College Admission: Things That Make You Go Hmmm…

I was a junior in high school in 1991 when the dance group C+C Music Factory released their hit, “Things That Make You Go Hmmm….” Their timely lyrics resonated with me.

Over thirty years later, as a school counselor, I help young people identify these good matches (with colleges, not classmates) and there are a lot of things that make me go “hmmm?” With every new year, the landscape of college admission and application outcomes increasingly perplex me. And, I’m certainly not the only one – the students and families with whom I work, my counseling colleagues, and the general public are trying to make sense of admission decisions. It is important to acknowledge that at the majority of higher education institutions in this country–those that accept many more students than they deny–the chief priority is to simply fill their class. These decisions are much more predictable. The chatter about admission, however, tends to center on a handful of the most selective schools in the nation where uncertainty abounds. 

Application trends

Many of these selective colleges continue to see a multiple-year trend of increasing application numbers, often with percentages in the double digits, that far outpace any growth in the number of applicants. There are many contributing factors to these increases, including the technology-enabled ease of application submission, the test-optional movement, free and simplified applications, and college marketing efforts. Some of this, fortunately, improves access and equity in admission, reaching students who have historically been kept out. Other growth is due to the uncertainty-fueled “shotgun approach” that students take toward building college lists. This has the unintended consequence of creating more hysteria around what ought to be an intentional process of discernment. 

Gary Ross is vice president for admission and financial aid at Colgate University, one of the schools that have seen staggering growth in application numbers. He explains, “One of the unforeseen outcomes of the pandemic was our ability to connect with even more students than in the past because of the expansion of new virtual visits and informational options.” He adds, “compelling programs not only became strong recruitment messages but also enabled colleges to expand their reach far beyond traditional high-school visits.” 

Gary Clark is the director of admission at the University of California Los Angeles, another school that has experienced notable changes in both the volume of applications and the makeup of their applicant pool. He says, “At my campus, we’re seeing significant increases among our strongest applicants. The increasing number of applications combined with the move away from standardized testing has led to declining admit rates and increasing uncertainty around admission outcomes.” He adds, “I think this reiterates the value of having a strong list of colleges as a prospective student.” Clark also emphasizes that ”selectivity is not a proxy for quality, especially in a time when applications are increasing at incredible rates at some of the most selective schools. Exceptional colleges and universities come in all shapes, sizes, and admit rates.”

Navigating the road to admission

As the landscape changes in admission, some high school seniors wonder how they were denied admission at their local university, which two years ago would have been a “sure thing.” Parents ask how Northeastern University has a lower early acceptance rate than Harvard University. Meanwhile, colleges use enrollment tactics that are not always student-centered. Once example is the practice of deferring students’ early applications and then to be a competitive candidate encouraging them to convert to a binding Early Decision plan, only to deny the student admission in the end.

While these developments can be frustrating, the longer I’ve been in this field the more I have realized that admission outcomes are unpredictable and based on factors well beyond my pay grade. In some ways, the answer to my bewilderment is easy: “it’s the economy, stupid.” Pure and simple, colleges and universities are businesses and must operate as such to remain solvent. Schools have institutional priorities that dictate admission decisions. These priorities are not always apparent to those of us outside the rooms where decisions are made. Using a driving metaphor, Jacob Navarrete, the associate head of upper school and college counselor at Alcuin School in Texas, says “it’s always rough when you’re stuck in traffic that makes no sense. We feel we have an understanding based on the data available to us, but we lack a full picture.” In admission, he points out that “We know our little portion, how strong we think one individual student happens to be. But that’s it. The end result can seem illogical when evaluated through a narrow aperture, but if you could see every applicant, it may make more sense.” Navarrete explains that “advising isn’t about chances of getting in, it’s about exploring who the student is and then finding a variety of schools that fit who they are.” Asked to unpack the idea of “fit”, he explains that it is about “values, perspective, programming, and opportunities,” adding, “selectivity just determines how many schools are on the list.” 

Dana Lambert, a school counselor at West Milford Township High School in New Jersey, says It’s numbers, not magic. No one is guaranteed admission.” She explains, “I have students who are surprised that other kids–who they don’t see as equally qualified–get in and don’t know why. But when questioned, those students who were deferred or denied showed little to no interest in said college. They didn’t always respond to emails and didn’t visit or attend virtual events.” She adds, “colleges are more eager to have students that want to be there than those who saw them as ‘safeties.’” Lambert points out that the profiles that colleges publish are a snapshot of students who have been admitted in the past. She says, “just because a student fits the profile doesn’t mean they get admitted–it never has. A college has X amount of slots and often way more qualified applicants than they can accommodate. It’s like anything else–a hotel or concert–I may have the money and time and be the biggest fan but if there are 100 seats and 10,000 people that want them–some won’t be able to go.” She says, “handling rejection and readjusting one’s sails is part of life. It’s a skill we model for our kids every day. I have to trust–and model that for my students–that the professionals, my colleagues making that decision, did so with reason to craft the best class for their institution. I may not understand it. I may not agree with it, but I have to respect it and accept it.” 

