Mythbusters: Predicting College Admission

One of the most frustrating elements of the application process to those of us at selective institutions is the notion that admission can be predicted. From students asking about GPA all the time (see why it’s not a good question), to the “chancing” that goes on in certain online forums (cough-cough College Confidential cough-cough), to the frustration of many who match our profile but aren’t admitted and can’t understand why, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about just what it is we do. I’m not accusing here; I understand what a stressful and anxious process this is for students. You want to know what your chances are. And we try to make the admission process as transparent as possible, but there comes a point in selective admission when the process is just opaque — you can’t predict it.

It’s certainly possible for some universities — especially the larger public ones. If you have a certain GPA and test scores, you’re in. Some colleges even guarantee scholarships if you make certain numbers.

But at most selective institutions, that’s simply not the case. And I’m never more aware of it than at this time of year, when we’re actually in the process of reviewing applications and shaping a new class. This involves a lot of give-and-take, back-and-forth, holistic review, and a balance of objective and subjective factors.

Let’s be clear here. Richmond, like many selective, liberal arts colleges, has a highly competitive applicant pool. Academics are the number one factor in our process, and we have the freedom to select a class from among thousands of academically strong applicants. So don’t take the notion of holistic consideration farther than you should; we consider students holistically with academics as our number one factor. Rarely, if ever, will personal qualities make up for poor grades or a lackluster curriculum.

That said, we could fill five or six Richmond-sized first-year classes with the number of academically qualified applicants we get each year. Most of our applicant pool is competitive academically. If your stats and numbers look similar to our profile or to admitted students, that’s great — but keep in mind that they probably also look similar to an even greater number of students who were not admitted.

Frankly, when it comes down to it, there’s not much difference (from our perspective) between the student with a 4.0 unweighted GPA and the student with a 3.9 unweighted GPA (assuming they have similarly rigorous curricula and similar test scores). They are similarly qualified. They are both excellent students who would thrive at Richmond. The question is, who do we want in our first-year class? This is where involvement, experience, character, essays, recommendations, and a host of other variables come into play. This is selective admission. We’re not going to pick the 4.0 just because of a slightly higher GPA.

Trust me. We’ve denied students with straight A’s in excellent programs. We deny many students each year who fall right into our testing ranges. And a quarter of our class each year comes in below the 25th percentile of our testing ranges (a self-evident statement, but I think people often pass over the significance of it). Our profile is there to give you a general idea of what Richmond students typically look like, but it isn’t a predictor of admission in any way, shape, or form.

Probably one of the least accurate things you can do is ask current students/your tour guide/alumni/random students in an online forum for their stats and try to measure yourself against them. This completely disregards context, grading scales, and many other factors that  likely influenced our decision in their particular case. Plus, this year is a different year: we have a very different applicant pool than we did three or four years ago (much larger, for one thing). And finally, once again, there are students every year who look academically similar who receive different decisions. That’s just the nature of selective admission.

So there’s really not much you can do but wait — and know that we take our jobs very seriously. We review each application with a great deal of care and thought, very aware of the significance of our decisions. Ultimately, we rely on the knowledge that there are many fine institutions of higher education out there, and each one is going to select different students for different reasons. Everyone will have a home next year; our task is to make the best matches we possibly can for our community here at Richmond.

And this can’t be done by the numbers.


  1. Sean Sharkey
    Posted January 19, 2010 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Very well stated – if it were only numbers a computer could select the incoming class.

    • Tom
      Posted January 22, 2010 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      …and I would be out of a job. 😛

  2. Hopeful
    Posted February 3, 2010 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Have there ever been times in which a student has been admitted to richmond with so-so (mostly B’s) grades and test scores, but with outstanding essays, personal qualities, extracurriculars, and talents? Also do you consider what a prospective student selects as their possible major(ie: if a student selects dance or music as a possible major does that soften the blow of the so-so academic grades). Thank you. By the way, this is not a “chance me” based question, I’m just interested to know as a parent of a child who wishes to apply for the 2011-2012 school year.

    • Tom
      Posted February 8, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink


      The simple answer to your question is yes, but the detailed answer is more complicated. Again, it’s hard to say much at all without knowing the context. What is the school’s grading scale? What does the school’s grade distribution look like (i.e. where is a mostly-B student falling within the school)? Is this a rigorous school where B’s are hard to come by, or a highly-inflated school where almost everybody gets A’s, and B’s are below average? What type of curriculum are those B’s coming from – and what type of curricular offerings does the school have? Is this a typical curriculum at the school, or a highly rigorous one?

