Bad College News So Far: How Can I Improve My Outcomes?

Jorge Fernandez Salas

I am in a bad and unexpected situation. I was rejected from my top choice (Stanford) and got deferred at my safeties (Wisconsin and Michigan). I also applied to Georgia Tech, UNC and Caltech for Computer Science but have not heard from them yet. I got a 1600 SAT. I also have taken 14 AP classes and got a B in just three classes through all of HS, the rest were A's. I know my race (Chinese-American) may have been working against me, but at my high school in Maine I am one of very few Asians. I'm ranked 28th in my class of about 800 kids. I am now getting ready to submit to Princeton, Northwestern, Harvard and Yale but I'm trying to figure out what I might need to do differently to make these outcomes better than the first three. Can you help?

It's impossible for "The Dean" to say where you went wrong without seeing your entire application. But the odds are good that the answer is, "Nowhere." The most sought-after schools like Stanford turn down far more qualified applicants than they have room to take. Indeed, I remember a Harvard admissions dean once conceding that he could cull an entire freshman class out of the "Reject" pile that would be every bit as strong as the class that was accepted. Thus, it's common that applicants to these rarefied places do everything "right" and are denied nonetheless.

As for your deferrals at Michigan and Wisconsin, they make you part of a growing trend. Selective schools like these have become popular as "Safeties" for top students like you who are actually hoping for good news from colleges that are even more selective. So in recent years (and, especially in this year), candidates with grades and test scores that are above the median ranges have received unexpected deferrals in the early round in favor of candidates who may have more modest stats but appear to be likely to enroll.

However, from the little you've told me here, I suspect you may be over-reaching. Three B's and 14 AP classes is impressive, but at the Ivies you'll be up against countless "competitor" candidates with no grade below A and who are ranked number one or two in senior classes as large as yours. Although you may be in the running at all of your target colleges, the list is top-heavy with institutions that boast of single-digit acceptance rates. Likewise, acceptance rates at Georgia Tech, Chapel Hill and Michigan are barely above 20 percent, and these public institutions must give priority to in-state residents.

So, with little time remaining before deadlines, you would be wise to add a couple more realistic and safe options to the roster. You may want to focus on places that aren't too far from home (Northeastern University? Boston University? Worcester Polytech? University of New Hampshire?) so that you can visit campuses, albeit belatedly, and demonstrate interest. Farther afield, there are universities such as Purdue, Penn State and U. of Washington with median GPA and score ranges below yours that are well known for excellent engineering programs. An Early Decision II application to Case Western Reserve or Lehigh or one of the aforementioned schools ... Northeastern, BU or WPI ... could be close to a sure thing if you're willing to make a binding commitment. But I wouldn't encourage that route unless you've already had a chance to consider and — ideally — tour these campuses.

As a Chinese-American student in Maine, you may be a minority, but you certainly aren't a minority in the applicant pools at all of the places you're applying. When elite-college admission officials evaluate applications, they expect to see tip-top grades and test scores. Then, next, they say "What's special?" So you have to ask yourself what's "special" about you. Are any of your activities and accomplishments unique? At Stanford and the Ivies, typical high school achievements (student government or class offices, club presidencies, etc.) won't move the needle. You'll be up against published novelists and prolific inventors. And if many of your extracurricular endeavors are viewed as stereotypically Asian (classical music, math or science teams, chess, etc.) this could work against you, too.

If you do have interests and hobbies that are unusual, are they sufficiently highlighted in your applications? Many students believe that admission committees don't care about undertakings that aren't tied to an official school club or community organization. But, in fact, it may be the poems you write in your bedroom at night or the endless hours you've spent reading to your grandmother that will catch an admission official's eye, far more so that the time you've put in with the tennis team or the Key Club. So, before hitting any more "Submit" buttons, review your applications to see if they've shown the sides of you that will most help you stand out in a crowd.

"The Dean" does understand and empathize with your frustration. It sounds like you've had an outstanding high school career, and it seems as if every college in the country should be clamoring for students like you. But over the past decade or more, the number of amazing applicants vying for spots at a too-short list of celebrated schools means that applying to an elite college has become a bit like buying a lottery ticket. That is, you can hope to come out a winner but you'd better be making other plans as you do.

Good luck to you, and try to rest assured that this process does often end in a "meant to be" kind of way, even if it doesn't feel like it right now.


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