General Education

With High Application Numbers and Low Acceptance Rates, Who Wins in the College Admissions Race?

With High Application Numbers and Low Acceptance Rates, Who Wins in the College Admissions Race?
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Ted O'Neill January 22, 2016

As colleges receive upwards of 30,000 applications, a former admissions dean wonders how committees will choose incoming classes — and how students will find the right fit.

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People often wonder what goes on behind the closed doors of admissions committee meetings.

Having have been there for many, many hours during my 20 years as dean of admissions, I know what went on behind our closed doors at the University of Chicago.

Everything about that process — everything I am about to describe — may soon become obsolete, however. With some students applying to dozens of schools, a feat made easier (though not cheaper) by the Common Application’s 600+ participating institutions, the time-tested holistic evaluation process may succumb to a more efficient (if manipulable) numbers game.

The close reading of applications, the spirited debates among committee members, the careful consideration of each applicant as a whole person, and also of each incoming cohort as part of a diverse student body — all of these fundamental components of the process seem unsustainable at the scale of college admissions today, and certainly at the expansive scale of college admissions of the future.

But because and not in spite of that fact, the deliberate, reasoned, collective admissions process is more valuable than ever.

Admissions decisions are, after all, not a perfect science; they’re also an art. Over the years I have had to tell many people that, despite the fact that I was there, I could never reveal to them what had happened in the way they hoped to hear it related. They wanted to know what piece of evidence, or assemblage of evidence, led us to make one decision rather than another. In response, I could only say that what took place was reasoned — and sometimes passionately reasoned — conversation. It wasn’t a student’s SAT scores (heavens, not the SAT scores), but our own capacities to read and persuade each other that led to our admissions decisions. Such an answer never satisfied the curious — but it wasn’t meant to be evasive or withholding; it was simply the case.

Is this too “subjective” to be an acceptable answer? Yes, it is subjective, but many admissions officers share the belief that acceptance at a selective college should not just be a matter of seeing whether or not an applicant measures up to a set of objective criteria. That would be neat, and publicly defensible, but does not seem to be the way people should be evaluated when the judgment is related to the future happiness of students.

Admissions officers tend to believe that a better decision is made when a lot of pertinent information is collected, not just data alone, and a skilled and concerned reader considers everything on the table, and then has the chance to retell the story of the applicant to other skilled and concerned readers. When officers agree that one of their colleagues has made a convincing case — by talking about who this person is; what her talents, ambitions, work habits, self-understanding, ambitions, and special circumstances are; and how likely she’ll be to contribute to our college — that’s when we can make a decision.

This is the holistic review that we have the privilege to practice thus far, and that has been sanctioned by most colleges — and even by the Supreme Court.

Part of the wonder directed at the nature of this protected, behind-closed-doors conversation has frequently been fueled by questions about how good and sensitive individuals could not only think themselves qualified to sit in judgment, but also risk being the agents of what must appear to be such harsh and hurtful decisions.

After all, the goal of many admissions offices seems to be to drive the acceptance rate down near zero, an aim that means some of us are in the business of spending our professional lives encouraging students to apply, and then saying no, thereby crushing hopes and deflecting students from their dreams. How much fun can that be?

When I looked for people to join our office, I sought individuals who were excited about working with young people at an important stage in their lives. College is a thrilling prospect, and some good people want to be there to help make it happen for the next cadres of students.

At the same time, prospective colleagues had to have a feeling for — better yet, a love for — the kind of education we offered at our particular college. If anyone couldn’t really imagine finding pleasure in working and thinking hard, in delving into talk about important matters, in exploring the arts and sciences broadly (as Chicago students do), then that person really couldn’t make the kind of admissions decisions that we needed to make as a committee. That was the kind of college we had; that was the kind of work our students would have to do; and this is the kind of tough position we’re put in as committee members.

Delight would come in the encounter with hopeful, talented applicants, who came to life for us in their histories, their writing, the things written about them. Some composite of material, when understood as a whole, became more like narrative than measurement.

We read (and that meant we had to be good readers), and we argued (and that meant we had to be honest rhetoricians), and we listened (and that meant we had to be empathetic colleagues). Tough decisions were made every day, but they were decisions based on sympathy for students who were willing to put some piece of their futures into our hands, and who trusted us to hear them and make a good decision. Sometimes, the honest and helpful answer must be no, but sometimes, it’s yes. What an honor, and, sometimes, what a trial, to make such decisions.