Ultimately Lambert argues that “finding the college that will help one be successful isn’t a matter of gaining admission to X school, it’s a matter of going somewhere that can take you down the path to your goals and working hard when you get there.” She adds, “admission is a door to a path and there is more than one door and more than one path. Getting an acceptance isn’t the ultimate goal and denial (or waitlist or deferral) isn’t the ending.” 

Managing an evolving landscape

Andy Borst, the director of undergraduate admission at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, describes some of the challenges facing enrollment management leaders. He says, “admission directors at a small portion of universities are trying to shape their class to be large enough to meet revenue expectations, but not too big as to exceed campus resources and space. Our projection models rely on past behavior to estimate how many students will accept our offer of admission.” He adds, “right now, projection models have a large amount of variance. In 2020, the pandemic suppressed yield rates (the number of students who enroll at an institution where they were offered admission) to be below what we projected. As we returned to more in-person classes in 2021, yield rates rebounded to well above what we projected.” 

Evidently, students and those who support them, are not the only ones feeling perplexed. Borst offers this prediction for this spring: “I think students and parents can expect some universities to try to ease into their enrollment targets by relying more heavily on a waitlist, compared to the past two years.” He also acknowledges that “unknowns cause anxiety for both students and institutions,” adding, “we are all balancing competing priorities and trying to make the best decision possible with imperfect information.”

Shereem Herndon-Brown is the founder and chief education officer of Strategic Admissions Advice and a co-author of the forthcoming book, The Black Family’s Guide to College Admissions: A Conversation about Education, Parenting, and Race. He agrees that college admission remains unpredictable and says, “as schools aspire to be more selective–to become more popular and encourage more applications–school counselors and consultants like myself are re-evaluating how we counsel. We’re having to be ultra-conservative and almost expectant of Early Decision and Early Action deferrals.” He emphasizes the importance of using data to inform counseling, saying, “thankfully each school’s common data set and companies like College Kickstart help to collate pertinent information. This helps tremendously but each year there is some variance that is frustrating.” 

When asked what kinds of information would be helpful for counselors and families to contextualize admission outcomes, Herndon-Brown says they should consider “Where most of the colleges applicants are coming from geographically? Is there a common major that’s being indicated by applicants and would the college prefer more diversity in students’ academic interests? Are there new programs or initiatives that the college is employing?” Ultimately he acknowledges that, “trends come and go,” but says, “communication can be and should be constant.” He adds, “My hope is that colleges will not allow the residual effects of the pandemic or rankings to make them fluctuate or compromise their mission and vision as much as I have seen recently.” 

Show me the love

While many of the lyrics in C+C Music Factory‘s song are not appropriate for this forum, the artists do talk about one’s faithfulness being tested. This is the dance that college admission leaders are engaged in with applicants. While students want to be shown some love in the form of acceptance, colleges also want to feel the love. At the end of the day, the yield that Illinois’ Borst identified rules the realm. Many of the policies and practices that colleges employ in their enrollment management are aimed at testing the faithfulness of those who are applying. Is a student’s application merely one of a slew that they submitted haphazardly, or do they have serious interest in, and excitement for, that college? With growing application numbers, admission leaders are using deferrals and waitlists to manage this dance and protect their yield – and the perceived selectivity that their boards and alumni demand. This is the reality of admitting a class in a competitive environment.

This does not change the care with which applicants are reviewed, but it does impact outcomes. Jonathan Williams is the assistant vice president for undergraduate admission at New York University. He says, “If I could convince applicants and their families of one thing, it is that we are working hard to make sure their applications are being assessed with the utmost care.” He adds, “I think most families want reassurance that they are getting a fair shot. I consider it a privilege that students share so much of themselves with us. Especially now, in the midst of all that students are going through. Unfortunately, we have limited space and capacity which means that every year we have to make unfavorable decisions for many qualified applicants. And that is really difficult.” He reminds applicants and their supporters that, “despite the disappointment, these students will have great options because of the talent that they present when they apply to us.”

Candice Mackey, a college counselor at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies magnet school, reinforces all of these messages. She says, “With admission, there are two things you cannot underestimate: the changing landscape and the applicant pool. When the love from colleges seems unpredictable, and perhaps, not so much in the air, being transparent, reflecting, and empowering students are some of the ways that I counsel students and families about their college decisions with planning for their now, and their future.” She tells students, “Who you are becoming is more important than the outcome of your college decision(s). Appreciate the process and the results. With every rejection is a redirection. As the saying goes, no one is you—and that’s your power.” Today, there is as much (or more than) there was in 1991 that makes me go “hmmm?” in college admission. What I do know is that Mackey speaks the truth, and redirection can be empowering.


The co-author of “The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together,” Brennan Barnard is the director of college counseling at Khan Lab High School in Mountain View, CA and dean of college counseling and outreach at The Derryfield School in Manchester, NH, an independent college preparatory school. Brennan is also the college admission program advisor for Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. and has written about college admission for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, HuffPost, Concord Monitor and Journal of College Admission. A practicing Quaker, I am the father of two and live in Hopkinton, New Hampshire where I am a volunteer firefighter.

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