorate in Counseling Psychology from Boston University. As a former member of eight boards of independent schools with a wide range of missions and resource levels, Jim also knows firsthand the responsibilities shouldered by today’s trustees; and knows how to guide boards through tough transition processes and on good governance practices. Jim lives in Princeton, NJ, and when he is not at the office he enjoys reading enlightening books.

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