I found that some of the best people for the job didn’t want to be put in the position of disappointing applicants. That hesitance was exactly what we sought, but sometimes it took some time to convince them that, by doing their work well, in a small community of mostly like-minded people, they could help even the students who would be denied admission.

Perspectives are changing. Now, I meet young admissions people who take pride, even find their identity, in their capacity to turn down 92 percent of applicants. They sometimes pretend to regret this situation (which they help to create), but the pride shines through — just ask them the acceptance rate at their college, or the kind of SAT or ACT scores it takes to be admitted these days. This seems a perversion of a profession in which pride should be found in making the tough decisions despite being disappointed in the need to deny admission, and pleasure should be found in the opportunities offered to admitted students.

In my first years in admissions we had many fewer applications than we did later, and consequently we would admit a lot of the people who applied. I liked that, because we could reward the mostly very good applicants who chose to apply for the best of reasons. It was nice to be able to take chances on kids who didn’t have perfect records, but who revealed something special — some kind of hunger for ideas and an intellectual life. I traveled with people from super-selective colleges and heard them complain that they couldn’t be too nice to prospective students because, in the end, they would have to turn the students down.

That was at a time when it was not understood that the main admissions goal was to ensure that every possible applicant was swept into the college’s pool of prospective students.

In those days, my colleagues and I could take pleasure in meeting prospective students because, if they had thought at all about their match to the college, we could sincerely talk about their dreams.

Not all were admitted, of course, but we weren’t splitting hairs about GPAs or test scores, or trying to build the perfectly designed balance of students. The ones who should have been admitted, in most cases, were. They were happy, and we were happy, and it all worked pretty well (not so well, however, for U.S. News, which pretends to assess value by counting the number of students rejected). When we had to say no, we regretted the decision, but felt pretty confident that we had given all students careful consideration, which they deserved.

Now, of course, more and more students apply to the colleges we call selective, and what is paradise for certain admissions people — saying “no” in the vast majority of cases — seems like hell to some of us.

Yes, we all always wanted more applications. After all, we thought we had something rare and valuable to offer to the students who wanted a certain kind of experience. But ultimately, at Chicago we felt that if students didn’t want what we offered, they shouldn’t apply. To that end, we even developed our very own Uncommon Application, which invited students to think criticially and creatively; they (and we) had a lot of inspired fun with it.

Now, in the race for more applications, lower admissions rates, and higher U.S. News rankings — all for the sake of prestige (and, in turn, even more applications, lower admissions rates, and higher U.S. News rankings) — it seems not to matter whether the students really want what we promise as a college; it only matters whether they apply.

At some places (and I know this really only pertains to relatively few colleges, though they are the ones that consume our attention), so many hopeful, or wishful, students apply that there is a superabundance — far too many.

How are so many applications read, and read completely and with proper care, when they number 30,000 or 40,000? Admissions people certainly work hard, but how long would it take to really read, and really think about, the number of applications that now must be evaluated in a very short space of time? With regular decision deadlines starting January 1 (and going into the spring), and admissions decisions sent around late March, there simply isn’t a lot of time to spend on any one candidate.

Given these soaring numbers, isn’t it likely that some shortcuts must be taken — cursory readings, attenuated “discussions,” overuse or misuse of test scores, over-reliance on AP courses, inadequate examination of activities, or insensitivity to inflated GPAs? What must conversations about individual students be like when there are 30,000 or 40,000 discussions to have?

My questions, now that I am no longer behind those closed doors, are: How are careful reading, instructive arguing, and agonizing decision-making happening in a world of 40,000 applications? How are those admissions decisions made, what are they based on, and how does it all feel to the ones who do this essential work? Is it still fun? And what will incoming cohorts be like when their members are not hand-picked but, rather, robotically selected? How will incoming classes create a vibrant campus when students are so worried about getting into any college that they never give serious thought to which will be the best fit for them?

Searching for a college that is the perfect match for you? Use the Noodle college search tool to get information that ventures beyond the numbers. While you’re there, ask questions — and get answers — about the colleges you’re considering.

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