By Joshua Benton
Each spring, millions of letters arrive in the mailboxes of high school seniors. Some are thin and panic-inducing. Others are fat and party-starting. But not many students ever find out how their college applications went down the path to acceptance or denial.
To offer some insight to the thinking of college admissions officers, we created five fake high school seniors and had them “apply” to five real universities. Admissions officers at the schools, all competitive private universities, agreed to evaluate the applications as though they were real and comment on strengths and weaknesses of candidates. Ultimately, the officials were asked to “accept” or “reject” each one.
As it turned out, most of our made-up college hopefuls ended up with some decent options. One got into every school, including Yale University. One, however, will be digging deep on her backup list.
The colleges and admissions officers who cooperated in our experiment and who are quoted below: Jay Evans, director of admissions at Austin College; Ray Brown, dean of admissions at Texas Christian University; Chris Ellertson, dean of admissions and financial aid at Trinity University; Julie Browning, dean for undergraduate enrollment at Rice University; and Richard Shaw, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid at Yale.
A summary of their verdicts appears here; for more complete information – including the text of the students’ recommendations and essays they submitted – check out our education page on DallasNews.com at http://www.dallasnews.com/localnews/education/.
Sunset High School, Dallas
SAT I: 530 Math, 510 Verbal
SAT II: 590 World History, 740 Spanish Reading, 580 Literature
GPA: 3.93 (unweighted); two AP classes, four honors classes
Class rank: 6th of 238
Future plans: Undecided major; business career
Family: Mother is a hotel receptionist, father a construction foreman
Extracurriculars: Senior class president; limited roles in Key Club and drama club
Work: Worked 10-15 hours a week and on construction sites in summer
Summary: A mature, well-liked kid who works hard and gets sterling grades – only one B in four years. His disadvantaged background will also work in his favor, but will relatively low SAT scores hold him back?
Austin College: Admit. “I’d be more concerned about the test scores if he were pre-med or something similar. … I wished he’d gotten involved in extracurriculars earlier on in high school. … He could be like a Pied Piper for Sunset: If he comes here, other students from the school may follow him.”
Rice: Wait list. “He is Mr. Potential, a diamond in the rough. Every admissions officer loves those…. His test scores are a little disconcerting … it’s a high school we rarely see applications from at Rice.”
TCU: Admit. “If Spanish is spoken at home, I see the high Spanish Reading score as more reflective of his abilities than his low boards. … I thought his essay was terrific – it ends up someplace other than where you expect. … I like that the recommendations and interviewer talk about his maturity. That’s increasingly rare to see, particularly with boys.”
Trinity: Deny. “He’s obviously got good academic performance … we wouldn’t want to penalize him too much for the extracurriculars because he had to work. … The test score would hurt him … with those scores, you’d want to really see rigorous course preparation, and it seems that he didn’t take the most difficult load he could.”
Yale: Deny. “Jacob has done well coming from a tough living environment. … His rank is strong, but we consider in our context rigor to be second tier. … His essay may suggest that he is still working on self-esteem. … His motivation for school is more practical and less intellectual.”
The Hockaday School, Dallas
SAT I: 800 Math, 730 Verbal
SAT II: 790 Physics, 750 Chemistry, 700 Literature
GPA: 3.94 (unweighted), five AP and five honors classes
Rank: 2nd of 71
Future plans: Physics major, physicist career
Family: Mother is a secretary
Extracurriculars: President of the science club, assistant editor of the school newspaper
Work: Tutoring, two-three hours a week
Summary: She’s got great test scores, great grades, and comes from a disadvantaged background. Her recommendations are full of praise. But she’s a bit shy, and she flubbed the interview.
Austin College: Admit. “Being the first generation to go to college is meaningful. … I felt her essay was a little long – it could have been condensed. … She has the stick-to-it-iveness the other applicants lacked. … I felt she was very realistic in her goals. She wants to be a physicist, and her academic background supports that she can do that. …Women in science are certainly in demand.”
