top of page
  • Writer's pictureThe Bossy Bookworm

Review of Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions by Jeffrey Selingo

Fascinating, sometimes infuriating firsthand peeks at admissions procedures and priorities; ways to evaluate buyer schools and seller schools; and Selingo's take on how to assess complex acceptance statistics and the importance of a specific school to a young person's success.

The problem with these often-quoted statistics about selective schools is that they overlook the role that the student plays in their own eventual success....

I have a high school senior, so maybe it's time to finally read the stack of college admissions-related books I've been allowing to collect dust instead of simply continuing to take comfort in their proximity and the wisdom they may contain?

In Who Gets In and Why, Jeffrey Selingo takes readers behind the scenes of three college admissions offices where he was given access during the course of a year: Emory University, Davidson College, and The University of Washington. He was given an emotional decision, one economists refer to as an "experience good." We don't know what we're buying until after we experience it.

Selingo also tracks the paths of a few students as they apply to college--on one end of the spectrum, a girl applying to selective universities and able to pay full tuition, and at the another end, a boy who is unaware of his secondary education and funding options and aims to be a first-generation college attendee.

I love a look behind the curtain of a secret situation, and these peeks into colleges' admissions procedure, priorities, debates, dilemmas, and decision-making are absolutely fascinating.

College admissions is a big business. Colleges and universities spend an estimated $10 billion annually on recruiting students.

To put together a balanced lists of buyers and sellers, families need to look at two numbers in particular. The first is a school's desirability as measured by its yield--the percentage of accepted students who end up enrolling.... The second number is the percentage of institutional aid spent on non-need-based aid.

Selingo dives into revealing the truth behind some of the mysteries of admissions (for example, how colleges use early decision to fill gaps they anticipate having; what makes an application essay stand out) while also studying the business of college admissions--including the money colleges spend on recruitment, where they spend it, and why; and the methods some schools have used to boost rankings or raise their perceived selectivity.

But early decision also speeds up decision-making when students aren't quite ready for it. We know from neuroscientists and psychologists that the teenage brain is still maturing throughout high school...every month in high school is mentally like a year to adults.

ED has a whole set of other rules, some written but many not.... Many of the seats available in the early rounds are essentially off-limits to most students.

"Early decision serves the needs of colleges and universities a hell of a lot more than it serves students," says Chris Gruber, Davidson College's admissions dean.

Selingo aims to eliminate the unknown in order to offer some sanity to those geared up about the overwhelming pressure of it all. He also offers tips on how to evaluate whether a school might be a match for a young person looking toward the next steps of their educational journey. He points out how college costs have soared--and how many parents go into great debt for a brand-name (or other) school. And he emphasizes his own strong belief (and the supporting data) that what a young person does with their degree is far more important than the source of that degree.

I found it oddly calming to read about the varied, specific criteria desired by these varied college admissions committees in a certain year, season, and moment. This firsthand data reinforced the conclusion that acceptances aren't, of course, reflections of a young person's achievements or worth, instead mirroring an institution's priorities, however specific or broad.

"Parents made clear that they believed they had to suppress their own financial anxieties," Zaloom wrote [in Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost], "so that they could allow their children's potential to take precedence."

Selingo's book clarifies that there is no secret, or set of secrets, to admission. There are reasons why an institution prioritizes certain aspects of its incoming class, and factors that may be beneficial to one's odds include being an athlete, (sometimes) being a legacy, and, often, having the funds to pay for the high cost of college.

Yet it feels oddly freeing to recognize the fact that so many factors relevant to a college's admissions are well beyond the control of a prospective student.

The bottom line: in your college search worry less about specific name brands and even majors and worry more about acquiring skills and experiences once you're on campus, such as finding an undergraduate research project or landing an internship.

By clarifying Who Gets In and Why, Selingo reinforces the approach for students of doing their thing, doing their best, being curious about the world, and feeling confident that there are many routes to their successful future.

Aiming for the most talked-about institutions (and fighting to be one included in the infamous single-digit acceptance rates of some of them) is not the only way forward--and often not the most efficient move in terms of admissions, cost, or career outcomes.

Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

Jeffrey Selingo is also the author of College Unbound and There Is Life After College.

bottom of page