November-December 2020 | Parenting

Getting in

A Chevy Chase author sheds light on how decisions are made on college admissions

Author Jeffrey Selingo at home in Chevy Chase. Photo by Louis Tinsley

Author Jeffrey Selingo was in the room when an Emory University admissions officer reviewed an athletic recruit’s college application. “Look at all the B’s. I don’t love him, but the team does,” he heard the man say.

Emory is known as a highly selective university that competes in Division III sports, meaning it doesn’t offer athletic scholarships. The recruit was a mostly B and B-plus student who scored a 1490 on the SAT, which is on the average side for Emory applicants. The admissions officer admitted the student with a look of resignation. The coach wanted the athlete, so he was in.

Selingo, a former education reporter, was on a quest to unveil the college admissions process. Over the course of nine weeks in 2018 and 2019, he made a handful of visits to three universities for his third book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions (Scribner, September 2020). He takes readers through the admissions process at the University of Washington in Seattle, Davidson College in North Carolina, and Emory University in Atlanta.

Selingo, 47, is no stranger to higher education. As an undergraduate at Ithaca College, he interned at U.S. News & World Report and worked on the magazine’s college rankings in 1994. The Chevy Chase resident and father of two young daughters spent 16 years at The Chronicle of Higher Education, moving through a variety of editorial roles until his departure in 2015. Traveling the country and learning about higher education with The Chronicle sparked his desire to branch off and write books to educate consumers on the inner workings of universities and life after college.

We caught up with Selingo to find out what it’s really like in college admissions offices, and how things might change because of COVID-19.

How did your time with The Chronicle help in writing your latest book?

[It] really helped me understand this ecosystem that is college admissions and the larger ecosystem of higher education. I wanted to try to explain it to students and parents to help them become better consumers. I think too many people are worried about the academic and social fit of college, and they don’t think enough about the financial fit.

How did you choose the three schools to focus on?

To be honest, it’s the three schools that said yes to me. But why these three? I wanted to be able to show the readers what happens inside different types of colleges, both public and private. At public colleges, their goal is to make sure it serves the need of residents in state. The privates, because they’re not getting state funding, they don’t have to worry about in state vs. out of state as much. At Davidson and Emory, they were looking much more at grades and high school curriculum, not as much on test scores as I think parents think they do.

What would you say are the priorities of the college admissions offices?

College admissions is not about you, the applicant. It’s about the agenda of the college or university. In other words, they want more diversity. They have to make sure that they have more parity among men and women. They have to make sure that they’re able to fill the rosters of the sports teams. There’s this list of priorities that are needed in an institution, and those are fulfilled through the admissions office—more in-state students, more students from California, more full-pay students, more underrepresented students.

What should high schoolers’ priorities be as they navigate the admissions process?

One is finding the right fit, in terms of a college, and by the way, there’s no perfect fit in any college. I think it’s important for students and parents to think about three dimensions of it—academic, social and financial. Unfortunately, many of the students I followed had a very narrow view of what college is. They started their search by looking at the colleges they heard about through their counselor or their friends at school or their parents. I think that the best way to find the best fit in a college is to really start the process early enough so that you’re looking more widely at institutions.

What was the most surprising thing you learned?

I think most parents and students think there is a single look at their application. And they’re either put into the acceptance pile or the rejection pile. What ends up happening is a process called shaping, where students who are close to the line, either they’re on the acceptance side of the line or they’re on the denial side of the line, are looked at again. It really depends on who’s reading your application, what day they’re reading your application. When they’re later in the process, they might be tougher on applicants.

College admissions made headlines when the “Varsity Blues” scandal exposed bribery by parents to get their children into college. How do you think that has affected the admissions process?

Not much, to be honest. I think most people knew that there were these back doors people entered college in. I think colleges and universities have tightened up as a result of Varsity Blues. At the end of the day, college admissions officers are not detectives. They really have to trust what students give them because they have so many applications to get through in a short amount of time. There’s too many applications and not enough time to basically check up on everybody. On average, they spend probably less than five minutes on each applicant.

What changes do you think should be made to the college admissions process?

I think we should eliminate early decision. The reason I don’t like early decision is it moves up the admissions process well into the junior year. You have to go to this school if you get accepted and pay what you have to pay. It also privileges those students who don’t have to worry about financial aid.

How might admissions offices change because of COVID-19?

College admissions officers will be left with less information about students. They might be flying a little blind about the high school transcript because students may have had pass/fail grades. The big thing they’re really not going to have are probably test scores. What I think [college admissions officers] might do is encourage [their schools] to remain test-optional for the longer term and do away with the tests for good.