East Coast College Tour: Reading Between the Lines~ Part 2
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Boston College sits atop Chestnut Hill overlooking “Beantown.” Everyone at Boston College (US News’ #31, 22.3% acceptance rate)  – from the well spoken, congenial student panel to the smartly-attired admissions officer to our tour guide – insisted upon the College’s desire to well-qualified students from diverse backgrounds. In response to a question about the perception that the school favors Catholics, the admissions officer highlighted the statistic that only 10-20% of their students come from parochial schools.

However, a quick check of their statistics reveals that 70% of students “identify as Catholic.”  (Source: http://bit.ly/1e1yY61) Perhaps the only more religiously monolithic schools in US News & World Reports’ National Top 50 are the University of Notre Dame (#16, 80% Catholic and usually annoyed that they can’t find more Catholic professors) and Yeshiva University (#48, over 90% Jewish).

[Full disclosure:  after working in and outside of colleges for nearly 20 years, I view admissions from a very jaded perspective. I believe that, while most people – even admissions professionals – are well meaning, the pressures acting upon the admissions makes the whole process and its outcomes highly suspect.

The problem is that all colleges are interested in being as selective as possible, as this connotes many advantages. US News’ own ranking methodology incorporates the “ranking model indicator” of “Student Selectivity” as 12.5% of each National University’s ranking (Source: http://bit.ly/1Ghziuz). Therefore, admissions is always in the business of attracting as many quality applicants as it possibly can, whether the school intends to admit them or not. It’s just a best industry practice, from their perspective, to attract as many applicants as possible.

This is why a school like Washington University in St. Louis doesn’t require any supplemental essays, only the Common App’s Personal Essay – not because they couldn’t read a “Why WUSTL?” or other essays – but because they receive an inflated number of applications, from nearly 30,000 students because they don’t require any writing supplements.

This is why most information sessions and tours are polite but propagandistic attempts to woo applicants, in my jaded opinion. ]

Boston University’s Charles River-side location lends an easy charm to its sprawling modern campus. Many students mentioned how impressed they were with the tour, some began to identify with it as their top choice on the basis of the warm and organized reception of the visitor center staff. This heartened me, because at times, setting one’s heart on schools with an average acceptance rate of 7.31% — the mean among the most selective seven schools on the trip, excluding BU, NYU and Boston College – can feel like an exercise in futility.

You read that correctly: the average acceptance rate for Brown (8.49%), Columbia (6.1%), Harvard (5.33%), MIT (7.9%), Penn (9.9%), Princeton (6.99%), Yale (6.49%) = 7.31%. (Sources: http://read.bi/1F5SpkZ and http://bit.ly/1M6OWtq). Three of our seven student tour guides at these schools were legacies or the children of faculty, one had an older sibling at the school, and the only Asian American tour guide was a math genius (he helps out on Wall Street for fun in his spare time) with great people skills from Arkansas…a rarity akin to finding an albino unicorn in the wild.

In response to a question from a parent, our Harvard tour guide defended her “legacy” as the daughter of a retired full professor by saying something like, “Actually, the admit rate for Harvard legacies in only 20%, so I never expected to get in.” And this is true:  a 1/5 chance is never a sure thing. Twenty percent is a recent admit rate at USC, Berkeley, and UCLA, and those schools are rarely considered a sure thing. But a fourfold advantage over practically everyone else is still a fourfold advantage.  I would wager that she was near the top 10% of her high school class, not bad on standardized tests and excellent in extracurriculars – she presumably has the genes, nurture, resources, mentorship and connections, etc. that might help to achieve this.

All of our tour guides were great, but our BU guide had the best backwards walking ability. It is, arguably, a balletic art, and despite our quick paces that morning, the guide was walking faster, beating the group across streets backwards and through the plaza where Martin Luther King Jr. famously earned a C on a term paper. Think of it this way, kids, if you come to BU, you could literally walk in Martin Luther King Jr.’s footsteps, and potentially earn better grades than he did.

Yale easily wins the award for the most tongue-in-cheek video-based information session. Before the campus tour, our group watched the beautiful, well-sung music video produced in-house by admissions staffers. Not only did the piece play on campus tour tropes like the most asked question – “So, why did you choose Yale?” – it also featured tightly-written, informative lyrics and good voices from students in situ around campus.

Even though Yale’s signature Beinecke Library was enshrouded by repairs during our visit, the campus was my own personal favorite. Harvard’s historied Cambridge campus was a Disneyland crowded with tour groups and hawkers. Brown, Columbia, Princeton and Penn are close runners up. But for me, Yale still took the cake.

MIT has a very unpretentious feel.  I think that it is still the “go-to school” for serious techies.  And, hey, it’s the only school on TTL’s East Coast 10 with its own nuclear reactor – beat that, snobby Ivy Football League!

In my opinion, MIT has long had the healthiest approach to admissions. Consider the human subtleties of the questions on their off-

Common application:

Although you may not yet know what you want to major in, which department or program at MIT appeals to you and why?

We know you lead a busy life, full of activities, many of which are required of you. Tell us about something you do simply for the pleasure of it.

MIT also has some great bloggers to help students become oriented: http://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/show_dont_tell_the_college_ess

I buttonholed the admissions dean who gave the info session in order to ask a simple question, “Why doesn’t MIT admit more students EA than regular decision?” And the answer I received in return was simple yet striking: because we have made the pledge to our applicants not to prefer candidates on the basis of timeline.

There is a lot wrapped up in this difference. For starters, the admissions officer at Boston College stated that their EA rate was the same as their regular rate because, “if you’re not willing to commit to us, why should we commit to you,” while they, in fact, admit applicants at a rate around 10% higher in the early round. The only college I can think of that actually admits at near-equivalent rates EA vs. regular is CalTech. For this reason, I had suspected that there was some deep-seated tech-school reason for such rates, but no such reason was forthcoming. Somehow, I still trust MIT’s ostensible reason for their EA rate. Maybe it’s because they offer students a “pirate license” for completing courses in pistol shooting, sailing and fencing? Maybe it’s because they have clothing and smoking optional housing and built “emergency pizza buttons” into dorms? They just strike me as honest folk.

In fact, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford abolished their early admission programs in 2006 because they feared that these programs gave unfair advantages to privileged students (Source: http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2011/02/25/early-admissions-back-at-harvard-princeton/), but later re-adopted them in order to stay competitive for the best students. Such programs are increasingly popular, and many elite schools admit 30-50% of their incoming classes ED, and even Harvard and Princeton have R/SCEA rates of 16.5% and 19.9%, respectively.   Princeton wins the prize for least rejections in the early round – they only rejected 49 students, 1.3% of early applicants in 2014 for a deferral rate of 78.9%(Source:  http://dailyprincetonian.com/opinion/2014/01/to-be-or-not-to-be-admitted/).