New book gives inside look at the college admissions process—and how it favors the privileged

Journalist Jeffrey Selingo spent the entire 2018-19 academic year inside the admissions offices at Davidson College, Emory University, and the University of Washington, and interviewing admissions officers at other colleges and universities across the country for his new book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions. Selingo’s experiences and anecdotes about class-shaping, committee deliberation, and behind-the-scenes dynamics “challeng[e] the facade of…meritocracy” and offer ample evidence that the college admissions process is “rigged in favor of the privileged,” Anthony Abraham Jack, author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students, writes in a New York Times book review. 

Prioritizing early-decision applicants

Selingo, for instance, points out how early-decision applicants are given greater consideration and admitted at a higher rate than their peers who apply later in the process. Students who apply through early decision commit to attend if they’re accepted, boosting yield rates and offering colleges early budgetary visibility. 

Selingo—who is the former editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education and a special adviser and professor of practice at Arizona State University—predicts that colleges will prioritize the early-decision process even more in the coming years as they work to emerge from a pandemic that wrecked their budgets. However, an overwhelming number of families cannot afford to apply through early decision because they must compare financial aid packages with those from other schools. Giving an edge to students with the financial flexibility to apply early keeps the admissions process separate and unequal, Selingo asserts.

Shaping academic classes 

In an excerpt from the book, Selingo detailed the process of “shaping,” a final stage during the admissions process in which officers create the academic class they’d like to see by looking past grades and test scores to consider other factors, like race, gender, or financial need. (Georgetown University is one of a small number of U.S. colleges and universities committed to admitting students on a need-blind basis and meeting the full demonstrated financial need of admitted students.)  

Many students and their families aren’t even aware of the “shaping” phase of the admissions process. “Most applicants will never know how close they came to either the admit or the deny pile,” Selingo writes. “At some point, many qualified students were probably in both.”

Selingo believes that the coronavirus pandemic, however, will fundamentally change how both students and admissions teams approach the application and decision process. Noting that he completed his book before the pandemic, told The New York Times that “college admissions is never going to be the same.” 

He expects that standardized testing will not carry the same weight moving forward after this year’s testing disruptions. Students may no longer feel as much pressure to join an unnecessary number of clubs and organizations to flaunt on their applications now that admissions officers will see a round of applications from students whose activities were disrupted. Ultimately, Selingo thinks students and their families will start to take a practical approach to their college search, focusing primarily on educational offerings rather than campus amenities. 

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