We met with higher education journalist and author Jeff Selingo to talk about the process of getting into college, including randomness in selection, promoting one’s best self, making the most of one’s selective choices, and so much more. Enjoy!
Higher education’s admissions process feels mysterious and secretive. Is attending an elite school a necessity? What are your chances at getting into such a college or university? In Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, author Jeff Selingo discusses the process of getting into college, including randomness in selection, promoting one’s best self, and making the most of one’s selective choices. Other topics discussed: overmatching, the “solid middle,” college rankings, what an admissions office is like, and his work in higher education journalism. He talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.
If you go into it with that process, that those are some of your reach schools, but that you're going to find places that are going to be a good academic and social fit. I think that's to me, that's the key to a good college search.” – Author Jeff Selingo
Jeff Selingo has worked for years covering higher education for The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and other prestigious publications; He is the author of several bestselling books on higher education, including There Is Life After College, and College (Un)bound.For an in-depth look at Selingo’s new book, see our review of Who Gets In and Why.
(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Jed Macosko: Hi, this is Dr. Jed Macosko, at AcademicInfluence.com and Wake Forest University. Today we have a wonderful guest coming to us to talk about his career in looking at colleges and college admissions in particular. So this is Jeff Selingo, the author of a new book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions.
So Jeff, can you tell us a little bit about going off to college, where you started from and how you got interested in higher education?
Jeff Selingo: So I went to Ithaca college in upstate New York, it was about two and a half hours from home. My dad was a high school music teacher in Ithaca started as a music conservatory, which is how I ended up there.
But I went into journalism. And on day two, I was thinking I was going to be a broadcast journalism major. And on day two of college, I was sitting next to somebody who I thought had the natural talent to be in broadcast journalism. He eventually becomes anchor of ABC World News, David Muir, who ended up becoming a good friend and my college roommate of three years.
So I decided to go in a different way and that was mostly in print journalism. At the time, there was such a thing as print journalism. And and that’s how I got my start in print journalism. And then I worked for the student newspaper and became fascinated with higher education and how it worked.
And right after last semester of college, I did some work at the Ithaca journal, the local newspaper in Ithaca covering both Cornell and Ithaca college and the rest is history. I ended up at the Chronicle of Higher Educationn for 16 years and really had my bona fides, I think as a higher education journalist as a result.
Jed: Interesting, now when did you cross paths with some of the people at US News and World Report that do a lot of the college rankings?
Jeff: So I had an internship at US News and World Report between my junior and senior year in college. And so I worked in at US News and World Report in Washington, DC as a summer intern.
And one of the things we would do every day, a group of us, about a dozen of us, would be to collect the data that would go into the US News and World Report rankings. And normally, we’d be calling up colleges that didn’t submit the data on their own.
…I started to realize just how much people care about where they go to college, and this fascination, this obsession, anxiety in many ways that we have about getting into what we perceive as one of the top colleges in the United States.” – Author Jeff Selingo
We used to laugh that with a keystroke or two, we could actually probably change the rankings as a bunch of college students. But that was yet another thing that gave me insight into admissions. And as I mentioned in the book, you know, Ithaca wasn’t a highly selective college, and they admitted more than half the students who applied the year I applied.
But once I started getting into US News and World Report, and later on The Chronicle, I started to realize just how much people care about where they go to college, and this fascination, this obsession, anxiety in many ways that we have about getting into what we perceive as one of the top colleges in the United States.
Jed: So in your book, you do mention that the last five US presidents have all had degrees from what are considered, you know, elite colleges. And, you know, fortune 500 CEOs and all that stuff. So people aren’t wrong to say, “Hey, this is kind of an important deal to get my child or to get myself into one of these selective colleges.” And yet, throughout the book, you sort of say, “Well, you know, I went to Ithaca college, and look how well I turned out, you know, and other people, like such or so.” Speak to that a little bit.
…there are many staging grounds throughout life, and college is one of them. But as I point out in the book, it's not the only one.” – Author Jeff Selingo
Jeff: So two things. One, does it matter if you go to Yale? Of course it does, because you’re going to get into certain social circles, you’re going to get access to certain jobs. The point I’m trying to make in the book, though, is that the top 25 colleges, the top 50 colleges, they have limited seats for all the students trying to apply to them.
