Over the last two decades, the contest to get into a “good” college has escalated to the point where it is now practically a competitive sport…and the intensity of the college admissions process shows no signs of abating.

Part of the problem lies in the sheer quantity of applicants: in 2018-19, a shocking 3.64 million students graduated from U.S. high schools.¹

Number of 2018-2019 high school graduates in the U.S.

But a bigger part of the problem lies in the quality of these graduates.

In recent years, nearly half of all American college-bound seniors graduated with a grade point average of A- or above.² These students, fueled by ready access to college counseling and test prep, are performing at superstar levels.

False Information about the Admissions Process: a Compounding Problem

Compounding the problem for immigrant families is the prevalence of myths or false information about the admissions process. Part of this misunderstanding is cultural.

College Admissions in Asia

In Asia, for example, the main criterion for college admissions is academic achievement.

In this regard, the Asian admissions culture is most similar to that of public U.S. universities such as the UCs. However, grades and test scores do not even begin to account for the complexities of the private school application process in the U.S.

Misunderstandings about college admissions are also fueled by ill-informed anecdotal sources: the experiences of friends and family members as well as the counsel of misguided persons.

Adding to the angst of college admissions are online forums where students can

  • crowdsource,
  • share tips,
  • vent problems,
  • and air their grief in real time.

Some threads even estimate other users’ chances in admission given their various profiles and statistics, yet these often serve to fuel the fires of students’ already anxiety-ridden admissions processes.³

Students Must Grasp the Spirit of College Admissions

Before students start looking for a hard and fast set of rules, however, they must try to grasp the spirit of the college admissions process.

Essentially, academics are only a part of the picture.

Many people assume that the stronger the academic record (the higher the test scores and GPA), the more likely a candidate is to be admitted. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. The admissions process is much more multifaceted.

For most schools, but especially for private schools, academic achievements are only a minimal criterion for admission. Each college then uses its own set of values and requirements to create its ideal freshmen class.

As Lee Stetson, former Dean of Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, once noted,

“Eighty-five percent of those who apply [to U Penn] would thrive here, but we have to choose among them. We’re not looking for only the best numbers.”º

This means that admissions is as much an art as it is a science.

It is neither entirely subjective nor precisely predictable. Of course, there are quantifiable and comparable academic achievements: GPA and SAT (or ACT) scores, most importantly. But these numbers alone do not account for admissions results.

Every application is assessed for its merits along four further dimensions:


Extracurricular Activities


The Personal Statement


Teacher & Counselor Recommendations


The Interview (when offered)

There are also factors affecting admissions decisions that are independent of the merits of particular applicants. These include things like demographic concerns and the particular culture of a school.

The Competitive Landscape: Consider Stanford’s Admissions’ Process

To see where the science of college admissions ends and the art of it begins, consider this helpful illustration from Jon Reider, former Senior Admissions Officer at Stanford University.

Stanford received a record 47,450 applications to the Class of 2018.

Number of Stanford applicants for the Class of 2018.

Picture all these applications scattered on the floor of the Stanford admissions office.

Now applicants who are academically qualified for admission – those whose GPA and SAT/ACT scores meet minimal criteria – will get picked up off the floor and brought to the table. The number of academically qualified applicants may be about 80%, so 37,960.

Of the students who make it to the table, approximately 36,000 will get cut, leaving around 2,000 acceptances.

Once applications make it to the table, academic numbers don’t come into play again, unless a student’s test scores and GPA are far above the average for the school.

For a school like Stanford, which maintains extremely stringent academic requirements, it’s more or less impossible for a student’s scores to be significantly above average. Therefore, the only way for an applicant to get accepted is for the rest of his or her application profile to be very strong.

In other words, once students pass the initial, “scientific” part of the evaluation process, things become much more of an “art.”

At this point,

colleges are looking for what students will bring to the school community and how well they will fit together with each other and the culture of the school.

Of course, Stanford isn’t exactly the norm. There are many great colleges that attract applicant pools with more readily attainable academic achievements.

Applicants with extra-ordinary academic records may be able to get into such schools on the strength of their numbers alone: they enjoy an advantage because colleges can use their achievements to boost admissions statistics and hence rankings.

However, above-average grades and test scores are no guarantee of admission, not even at the less-competitive schools.

“Reaching” For Your Dreams

There is one crucial message for students to take to heart from these introductory remarks.

There is a strong trend among students to apply to “reach” schools: schools with higher academic averages than those attained by the student.

This trend is particularly strong among immigrant families. The reality that students must come to terms with is that the applicant sitting at the lower end of a school’s academic range – the student, for example, with a 1490 on the SAT, applying to a school where incoming freshmen attain an average score of 1540 – will almost certainly not get in,

unless the student has something truly outstanding in a non-academic area to compensate for the below-average academics.

In subsequent blog posts, I’ll use this information to analyze case studies of real-life students who applied to a variety of colleges, public and private. I’ll also answer frequently asked questions, like:

How many AP courses should students take?

What SAT score is good enough?


What is a good extracurricular activity?

Before turning to these specific issues, however, I’ll introduce some general trends in college admissions. I’ll also dispel some popular but harmful misconceptions that are widespread in the immigrant community.


1. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. “Table 219.10: High School Graduates by Sex or Control of School, Selected Years 1869-70 through 2027-2028.” Digest of Education Statistics. Washington, D.C: NCES, 2016. Web 26 Sept 2018.
2. U.S. Department of Education. “Table 226.30: SAT Mean Scores of College-Bound Seniors, by Selected Student Characteristics: Selected Years, 1995-96 through 2015-16.” Digest of Education Statistics 2016. Washington, D.C: NCES, 2016. Web 27 Sept 2018.
3. Larimer, Sarah. “Obsessed about college admissions? This site is too.” Washington Post. 29 Mar 2017.
o.  Peterson’s College Search. “College Acceptance: Making the Final Cut.” Web. 18 Feb 2011.
†.  Reider, Jon. In personal conversation.
‡.  “Stanford offers admission to 2,040 students.” Stanford News. 30 Mar 2018.
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