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Why the Ivy League rejected your school’s valedictorian

Mar 21, 2022

“After careful consideration of your application, I am sorry to inform you…” Each year these are the dreaded words hundreds of thousands of applicants read as they’re rejected from top schools across the country. High-achieving students around the world often feel as though their efforts to chase excellence were all for nothing. However, there are five logical explanations as to why these top students are not getting into top schools.

1. Dispelling the myth of merit-based admissions

First, it’s important to dispel the myth that elite school admissions are entirely merit-based. It has been long-documented that a large proportion of students admitted to Ivy League schools were admitted based on factors outside of their academic or extracurricular achievements. A 2019 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that 43% of white students admitted to Harvard were recruited athletes, legacy students, children of faculty and staff, or had relatives who donated to the school. For black, Latino, and Asian American students, less than 16% of applicants admitted from each group came from the aforementioned categories. These findings prove that a large proportion of each incoming class to top schools is made up of students whose achievements alone were not the deciding factor in their acceptance.

2. The difference between acceptance rate and “qualified applicant” acceptance rate

When Harvard sends out tens of thousands of rejection letters a year, it’s safe to assume that many “qualified” applicants are among the rejected, many of whom would have seen a “five-fold increase in the chance of admission if they were a legacy,” according to an article by NBC News. This means that it is standard practice for top schools to reject top applicants by the thousands in favor of applicants who have certain favorable connections to the school.

All this is to say that top students should understand that a rejection letter from their dream school does not necessarily mean that they were not competitive enough. Although the number of applicants admitted purely based on merit is smaller than one may assume, high-achieving students still stand a solid shot of being admitted to top schools. What makes a “top” student, however, is a lot more complicated than many students may think.

3. The tunnel vision tragedy

Oftentimes, high-achieving students are laser focused on excellence alone. They work hard to be the “best of the best” by scoring perfectly on standardized exams and receiving straight A’s in all of their classes. They fight for leadership positions wherever they can, and pack their resume with a hodgepodge of “well-rounded” activities, all in an effort to prove that they are a standout student across the board. While this strategy may have worked for Ivy League applicants in the 90’s, this is no longer an effective method of standing out to top schools.

Students who focus on excellence alone cause their applications to suffer from shortsightedness. These supposedly top students demonstrate a tunnel-visioned focus on numbers and leadership while neglecting their own personal development and intellectual interests. The lack of development in these areas boils down to applications that, although seemingly “high-achieving,” suffer from a lack of authenticity and genuine intellectual exploration.

4. Prioritizing passion

Having worked in the college consulting industry for nearly 7 years now, I have had many anxious clients come to me with stories of a “top” student they knew who was rejected by all of their dream schools. Take Nicholas and his younger sister Maya, for example, whose family approached us after their salutatorian son was rejected from nearly every school he applied to.

Nicholas attended a top private high school in NYC, and by all accounts, seemed to be everyone’s pick to end up in an Ivy League institution. He had a 4.2 GPA, a perfect 36 on his ACT and nearly all of his activities showcased leadership positions in a variety of activities, from Editor of his school paper to student body president to founder of about three different clubs. Nicholas’ confidence in his profile led him to apply almost exclusively to top 15 schools, with his sole “safety” school being a state university in upstate New York. Nicholas and his family were thus shocked when his only acceptance letter came from the latter.

At Command Education, we were not shocked at Nicholas’ results. While his profile clearly demonstrated he was an academically excellent student, his lack of direction led to an application that seemed inauthentic. His diverse resume did not showcase any real intellectual curiosity — it was hard to tell what Nicholas was really passionate about. What made Nicholas genuinely excited about learning? What ideas or current issues was he passionate about? What impact did he hope to make on the world in college and beyond? None of these questions were answered by the assortment of leadership positions he had collected on his resume.

5. Student body > individual applicant

At the end of the day, this was likely the main reason why Nicholas’ application did not stand out. When evaluating applications based on merit, colleges attempt to picture exactly what role that student might play on their campus. They carefully craft their incoming classes to ensure that students are occupying specific but diverse niches on campus, in order to end up with a well-rounded and dynamic student body. Although they want their classes as a whole to be well-rounded, they are not looking for “well-rounded” applicants. Rather, they are looking for academically excellent students who each have their own specific interests.

So what should you do?

Hoping to avoid the same fate as her older brother, Maya began working with us in her sophomore year. We got to work on developing her niche interests, and it quickly became clear that Maya, who hoped to be a doctor one day, was also passionate about philosophy. While she pursued her interest in medicine via clinical internships and hospital volunteering, she developed her passion for philosophy by starting a podcast, She recruited a friend to be a co-host, and together, they debated niche philosophy topics with guest speakers. To secure the guest speakers, Maya got to work reaching out to experts in the field, including professors and authors, to help legitimize her podcast.

The end result was an engaging and funny podcast series which ultimately racked up hundreds of weekly listeners after Maya’s marketing efforts. Most importantly, Maya loved working on the podcast, and it was her passion for it that drove its success. In addition to the podcast, Maya founded her school’s Philosophy Debate Club and secured a bioethics research opportunity which showcased the intersection of her interests in medicine and philosophy. Although she wasn’t salutatorian like her brother, she worked hard to achieve her 4.0 GPA and 1560 SAT score. By the end of her senior year, Maya had matriculated at Brown University, her dream school.

The key differences between Nicholas’ and Maya’s applications were ultimately what resulted in their results. Maya’s application showed a clear direction, and it would not have been difficult for admissions officers to guess what role Maya would have played on their campus. Her unique but specific passions proved that she was not solely focused on being the best of the best. Rather, her passions were the motivating factor behind her success.

The current college admissions game is certainly not entirely merit-based, and students should keep this in mind when formulating their college lists. However, there is ample opportunity for students to land a spot at top schools, so long as they authentically navigate the process through their own genuine interests. Doing so vastly increases the chances of receiving an acceptance letter from their dream school.