42,749 students applied to fill the 1,962 spots comprising Harvard’s Class of 202230,146 students applied to earn one of Vanderbilt’s coveted 2,199 spots. 20,371 Notre Dame applicants attempted to be one of the chosen 3,610. 

These large numbers are record-breaking, according to each school’s admissions page. This makes sense though. These are schools with big names and a never-ending supply of applicants. Based on the significant increase in applicant numbers from the Class of 2021 to the Class of 2022, this year’s applicant numbers are likely to increase as well. This poses a problem. How are you supposed to sift through 30,146 applications to uncover the 2,199 you need? When you ask yourself this question, you face the predicament admissions officers from highly selective schools do each fall.

The Process.

That’s why college admissions are commonly referred to as a game. When I entered my junior year of high school and talks of the college process began, I started hearing adults refer to highly selective admissions in this way. They would say things like:

“Highly selective admissions are a crapshoot.”

“It’s like rolling the dice.”

“It’s impossible to know exactly what these schools want.”

I never liked hearing these phrases. I felt like the process was one I could control and presumably master. When highly selective admissions representatives came to my high school in the fall of my senior year, I asked one of them how I could stand out in an applicant pool. (What I really meant to ask was how I could ensure my acceptance.) Her candid answer didn’t quite quell my concern.

“Everything you already know is correct. If your test scores and grades are good, if you’re involved, if you show demonstrated interest and if you write a good essay, you’ve done everything right. The truth is, you don’t know what highly selective schools are looking for in any given year. Maybe one year we need more students from Montana. The next year, we need saxophone players. If you live in Montana and you apply the year we need saxophone players, it’s just bad luck. A lot of time we’re just plugging in holes to make sure we’re the strongest student body we can be.”

This woman became the first person to shed a light on just how little control I had in my acceptance to these schools.

The game we play applying to these colleges is a tough one. Most applicants are worthy of admission, yet a lot don’t receive it. And those who do get in aren’t necessarily better than those who don't. It seems as though the admitted are qualified, talented students who also happen to be exactly what that university needed that year.

Because getting accepted to a highly selective school doesn’t seem to mean much in a roll-the-dice environment, a lot of critics of the highly selective admissions process blame the institutions themselves. Some say applying to colleges through Early Decision gives an unfair advantage to those with the financial means. Others argue that these schools’ focus on test scores doesn't account for testing bias or others whose intelligence cannot be measured fully by a standardized test. And while these are valid points, I believe that the cause of angst within the highly selective admissions process lies within the applicants.

The Applicant.

When we’re young, we receive labels. If you’re labeled “smart,” soon your teachers and your peers will recognize you this way. Eventually, without realizing it, you’ll identify yourself in this way too. I remember thinking of myself as “the smart girl” when I was young. That identity grew up alongside me, eventually creating negative effects on my college process. When applying for colleges, I did everything by the book. I worked hard to get great grades. I got an ACT score that put me on the same level as other competitive applicants. I participated in two varsity sports. I was a member of a good amount of clubs. I had a job. I spent time dedicated to service. I visited most of the colleges I applied to. I wrote a creative personal essay on a topic which I felt could stand out amongst others in a pile. In my mind, I was checking off all the boxes, forming a perfect application and hopefully an acceptance. Everything that I could control, I did.

So hearing that highly selective admissions were, in fact, out of my control was not a comfort to me, even though it could have been. I could have viewed the situation as it was: I did my part and the decision was out of my hands. Instead, I was terrified because I didn’t want to get into these schools: I needed to get in. The thought of a rejection paralyzed me but not because one of these schools was my dream school. In fact, when people asked me what my top choice was, I didn’t know. So, if I didn’t fall in love with a school, why was I so obsessed with getting in? It took four rejections, one deferral turned rejection and three empty waitlists for me to figure out the answer.

When I didn’t get into any highly selective schools, I was devastated. It didn’t matter that nine other amazing universities wanted me. I was focused on what I didn’t get. I had worked hard and I still came up short. I watched others I knew to get the news I would never get and it made me even more restless. If I loved the school that rejected me, my biggest problem would be finding another school to love. Instead, my biggest problem was my ego. I didn’t have a top-choice school because deep down, all I wanted in a school was for others to be impressed that I could get into it. When this dream was crushed, I feared telling those I knew. I was so embarrassed that when the last decision rolled in, I barely spoke to my friends for an entire week. I didn’t want to tell them that I failed. Even though they knew my intelligence and value, I felt like it had disappeared.

This is the danger of the “smart” label. Because of that label, I tied my self-worth to an admissions decision. A short, generalized email containing a “yes,” “no,” or a glorified “maybe” determined the way I thought of myself. If I had done this soul-searching a bit earlier, I might have realized that the name of these schools were more important to me than the schools themselves. In the applications process, I did nothing wrong. Things happened the way they did. I am nothing less of a person for it. Turning 30,146 applicants to 2,199 accepted students is no easy task. My rejection wasn’t personal, even though I took it that way.

The next round of highly selective admissions is about to begin for the class of 2023. But before you rising seniors begin your process, if you’re thinking highly selective, know what you’re getting into. Ask yourself if you love the name, the prestige of an acceptance, or the school itself. It’s important to do some self-reflection because the odds aren’t necessarily in your favor. If you still decide that you want to apply, know that one (probably quick) decision does not in any way define your worth. No application or essay—however detailed it may be—can ever fully capture you as a person, let alone determine your value to those around you. However, if any university picks up on your value from an application, recognize how impressive that is and recognize how impressive you are.

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