I remember the coincidence of a conversation with an admissions friend, wherein we discussed the likelihood of a million dollar donation helping push a student's application through at a variety of different universities and colleges in the United States, with the timing of a family asking me to help them get a meeting with admissions at a very prestigious university so they could propose a donation of a million dollars just months before their daughter would apply. The truth is if every family that could give a million dollars to get their kid into Stanford or Harvard or any of the other "top" universities offered such a gift, there would be far more kids in those schools that the universities are willing to accommodate. At the same time, a million dollar donation to an institution with a multiple-billion dollar endowment is hardly going to move the needle on the admit-o-meter.
So when I recently had a meeting with a (wealthy) family of a high school junior and they revealed to me their plans for their son to attend "either Harvard or Stanford" I found myself a bit underwhelmed. This was not the first time I have heard a proclamation such as this, but it is not often that I have such a conversation with a family in which the student was not even remotely competitive for admission. Granted, they are not from the U.S. and, therefore, unfamiliar with the system, but the statistics are all over the place and the truth is that the 95% of applicants who are not admitted, are nearly all pretty amazing young people- as far as the universities understand the term "amazing". And when I started to use an example for them, describing a recent student who had just begun at one of these universities, the dad cut me off and actually said, "yes, but you're describing an outlier". This dad was clearly used to getting his way. I had a sense that he was a man who believed his money might just move that admit-o-meter at either of these schools. Throughout the entire conversation he continued to argue with me as if I were stating only my opinion and not very experienced, objective truth. When one has been around as many students and university admission decisions as I have, one gains a certain knowledge in which the ability to predict admission outcomes is not terribly difficult.
And this gets us right to the point: because a family has money and privilege does not erase the truth of a student's academic history. If one is not at the caliber necessary, it's very easy for a good professional to know and be able to point out the shortcomings. Can they be improved upon? Of course. Is that going to change the outcome? No. The challenge lies in the family either listening or not. But in this case it was the latter. There was nothing I could do to help them understand that ALL the students who get in are outliers. When the entire pool of applicants is strong, that's what a 5% acceptance rate indicates. When their son told me that there was no way for him to do the IB diploma AND play club soccer, I thought of the hundreds of students I have come across who HAVE been able to do the IB diploma or handfuls of AP courses, as well as maintaining their positions as star athletes, musicians, employees, and a number of other activities. The fact remains that if you are not an outlier—compared with your peers, not just in the minds of your parents—then you're not going to get in. The false notion that there is even a possibility is what has, over the past fifteen years, made this entire process what it is today. Who we can blame for that is an entirely different discussion, but the fact is that perpetuating the myth of admission possibility starts with parents who cannot accept the objective truth.
And by the way, the dollar amount that can make a difference in the admission game: $10 million.
Brady Norvall, M.A.
Founder and Chief Education Officer,