Rice: Admit. “Knowing her school, she’s been an academically competitive environment and thrived in it. … The fact she’s African-American with these test scores and these goals leaves her in a very small group of students in the country. … We wish she had stronger interpersonal skills, but her academic strengths trump that.”
TCU: Admit. “I’m going to shower Emily with gifts – I love this girl. … Life has stacked a huge deck against her, and she’s entering an unbelievably male-dominated field. … She could have more leadership. … The interview doesn’t look great, but she’s articulate when it comes to what she’s passionate about.”
Trinity: Admit. “Emily is a gem … she’s got everything. Obviously she brings diversity. She’s a superb student. … She’s got an appealing story: the single mother fighting for her daughter to get into a place like Hockaday. … Her interview seemed painful. It wouldn’t prevent her from being accepted, but it didn’t look as though either party enjoyed it.”
Yale: Admit. “Immediate plus as a woman in physics, with the grades and tests to back it up. … Her academic profile is absolutely in range with our expectations and course and rigor are tops. … We feel some assurance that she knows exactly who she is, and frankly may well grow a great deal when given the opportunity to be in a very diverse college student body.”
Highland Park High School, Highland Park
SAT I: 630 Math, 630 Verbal
SAT II: 590 World History, 670 French Reading, 600 Literature
GPA: 3.13 (unweighted), no honors or AP classes
Rank: 181st of 396
Future plans: Pre-med or pre-law
Family: Mother is an attorney, father a corporate vice president
Extracurriculars: Dabbled in a few activities (French club, JV volleyball) and was homecoming queen, but nothing showing commitment
Summary: Jennie’s popular, and she has solid SATs. But how will her privileged background and lackluster academic and extracurricular performance fare?
Austin College: Deny. “She didn’t stick with anything for very long. … Her curriculum bothers me. Her extracurriculars bother me … no AP or honors – that’s just shooting yourself in the foot for selective schools. … She took the easy way out in high school. I got the impression she’s a bit of a bubblehead.”
Rice: Deny. “The SAT scores indicate she simply isn’t acting on the potential she has. … I bet she had access to SAT test preparation. … She does seem likeable and popular, but that’s not enough … at a high school with academic resources like hers, you really need to take advantage of them to be a strong candidate here.”
TCU: Deny. “Jennie is the most privileged of the bunch, and that means the expectations for her are the highest. … Her parents will cry foul, but the reality is you have to evaluate her within the context of other applicants with fewer privileges. … Her personal statement had problems.”
Trinity: Deny. “From Highland Park, it’s inexcusable not to take more demanding courses. … Her test score would be competitive. … She does have potential, but she’s coasted on it … a school’s going to have to take a risk on her. She may come on in college and be a fine student. Or she may just continue like this for four years and the rest of her life, coasting.”
Yale: Deny. “There is no rigor in the curriculum … no intellectual fire, coasting. … It seems that she lives in shadow of a powerfully memorable brother. … Her essay is enjoyable to read but I wonder whether it is her work, given the testimony of the English teacher in a recommendation… she is very social and less engaged intellectually.”
MacArthur High School, Irving
SAT I: 590 Math, 540 Verbal
SAT II: 590 Physics, 720 Chinese Reading, 600 Literature
GPA: 3.37 (unweighted), no honors or AP classes.
Rank: 139th of 456
Future plans: Political science major; professional soccer or law career
Family: Mother is a bank teller, father an engineer
Extracurriculars: Four years of varsity soccer, including team captain and second-team all-state as a senior; active in Campus Crusade for Christ
Summary: He’s a borderline Division I soccer talent, but his grades have come in an unchallenging curriculum. His recommendations focus on his generosity and kindness, not his academic skills.
Austin College: Wait list. “He’s in the middle range of a lot of the students we see. We see a lot of students who score where he scores and ranks where he ranks. … His soccer skills wouldn’t help him get in, but it does help him that he had some leadership there. … His essay is obviously emotional for the writer, but not all readers will see it the same way.”
