‘Extraordinary’ Isn’t Always Enough To Get Into The Ivy League

A star student found herself with a pile of rejection letters from top schools during the most competitive college-applications year on recordKaitlyn Younger has been an academic standout since she started studying algebra in third grade.She took her first advanced-placement course as a freshman, scored 1550 on her SATs as a junior at McKinney High School near Dallas and will graduate this spring with an unweighted 3.95 grade-point average and as the founder of the school’s accounting club. Along the way she performed in and directed about 30 plays, sang in the school choir, scored top marks on the tests she has so far taken for 11 advanced-placement classes, helped run a summer camp and held down a part-time job. “She is extraordinary,” said Jeff Cranmore, her guidance counselor at McKinney High School. Ms. Younger, 18 years old, was cautiously optimistic when she applied to top U.S. colleges last fall. Responses came this month: Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, University of Southern California, University of California, Berkeley, and Northwestern all rejected her.“I expected a bunch wouldn’t accept me,” she said. “I didn’t expect it to be this bad.”The responses are part of a wave of rejections swamping top students who applied to many highly selective schools during the most competitive year on record. Now, students have until May 1 to let schools know where they will attend. Harvard received a record 61,220 applications during the current admissions year and accepted 1,954 (3.2%). Brown received a record 50,649 applications and offered admission to 2,546 (5%). Yale received 50,015 applications and admitted 2,234 (4.5%). University of California, Los Angeles, received a record 149,700 applications, 10,000 more than last year; the school’s acceptance rate wasn’t available.A reason applications were so inflated is because more than three-quarters of colleges and universities have stopped mandating entrance exams. With that barrier removed, more students tried their luck at selective schools that placed greater emphasis on grades, academic rigor and racial and socio-economic diversity. The result is that while many less prestigious schools are struggling to fill their classes, the most selective U.S. schools are drawing from a broader applicant pool—and that is driving the bar for admission higher than in past years. High volume means admissions officers at some elite colleges spend just a few minutes reviewing individual applications. This places enormous pressure on students to stand out, and not just among their own high-school classmates.Nearly 55,000 students applied to the University of Pennsylvania—about 15,000 more than applied two years ago. Many applications contained “national and international accolades for research that is already pushing the boundaries of academic discovery,” wrote Whitney Soule, vice provost and dean of admissions on the school’s website.For students such as Ms. Younger, the odds are particularly long. She is a middle-class white female from a public high school in Texas who wants to study business. Each characteristic places her in an overrepresented group, said Sara Harberson, a former admission officer at University of Pennsylvania and now a private college-admissions counselor.Nearly half of white students admitted to Harvard between 2009 and 2014 were recruited athletes, legacy students, children of faculty and staff, or on the dean’s interest list—applicants whose parents or relatives have donated to Harvard, according to a 2019 study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research.At Harvard, low-income students with top academic scores had an admit rate of 24% compared to 15% for all other applicants, according to a 2013 study by the school. Harvard has said it believes enrolling a diverse student body is important because the school wants students to learn to work with people from different backgrounds. “The middle class tends to get a little bit neglected,” said Hafeez Lakhani, a private college counselor in New York who charges $1,200 an hour. “Twenty years ago, Ms. Younger would have had a good shot at an Ivy League school.”Ms. Younger’s father attended the University of Oklahoma and her mother went to Montclair State University in New Jersey. She has no connection to the faculty or alumni at any elite school, nor did she hire a test-preparation coach or a private college counselor.Her school serves McKinney, Texas, a fast-growing suburb 30 miles outside of Dallas. In a given year, about half of the school’s graduates enroll at four-year colleges; most attend public universities in Texas, Dr. Cranmore said. He recalls two McKinney graduates enrolling at Yale and one at Princeton over the past decade.