Book Review – Who Gets in and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions

I don’t often read non-fiction in my non-work life. I’m more of a literary fiction fan, with a secret love of romance novels. But once in a while I’ll dip my toe in the non-fiction pool, and this time the book was so great I couldn’t put it down. Those are words I rarely ever utter when describing my forays into non-fiction. This book is a must-read for any person who has a kid in high school getting ready to start the college search/admission process, but also for anyone who’s just interested in a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on in admissions offices once the applications start rolling in.

I started reading Who Gets in and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions by Jeffrey Selingo, sometime in January. At first I thought it probably wasn’t worth it. My daughter Caroline, a senior in high school, was nearing the end of her college admissions journey. She had been accepted to a few schools, was still waiting to hear from a couple, and was narrowing down her choices. What good was it to read a book about how best to apply to college?

It turns out, the timing was just perfect for me. At the time, I had a lot of thoughts and worries in my head. Were either of the two schools at the top of her list the right choice? Should we have looked at other schools? Was she going to go to a college where she would be challenged in her academics? Was she going to be around a student body where there would be interesting conversations at lunch or dinner? Would there be things to do, like enough parties to give her a taste of college life, but not so many that she was distracted?

All the time I kept reminding myself of what they told parents who attended the Davidson College McNab Admissions program with their rising juniors and seniors. (Caroline and I attended virtually in the spring of 2021, and this book was a gift from that program.) “Remember parents, this is your student’s decision. Not yours.” Words to live by. But so hard to do.

I’m glad I picked up this book when I did. Sure, it might have been helpful earlier in the process. But instead of serving as a road map, it turned out to be a big reassurance for me.

Here are a few takeaways I gleaned:

  • Good grades do pay off. Many colleges (especially small liberal arts schools) will send admissions letters with scholarship money right away. Selingo says these should be called coupons rather than scholarships, but either way, it helps cut the cost of tuition. (We experienced this first-hand.)
  • Those people caught in the Varsity Blues scandal were right about one thing, playing a sport might help tip the scales in your favor. It could be in the form of a scholarship, but it may be just a plea from a coach to an admissions counselor to push an application through. As Selingo states, every single college, no matter what the size, fields a certain number of men’s and women’s sports teams, and all those coaches need players.
  • Not every kid gets into the college of their dreams. But you will get into college somewhere, and more than likely you’ll have a great experience. Selingo followed a few kids through the application process and into their first year of college, and their stories were fascinating.
  • The admissions process is a numbers game that rivals the Moneyball approach to baseball. Statistics and data analysis rule when it comes to how many applicants to accept, and sometimes even which ones.
  • It’s probably not a good idea to put all your eggs in one basket. My words, not Selingo’s, but he shows over and over again how things sometimes come to an arbitrary point with selecting one applicant over the other. It helps if you have a few good options to choose from, and understand even the best and brightest students get some rejections.

I have to admit, the whole college application process has changed a lot since the time when I was applying. But one thing hasn’t changed, and that’s the stress these high school kids feel. You’re making a decision that is probably one of the biggest of your life so far, and feels like it will affect the entire trajectory of your future. Reading this book does a lot to take away some of the stress of the process, and make navigating the road to college just a little easier to understand.

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Blending it Up
Blending it Up

Every blog has a different theme or purpose. For years I put off blogging because I couldn't find a theme. Then I decided on one: Write about whatever I want. And that’s what you’ll find here. Whether it’s an update on how my garden’s doing, goings on with my family, or thoughts on writing, editing, and working from home, this blog is where I share my views on life.