So I think you have to start from the beginning and realize that your chances of getting into one of these highly selective colleges it’s tough. And so I think that you should kind of go in… If you go into it with that process, that those are some of your reach schools, but that you’re going to find places that are going to be a good academic and social fit, I think that’s to me, that’s the key to a good college search. Because there are many staging grounds throughout life, and college is one of them. But as I point out in the book, it’s not the only one.
You’re going to have many points throughout your life and your career to kind of reset and pivot and change and get opportunities that you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Again, you could get those opportunities at a highly selective school, but it’s not the only place to get that.
And so what I always encourage students, and I encourage them throughout the book is go to the most selective college that you can get into. That might be number one, in the US News and World Report rankings, just to take one example, it can also be number 50, it can be number 75.
Wherever it is, as long as you’re swimming in a stream, with other students like you, you don’t want to be too far ahead, and you don’t want to be too far behind, you’re going to do well, you’re gonna get out of there with a degree that’s going to have currency in the job market, and you’re going to have a successful life.
Jed: Now, you mentioned go to the most selective, best school you can get into. But then you said, as long as you’re not too far ahead or too far behind the group of students at that school, you’ll be fine.
So is there a danger of what you call in the book over-matching, and you get into a great school?
It was one of your reach schools you really wanted to go, but then you’re like, that might be bad, you know. And Malcolm Gladwell talks about this in David and Goliath, which is that you know, some students may have majored in science but then they go to a school like Brown University in the case he mentioned, and they just get they get swamped so they switch to humanities…
Jeff: Yep. They get washed out, yep.
Jed: They don’t get to pursue their original dream.
Jeff: And so I talk about that in the book, there’s the idea of over-matching, and then there’s under-matching, where you end up at a school, and you could have ended up at a better place, and you start to then go to the low… You move to the lowest common denominator. And at a school that you might over-match, you’re just… You’re struggling.
And yes, I get it, even at Harvard, somebody has to graduate last in their class, but you don’t wanna be constantly struggling and trying to keep up. You really wanna be in that solid middle, you want people to be pushing you along, but you don’t wanna be constantly clawing to keep up with everybody ahead of you.
Jed: So would it be best then not to even apply to those over-match schools?
Jeff: Well, if you apply to those over-match schools, you may not get in, as I point out in the book.
Jed: Oh. Of course you probably wouldn’t, you probably wouldn’t if you did.
Jeff: You probably wouldn’t get in. The only way you might get in is if you’re a full-pay student, and they really need full-pay kids. Harvard’s not going to be that, they have so many applications, they don’t need to worry about that.
There may be some schools that still are an over-match for you that are really desperate for the revenue, and they may take you if they know you’re gonna pay full price. But apply, that’s why they’re called reach schools. You should still apply to them, they’re not gonna be totally out of your range in many cases. Apply them, and see if you get in.
But the chances of you getting into many of your reach schools, especially if they’re highly selective, are not great. Because remember, even at the year I was at Emory, 30,000 applications for 2,500 spots, they only accepted about 6,000-7,000 students for all those spots, ’cause obviously not everybody comes. Chances are not great. 15%, essentially, is their acceptance rate. So you’re more likely to get denied at most of these places.
Jed: And this problem I’m describing is really not a big problem for most people, that they get into a school that’s too good for them. [chuckle] But in general, you would suggest going to the best school you can get into, and just work hard and try not to fall behind if you did happen to get into some school that was a little beyond where you maybe normally would have gotten into.
Jed:So tell us a little bit more about the time between when you were working at US News and World Report that summer, and when you circle back to this idea of college rankings to write your book.
While you were in the middle stages, were you a lot thinking about college admissions? What was your main, day-to-day, sort of bread-and-butter writing about during those years?
Jeff: So most of my day-to-day, bread-and-butter writing was around higher education. So I worked for 16 years at the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is the trade magazine for people in the business, college presidents and administrators and faculty members, it’s also read by high school counselors and others.
So I worked there for 16 years covering a variety of topics. I covered endowments and college presidents, I covered debates among students, curriculum debates and things like that. But actually one thing I really never covered was college admissions. And I was never inside a college admissions office while they selected a class.
After I left the Chronicle, I started writing about higher education for the Washington Post and The Atlantic and The New York Times. And every single time I wrote about admissions in particular, I would get tons of letters, emails, calls. Everybody would ask me, “Why is it so much more difficult for my kids to get into college than it was for me?”
And I started to think about that, and I said, “Well, is it really?” I looked up the national statistics, the average acceptance rate of a college is 65%, so most kids get into college. Obviously what they were talking about were highly selective schools. And it’s true, because these highly selective schools are getting more applicants than ever before, they’re denying more kids than ever before.
