Admissions

Top Student Receives Denials: Are Need-Blind Colleges REALLY Need-Blind?

Question:

My daughter, 4.0GPA, 2360+ on SAT, 98+ percentile on subject tests, interned in some of the most prestigious organizations in the US, traveled around the world, speaks three languages, has excellent recommendations…the only down side, our CSS & FAFSA showed our income, etc. below poverty line in 2014 & 2015 (temporary downturn). She has applied to 14 Ivy leagues & brand name schools. She was rejected by one, wait-listed on two, and waiting for the remaining results. Is “need-blind” really a myth, and is she being rejected because of our financial situation?


Your daughter sounds like a very bright and accomplished young woman, and if she has crafted a wise college list, she should have plenty of good news in the week or two just ahead. But when it comes to the Ivy League colleges and their peer institutions, admission decisions can often seem like a crap shoot. Even after three decades in this crazy business, I often find myself scratching my head as I try to decipher the verdicts.

Although it is highly irresponsible of me to comment on your daughter’s situation based on the very little I know about her, “The Dean” (who has actually never been a dean of anything!) will do so anyway. So please take my thoughts with a big block of salt.

First, regarding her “stats” (GPA and test scores): Sure, they are impressive, but the Ivies and their ilk routinely turn away many candidates with near-perfect grades and test results like hers. Top numbers will get a student to the outer gates but then the admission committees ask, “What’s special?”

Next … your daughter’s achievements: I can’t tell much about her internships from your brief question. They may have been wonderful learning experiences for your daughter, and she may have even been selected for them from a highly competitive pool. But unless she actually did something significant during one or more of these stints, the mere fact that she worked as an intern may not offer much admissions clout. There is a big difference between the intern who serves as some sort of assistant to a VIP and one who creates policy for a company or government office, who designs a computer program to solve an organization’s problem, who writes a script for a television episode, etc.  And the fact that your daughter had multiple internships might not necessarily work in her favor either. One long-term commitment is often more impressive. Again, I really don’t know anything about what your daughter did at her internships or where she held them, so my remarks may be well off target.

As for her travel and language skills … these are enviable but not necessarily admissions fodder. Many college-bound teenagers these days hail from around the world and have traveled extensively. They may speak two or more languages at home and master others through study.  I’m not trying to denigrate your daughter’s experiences and abilities but only to point out that they may be less unusual than you think.

Finally, let’s talk about her name and her heritage:  Your own name sounds Indian (although, of course, I may be wrong).  “The Dean” believes that Indian applicants face discrimination in the admissions process, although only very rarely would any college official concur.  I call Asians—and, especially, Indians–“the Jews of the 21st Century.” My father, who went to high school in the 1930’s, used to tell me about the Jewish “quotas” at elite colleges. Back then, so many Jewish students were so successful in high school that the most sought-after universities could have easily filled an entire class with only Jewish applicants. Thus, instead, these colleges put ceilings on the number of Jewish students they would allow. Today, there are no hard-and-fast quotas that limit the number of Indian acceptances but, with so many strong Indian students who often pursue many of the same activities and share common goals, it can be difficult for even the best Indian applicants to stand out in a crowd.  I am not at all a fan of such discrimination, so don’t shoot the messenger for delivering bad news. But I do feel that many Indian parents don’t fully understand just how grueling the competition is for their high-performing progeny who commonly apply to the same short list of schools.

There are many other factors that will affect your daughter’s outcomes that I cannot glean from your query. The level of interest she showed to each college, the state and city she lives in, her choice of extracurriculars, her recommendations, her essays, etc. will all play a role in her admission decisions.

However, at the need-blind colleges on her list, your family finances truly will not. Exception: If your daughter isn’t a US citizen or Permanent Resident, she will be held to a much higher standard at all but a small handful of colleges.  And if any of the colleges on your daughter’s list are “need aware,” then your FAFSA and Profile figures could also affect her outcomes. (BUT … need-aware colleges typically evaluate and rate all applicants without regard to financial need. So it is only at the very end of the process … when the freshman class is being finalized … that money comes into play. Thus the strongest candidates will often stay in the class, regardless of financial need, while the borderline ones with high need might be replaced. Therefore, given her outstanding grades and test scores, even the need-aware colleges may admit your daughter based on her record and not on your finances.)

And if she wants to remain on the waitlist at any of the colleges that have placed her there, here are some suggestions on how to proceed: http://www.collegeconfidential.com/dean/tips-for-getting-off-the-yale-waitlist/   Note, however, that some colleges that are ordinarily need-blind may not be need-blind for the waitlist.  And your daughter’s chances of acceptance off a waitlist will be best at the places where she can fill some deficiency in the class. In other words, if she has indicated an interest in an under-subscribed major, if she hails from an uncommon home city or state, if she plays an unpopular instrument, etc., this could push her towards the front of the line.

With most of her college decisions still pending, I am optimistic that your daughter will have choices that she is excited about. Again, it’s not responsible of me to address the reasons why she has not received acceptances so far, but I tossed out some ideas on that anyway. I do hope that her college list has balanced her admission risk. There are many colleges –including those that take finances into account—that would welcome a student of her caliber.

Good luck with the decisions yet to come. And, indeed, luck does play a role in this confusing process.