Rice: Deny. “His curriculum choices are very disappointing, given the opportunities for AP or honors work at his school. … His recommendations talked about him as a person, his focus on helping others, that he’s a good citizen. But they weren’t praising his intellectual potential or ambition.”
TCU: Admit. “I love that he speaks Chinese at home. Robert’s going to take kids home for spring break, and he’s going to introduce those kids to a lot of different cultural experiences. … We just eliminated our soccer team so that’s not an issue. … I give him a lot of credit for having the guts to write an essay that’ll have some admissions people rolling their eyes and saying, ‘Here’s a Bible thumper.'”
Trinity: Deny. “No APs or honors, that’s what did him in … in course rigor, in SAT scores, in GPA, he’d be in the bottom quartile of our applicant pool. … He does show some potential in the writing sample, very descriptive and vivid … I like that he’s involved in just a couple activities, but he’s dedicated and a leader in both.”
Yale: Deny. “Ouch … rank and test scores would screen him out in the Yale pool even if he were a recruited soccer player. … The extracurricular profile is all soccer joined by an almost overzealous testimony about his friend’s religious conversion. … The difficulty with the essay is that we really do not know a lot more about him.”
Plano Senior High School, Plano
SAT I: 580 Math, 690 Verbal
SAT II: 640 U.S. History, 700 Spanish Reading, 680 Literature
GPA: 3.21 (unweighted), one AP class, two honors classes
Rank: 198th of 797
Future plans: Music major; professional oboist
Family: Father is a surgeon; mother is a concert violinist
Extracurriculars: lots of music, including first-chair oboe in All-State Orchestra all four years of high school
Work: A summer job at TCBY
Summary: Middling grades (even a couple C-pluses), but she’s the best oboe player Texas has seen in years. Recommendations rave about her skill. Will her pretty-good SATs be enough?
Austin College: Admit. “I’m worried about her math – we may admit her on the condition that she do some summer work at a community college. … She’s not well rounded at all, and I would have wanted her to take a more rigorous curriculum … for many selective schools, it may come down to: Is this a good year for attracting oboists to campus?”
Rice: Deny. “Our music program is extremely competitive, and we don’t see evidence that she’s truly national caliber. … We might only have space for one oboist in a freshman class … if she auditioned for us and really was amazing, she might be an admit, but her academic record isn’t strong enough.”
TCU: Admit. “Some other schools wouldn’t take her, but music is huge here at TCU. … Is she too narrow? Perhaps, but if you get a lot of people on a campus who are that focused on something, you get an interesting group. … Very clearly, she’s an academic slacker … but the music gives evidence she has a terrific work ethic there.”
Trinity: Admit. “Her academic record is adequate at best … coming from Plano, she’s got the resources to take a more challenging course load, but she hasn’t … but the musical talent would be enough that we’d probably admit her. … She could do the work academically … some of these students, you have trouble finding out what they’re passionate about – you know what Kristie’s passionate about.”
Yale: Deny. “Quite one dimensional but to a high level. … Taking a particular strength and pursuing it to a high level is positive, but we see in her application that she does it to the exclusion of other engagement in and outside the classroom. … The interview concludes she doesn’t seem excited about her subjects – not a good testimony for a candidate applying to a liberal arts college … a conservatory might be the best bet.”
Austin College, Sherman
% of applicants accepted: 72
SAT I score for middle 50% of students accepted: 1160-1320
Rice University, Houston
% of applicants accepted: 23
SAT I score for middle 50% of students accepted: 1330-1490
Texas Christian University, Fort Worth
% of applicants accepted: 64
SAT I score for middle 50% of students accepted: 1050-1290
Trinity University, San Antonio
% of applicants accepted: 64
SAT I score for middle 50% of students accepted: 1220-1390
Yale University, New Haven, Conn.
% of applicants accepted: 11.4
SAT I score for middle 50% of students accepted: 1400-1580