Admission is Easy; Denial is Hard


We’re at that time of the year again, when Early Decision and [insert name of application type] admissions, denials, and defers start rolling in.  And with the dawn of the new calendar year comes the resultant and predictable questions:

  • How could they turn my kid down, with her GPA and her test scores?
  • What does it take to get into that place, anyway?
  • They took him but deferred her?  How could that be?

The answer, of course, is that there is no answer; college admissions does not operate like the rides at Disney World, where if you’re tall enough to ride, you ride.  Think of it more as the line at the hottest L.A. nightclub: There are some things that increase your chances for admission, some things that reduce it, but in the end, it’s a judgment call after all the factors are considered. (This is, of course, dramatically oversimplified, and should appropriately bruise the egos of all admissions officers, even those with bulging biceps and black t-shirts).

But as I was doing some analysis on our last five admissions cycles using my favorite data visualization tool, something occurred to me that is very obvious to most admissions people, but maybe not anyone else: Admission is easy, and denial is hard.  That is, if you look back at a year, you can extract a more logical pattern from those whom you admitted than from the stack of denials.

Let me explain this visualization (the patterns tell their own tales, but because this is live student data, I can’t let you look at the actual visualization, so I have to explain it using a screen shot.)

Each dot is a person.  The dots are colored by ethnicity.  On the left are the 6,000 or so students we denied last year; on the right are the 10,000 or so we admitted to get our freshman class of 2,458.  On the x-axis is the best-ACT score (either the student’s best ACT or the SAT converted to ACT equivalent using a concordance.)  On the y-axis is the student’s GPA, converted to a 4.0 system.  The gray bars represent the width of one standard deviation either side of the mean, roughly 68% of the middle, leaving  about 16% on either side.)

See how tightly and nicely the admits line up?  And how scattered the denials are?  That’s my point.  If you think of admissions as just looking at ACT and GPA, it makes no sense.  But when you understand that there are many other factors you can’t see here–all tied to a real human being, with all his or her complexities–it makes sense.

The 32 ACT with the 3.9 GPA denied? Applied to the DePaul School of Music, but is not as good on the trumpet as  in World History.  How about 29 ACT with a 3.95?  Suspended in the senior year for serious disciplinary reasons.

The 18 ACT with the 3.0 admitted?  A recent immigrant, who did not speak English until 9th grade, but who got all A’s in junior and senior year in a challenging curriculum, including solid IB grades.  And his first term at DePaul was very successful.

Everyone has a story, and admission goes beyond your record in high school to learn yours.  We’re eager to hear what you have to say.

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