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Elite Admissions: Who Gets Accepted?

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Elite Admissions: Who Gets Accepted?

David Shin

It's no secret that elite college admissions is hardly fair — affirmative action and need-aware policies level or uneven the playing field, depending on how you see it. There's plenty of resentment concerning who gets in and who doesn't, especially when the seemingly perfect applicant gets rejected at their top choices. And then those who "game" the system: the wealthy who buy their way in, the athletic who play their way in, and the family who are simply borne in.

But who actually takes the seats at America's top colleges?


1. The Legacies

- Let's start with the obvious: legacies. As well as the obvious reason: to increase donations. There's little to say about this, other than that those who are in power want to stay in power. What better way to exert social dominance than through educational pedigree? Social commentary aside, legacy applicants are two to five times as likely to be admitted to elite institutions. In 2014, 33% and 30% of legacies were admitted at Princeton and Harvard, respectively. To say the least, this could be frustrating for applicants to schools with single-digit acceptance rates. To make matters worse, legacies do end up making up a significant part of incoming classes at top schools: 10 to 30 percent. Oh, and one more thing - Harvard's Z-list.

2. The Athletes

- Still well-known is the yearly recruitment of athletes by elite colleges. These varsity athletes tend to make up 20 to 35 percent of incoming classes. but where do athletes skew the acceptance rates the most? Liberal arts colleges. At Amherst College, 1 in 3 students is a varsity athlete, which means that their sport played a major role in their acceptance. At colleges with student populations that typically dip below two thousand, how else can LAC's offer sports like their university counterparts? Varsity athletics precludes those who still participate in club or intramural athletics. At Amherst and Harvard, 80 percent of students participate in some form of athletics. And I'm not talking about casual gym sessions or runs in the park. This inevitably shuts out those who are less athletically inclined, though schools have differing cultures concerning athletics. Some make it mandatory(MIT), and some tend to de-emphasize it(Caltech).

3. The Internationals

- Coming down to less obvious components of each class, elite colleges seek to make non-U.S citizens 10 to 20 percent of each incoming class. It's actually a statistic that schools like NYU and USC boast about, since recruiting students from abroad is a clear indicator of that buzzword "diversity". If you're a US citizen, you should acknowledge that there are spots reserved for international students, but unlike the first two groups, their position isn't exactly enviable. International applicants face an elite admissions process that is notoriously selective compared to domestic applicants. To add insult to injury, all but seven colleges are need-aware for these applicants when they would otherwise be need-blind. If you want to envy people, envy the...

4. The Feeder Schoolers

- Let's take a look at Harvard's Class of 2017: six percent of the class comes from just ten schools. Ten schools out of tens of thousands. Okay, fine. But what about the other ninety-four percent? The next twenty-four percent of the class hails from the next tenth of high schools. That's 32% of the Class of 2017 coming from just 11% of America's high schools (Source). Some are private, like Phillips Exeter, and some are public, like Stuyvesant and Boston Latin. But the elitism is all the same. Mark Zuckerberg? Went to Phillips Exeter. Bill Gates? Went to Lakeside High School (a top-ranked private school in Seattle). Elite schools form relationships with these schools such that pipelines form. It's less "rags to riches" and more "riches to more riches". In the end, attending a no-name public school could hurt you, especially if it's developed a reputation for unqualified applicants or under-prepared students.

5. The Rarities?

- So you're from California? Good luck competing with the thousands of other applicants from your home state. It doesn't seem like it should matter, but when schools whisper "diversity" every two seconds, you'd start to think they have some sort of psychotic fixation on the word. This includes anything from location to hobbies to race. Why? Because it sounds better to say that your college has students "hailing from all 50 states, including D.C and Puerto Rico". So if you're the only student applying from North Dakota a certain year, you bet that admissions officers are looking for some way to admit you. New York? Not so much. It's like playing the piano when the college really needs a trombonist in its jazz band. Everyone and their mother plays piano, but many would have to rack their brains for an acquaintance or friend who could play trombone. Dance groups and newpapers don't maintain themselves.

Like varsity sports teams, college admissions officers look to admit people with diverse hobbies and experiences such that on-campus interest groups remain alive and well. The good news? The proportion of rarities that top colleges maintain is 100 percent! Yes, every single person, no matter how vanilla boring they may seem, shape the dynamic at top schools. This is especially true at every top school (and less so at large public schools like Berkeley).


All in all, there are a few overlaps: international athletes and legacy feeder schoolers exist. The aforementioned groups are over-represented on today's college campus, involving discrimination that goes much deeper than race. The point is, the admissions process is more of an indicator of your worth to particular colleges than your actual worth as a person. You probably know this by now, but the admissions process unfair despite its claims. All we can do is acknowledge that.