An Inside Look at College Admissions

By Barbara Adams, February 2, 2021
Jeff Selingo ’95 provides an in-depth analysis of the admissions process and advice to college applicants.

As an Ithaca College journalism undergrad, Jeff Selingo ’95 interned at U.S. News & World Report. When his former mentor there died in 2007, he inherited a box of the magazine’s famous college rankings. Studying them, he was astonished at the higher acceptance rates at "elite" schools in previous decades.

“Now top colleges are even harder to get into and they’re inundated with applications,” Selingo says. “I wanted to look at the phenomenon of college admissions, which has changed in the last generation. It’s a $10 billion industry — in giving a window into it, I needed the perspective of many different players.”

"Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions," named one of 100 notable books of 2020 by The New York Times, is his third book on higher education in the U.S. In it Selingo, a former Chronicle of Higher Education editor, explores the black box of the admissions process — how students are selected, waitlisted, or denied.

professional headshot of Jeff Selingo

Jeff Selingo '95

For nearly two years, Selingo was embedded in admissions offices at three institutions: Emory, a major private university in Atlanta; Dickinson, a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania; and the public flagship University of Washington, in Seattle. What he discovered was a complicated, imprecise, fluctuating system. His clearly written, statistically rich analysis includes the perspective of several representative student applicants. It also considers the historical and current effects of the high school counseling process, early decision, legacies and athletes, and most recently, test-optional applications.

To explain the admissions context, Selingo defines institutions as either “buyers” or “sellers.” “Sellers” offer a brand name and exclusivity; they don’t have to discount tuition to fill a class and can provide primarily need-based financial aid. But only about 50 institutions enjoy such lofty reputations: The majority of U.S. colleges and universities are “buyers,” wooing students to enroll via tuition discounts and “merit” (rather than need-based) awards.

Students seeking to advance in life as far and fast as possible focus on the select institutions, where chances of admission are notoriously slim.

“I was surprised to learn just how enamored they are with brand names, as if being admitted is a badge of honor, a game to be won,” Selingo says.

He describes just how competitive these institutions are and how mysterious is the weighting of their varied criteria  —  test scores, extracurriculars, geographic region, AP courses, among many others. At the end of the day, colleges gamble on students they believe are right for them at a particular moment, inevitably denying admission to superbly qualified students.

“Success in college is about how you go, not just where you go.”

Jeff Selingo ’95, author

But excellent educations can be had at many “buyer” institutions, which applicants too often overlook in their emphasis on prestige. Selingo cites his own education at Ithaca College (where he is a member of the Board of Trustees) as an example. He would like parents to understand that at these places, students are most likely to get financial aid based on merit as well as need.

If students look past the mystique of “prestige,” they can increase their chances of admission and support and find “the right fit.” High school grades and course rigor are finally more important than SAT scores, Selingo says. And ultimately, he advises, “Success in college is about how you go, not just where you go.”