Is it really that much harder to get into a specific school? Not really, because what’s happening now is that some of these schools, they’re getting applicants from around the country, around the globe, when back when today’s parents were applying, the pools were just smaller.
And so parents perceive it’s harder, but in many ways, talented students are getting in just like they did in their parents’ generation. But because of this constant stream of worry about selective colleges, I decided it was time to get inside some of these admissions offices and figure out, “What are they looking for?”
Jed: And it was tough to get them to agree to that, it was really tough.
Jeff: Tough is an understatement. So as I say in the book, I’ve been working in this industry for more than 20 years, so I knew a lot of people, all the way up to the president. And I call them, and I talk to them. I end up approaching 24 schools, and only three, the three that end up in the book, said yes.
Jed: Wow. That is really amazing. And fortunately, it was three very different schools, so that worked out really well for you. Yeah. I just really enjoyed reading about being embedded in one of these offices. And reading the book, we could really picture what it was like in there. And the one overarching theme that comes through is that it is a bit random, and that’s just the nature of reading so many applications and going through all the applicants.
Wouldn’t you say that that’s pretty much what you got out of it too?
I really wanted readers to understand the process, so that they understand where they fit into the process that they could compete as best as they can, and that they understand at the end of the day, it is not the meritocracy we sometimes think it is.” – Author Jeff Selingo
Jeff: Yeah. It’s interesting you say that, because a friend of mine just told me that… They said, “Well, after reading the book, maybe your readers might be depressed about it, that it is so random.” And I said to them, “I really wanted readers to understand the process, so that they understand where they fit into the process that they could compete as best as they can, and that they understand at the end of the day, it is not the meritocracy we sometimes think it is.
If we did it that way by the way, we don’t need humans to make these decisions, we could just line people up and take the best test scores and the best GPA’s and that’s it, a computer could make the selection process.
So this is not meant to make you more anxious or make you depressed that your kids are not gonna get into their dream college, it’s more about having you understand in the ecosystem, so that you’re more realistic, A, about your chances; and B, that you understand how to put your best foot forward by better understanding what they’re looking for.
Jed: And I think you achieve that, it definitely seems like, “Well, if I didn’t get into my dream college, it wasn’t really because of me and I’m bad.”
Jeff: It’s what they’re looking… Yeah.
Jed: I think that that definitely across your book, which I think is very reassuring. I don’t think it’s depressing, I just think it’s just kind of interesting and funny that these offices are looking through files, and trying to figure things out, doing the best job they can.
And they really do come across as heroes in your book, but there’s just no way any human being could ever try to do what they’re doing and not do it in a kind of bit of a random way.
Jeff: Well, and I think that’s the point that I try to make, because I think that any one of us… Well, that’s the thing I didn’t appreciate when I first started this process, is just how wide and deep these pools are.
So we can imagine 30,000 applications, but think about yourself in the context, or your kid in the context of their high school, and you probably know kind of where they fit in our high school, where they rank.
You may know kids in the local area, so you know, well, they’re better than this person, maybe not as good as this person academically. Then just replicate that over and over and over again across the country, across the world.
There are more than 40,000 public and private high schools in the US alone. So, even if a place like Emory might get 8, 10,000 of those high schools, it’s replicated over and over again. And that’s the part that I don’t think most parents and students appreciate, they might, they might appreciate it or they certainly may not understand it, because I didn’t quite understand it until I’d gotten into the process, and kept seeing the same applications.
Another kid with a 1,500 plus on the SAT, a 4.0 plus on their GPA and 10 activities, 12 activities, dozen AP courses, whatever it might be, and that’s the part that I don’t think… Sitting at home within the context of one high school, we quite get.
Jed: Yeah. And I think your book does a great job of letting people see that side of things, so it’s really fun. Well, thank you so much for chatting with us today about your book, and about your own trajectory through your career.
As we close this out, do you have plans for what you’re gonna do next?
Jeff: Everybody keeps asking me that. I’m gonna take a break. And talk about this book, you know, I worked a couple of years on it, so I wanna, talk about it more than anything. And at this point, I think I just need to spend some time with my own kids who are in elementary school now, and thinking about their next steps, and then I’ll get to think about what the next book is about.
Jed: Great. Well thank you so much again Jeff, for meeting with us today, and we’ve learned a lot from you. Thank you.
Jeff: Thank you.
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