How They Really Get In

Most elite colleges and universities describe their admissions policies as "holistic," suggesting that they look at the totality of an applicant — grades, test scores, essays, recommendations, activities and so forth.

But a new survey of admissions officials at the 75 most competitive colleges and universities (defined as those with the lowest admit rates) finds that there are distinct patterns, typically not known by applicants, that differentiate some holistic colleges from others. Most colleges focus entirely on academic qualifications first, and then consider other factors. But a minority of institutions focuses first on issues of "fit" between a college's needs and an applicant's needs.

This approach — most common among liberal arts colleges and some of the most competitive private universities — results in a focus on non-academic qualities of applicants, and tends to favor those who are members of minority groups underrepresented on campus and those who can afford to pay all costs of attending.

The research is by Rachel B. Rubin, a doctoral student in education at Harvard University. Her findings will be presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, which starts later this week.

Many studies of admissions decisions ask colleges and universities what qualities they value (almost always, grades in college preparatory courses rank first), and which they value the most. For colleges that admit large percentages of their students, or colleges that have precise formulas (promising admission to those with certain grades or test scores or class ranks), these questions reveal a great deal. But Rubin's focus is on the elite colleges that admit small percentages of their applicants and that generally say the vast majority of applicants are capable of succeeding academically.

So in a survey (answered by 63 of the 75 most competitive colleges, mostly private, with just a few public flagships) and in follow-up interviews, she focused on the winnowing process: How do colleges decide who gets further consideration for the coveted slots and who doesn't? To encourage frank answers, colleges were given anonymity.

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