The Dirty Secret of Elite College Admissions
I have been interviewing Princeton hopefuls for years. Here’s why I’m quitting.
One of the mixed benefits of being an alumnus of Princeton University — besides the closet full of orange-and-black clothing that’s only color-appropriate around Halloween — is that I have been able to play a minor role in the grand American reckoning known as the college admissions process.
Princeton, like many other universities, taps alumni volunteers to interview applicants who live in their region — Brooklyn, in my case. We ask applicants questions about their academic work, their extracurriculars, their background, anything they want Princeton admissions officers to know. The applicants ask us questions too — about life on campus, about academic competition, about whether we’d do it all over again. I answer them as best I can while reminding them that it has been so long since I was a college student — 17 years — that AOL Instant Messenger was the cutting-edge way to communicate. Later, I write up my impressions of the applicant, including a note of how highly I’d recommend them as a future member of the Princeton community. And then I send it off to be threshed in the great admissions machine at Princeton’s Morrison Hall.
Of the couple dozen students I’ve interviewed over the past few years — most of whom seemed far more qualified than I was as a high school senior — only one has been admitted. That’s hardly unusual. In the spring of 1997, when I was admitted to Princeton, the university accepted 12.6 percent of applicants. Last year, just 5.5 percent made the cut. That’s in line with other elite schools. Harvard College last year accepted just 4.6 percent of applicants and Stanford University a minuscule 4.3 percent. Even as college enrollments nationwide have fallen for five straight years — in part because there are fewer college-age students now that millennials have aged out — it has become tougher than ever to gain a spot at schools like Princeton and Harvard. And that puts a bright spotlight on the question of who gets in — and who doesn’t.
What if I told you there was a way to increase your chances of getting into Harvard by five times?