“I don’t know what else she could have done,” he said. Ms. Younger was exceptionally focused and competitive from an early age, said her mother, Debra Younger. She is also a self-described perfectionist. At age 7, she began taking medication to calm her anxiety, she said. In middle school, she was the only girl in her advanced math classes. That isolation led to bullying, she added.During her sophomore year, joint pain and depression exacerbated her anxiety. She enrolled in a two-month, outpatient mental-health program that limited her academic work to two hours a day. Her grades in English and AP World History fell to an 88 and 89, respectively, because she didn’t have time to finish the assigned reading, she said.She was working to improve her marks when the pandemic arrived and the school froze grades during the second semester. She received her first (and only) B’s. They pulled down her GPA. She is now ranked 23rd out of 668, or in the third percentile, she said. Ms. Younger wrote in the applications about her history of depression and anxiety to explain the two B’s she earned during her sophomore year. College rejection letters don’t come with a detailed explanation. Schools typically don’t discuss their decisions on individual applications because of privacy rules. The schools that rejected Ms. Younger declined to comment on her application, and most declined to comment on their acceptance rate. Jon Burdick, vice provost for enrollment at Cornell, said the school is working to increase its undergraduate population by 1,000, but still doesn’t have enough slots for all the qualified students who apply.“In the end we know that most of those we couldn’t admit would have been capable of achieving excellence at Cornell, and we regret having to disappoint them,” Mr. Burdick said.Ms. Younger said she doesn’t know why she was rejected but thinks her two B’s during sophomore year were problematic, along with her demographic profile.Gender also matters. Women now apply to college in much larger numbers than men. Schools seek to maintain gender parity in enrollment, which means young women often face higher standards and greater competition.Ms. Harberson said Ms. Younger’s accomplishments on the stage at her high school and with her community theater troupe—as well as for the accounting club—were impressive but wouldn’t stand out among Ivy League applicants. Of the 12 schools to which Ms. Younger applied, she was wait-listed at Rice University and accepted at the University of Texas, Austin—but not to the business school. She plans on attending Arizona State University to study business on an academic scholarship. The acceptance rate there last year was 88%.If she had to do high school all over again, Ms. Younger said she would still set high standards for herself and work hard but would try not to stress herself out so much.“I used to be the kind of person who, if I got a low A, anything lower than a 95, I would be upset with myself because I thought that was the standard for the types of institutions I wanted to attend,” she said. “All that stress was not worth it. I want to do the best I can, but in a way that does not deteriorate my mental health if I struggle.”She was working to improve her marks when the pandemic arrived and the school froze grades during the second semester. She received her first (and only) B’s. They pulled down her GPA. She is now ranked 23rd out of 668, or in the third percentile, she said. Ms. Younger wrote in the applications about her history of depression and anxiety to explain the two B’s she earned during her sophomore year. College rejection letters don’t come with a detailed explanation. Schools typically don’t discuss their decisions on individual applications because of privacy rules. The schools that rejected Ms. Younger declined to comment on her application, and most declined to comment on their acceptance rate. Jon Burdick, vice provost for enrollment at Cornell, said the school is working to increase its undergraduate population by 1,000, but still doesn’t have enough slots for all the qualified students who apply.“In the end we know that most of those we couldn’t admit would have been capable of achieving excellence at Cornell, and we regret having to disappoint them,” Mr. Burdick said.Ms. Younger said she doesn’t know why she was rejected but thinks her two B’s during sophomore year were problematic, along with her demographic profile.Of the 12 schools to which Ms. Younger applied, she was wait-listed at Rice University and accepted at the University of Texas, Austin—but not to the business school. She plans on attending Arizona State University to study business on an academic scholarship. The acceptance rate there last year was 88%.If she had to do high school all over again, Ms. Younger said she would still set high standards for herself and work hard but would try not to stress herself out so much.“ I used to be the kind of person who, if I got a low A, anything lower than a 95, I would be upset with myself because I thought that was the standard for the types of institutions I wanted to attend,” she said. “All that stress was not worth it. I want to do the best I can, but in a way that does not deteriorate my mental health if I struggle.”

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