      An average B student, in most cases, is going to be a little below the norm in our highly competitive applicant pool. That said, we have admitted many average B students in past years, for various reasons – but only very compelling ones. In a pool of 8500 applicants, our definition of compelling is, to be frank, a little more impressive than most people generally realize (this is based on my experience – just an honest observation). In our applicant pool, there are hundreds of outstanding essays, extracurricular resumes, and achievements to state, national, even international levels. So it takes something quite striking to convince the admission committee to look beyond so-so grades.

      Regarding possible major, this is not a significant factor in our admission process; none of our schools or programs have quotas, and all students begin their studies here undeclared. (We’re not too concerned about bringing certain numbers of students for certain intended majors, since the vast majority of our students will change their minds about their intended majors anyway!) And at a liberal arts college like Richmond, academic rigor extends across all departments and majors – and all students have the same rigorous general education requirements – so we’re not cutting any slack for particular intended majors or departments, either at the admission level or the academic level once students arrive.

      I hope that’s helpful – it’s about as clear as I can be!


  3. Posted February 24, 2010 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    Hi Tom,

    You do a good job of explaining that the college admissions process at a selective institution is highly subjective…. and that it needs to be highly subjective. I think the problem is that many students and parents consider “highly subjective” a synonym for “highly unfair”.

    The system may be opaque, but we live in a transparent society (at least when it comes to gossip). We hear that Suzie from down the street got into Richmond and naturally start comparing our daughter to her. “Suzie’s GPA was much lower than our daughter’s. How come she was admitted and our daughter wasn’t?” Then we start to picture admissions officers laughing at our daughter’s application and a sinister plot developing to keep her out of the university, despite her obvious qualifications. The more we think about this, the more upset we get.

    Blogs like this one help, though. Reading that you are “very aware of the significance of [your] decisions” especially helps, because at least we know that you understand there is a real person behind that application. We all know that is true, but it is comforting to actually read it.

    Part of the problem is getting students, parents and teachers to understand how the admissions process works. The larger problem is getting them to accept that the process is mostly out of their hands. I try to underscore to my clients that their second or third choice colleges are probably just as good of a fit for them as their first choice. Often, they are better choices. Encouraging students not to fall too hard for one particular college makes the application essay process a lot less stressful for them and their families.


    • Tom
      Posted February 25, 2010 at 12:11 pm | Permalink


      Thanks for your thoughts and insightful comments. The question of fairness is certainly a difficult one in the admission world, especially in our transparent society. We get lots of phone calls every year from the parents of non-accepted students who want to compare their children to admitted students they’ve heard about or know. Obviously we can’t do this for confidentiality reasons, but the issue is more fundamental than that.

      Suzie’s GPA may have been lower than your daughter’s, but perhaps not by as much as you think – weighting systems can play a very confusing role in this. Maybe the individual grades on Suzie’s transcript were stronger overall (you’d be surprised how often we see this). Suzie may have pursued a much more rigorous curriculum, or had very different standardized test scores. Maybe Suzie’s GPA was a little lower because of a personal issue she was dealing with during 9th or 10th grade, something she overcame and turned into a brilliant junior year. Perhaps Suzie’s involvement or leadership was particularly striking in some way. Maybe her essays were incredibly eloquent and swayed the admission committee. Maybe we just really needed a bassoonist for our orchestra this year, and Suzie was a strong applicant who played the bassoon… or (caution: stereotyped example approaching) one of our athletic coaches had a particular interest in Suzie’s high-jumping ability.

      I know you understand all this, but you gave me a great example to help further clarify my perspective. I think, in today’s world, we need to move away from the notion of fairness in college admission (it would be nice if the world were perfectly fair, but it’s not); and we need to stop thinking of admission as a deserved reward for good work in high school. Given the competitiveness of our pool, I often wish my job were to reward every qualified student who deserved to get into Richmond – I can’t tell you how many times that thought has occurred to me this very morning – but if that were my job, we’d have a first-year class of 1800 students next year, we wouldn’t have housing for 1000 of them, and, well, the problem is obvious.

      But trust me, we on the admission side of things fret and worry about it too, and I’m glad that it’s reassuring to hear that. We know that for every student we accept, there are three or four awesome students we don’t have space to accept, and we tend to take this pretty personally and seriously. Emotions can run very high during the weeks the admission committee meets, because of the personal investment each of us has in the process and the students we work with. I know your example was primarily hyperbole, but believe me, there’s very little laughter in the admission office at this time of year.

      I completely agree with your thoughts on second or third choices being just as good a fit – see my earlier Mythbusters post on “The Perfect College” ( I firmly believe that every student can fit in and thrive at any number of great colleges across the country, and I’m glad that you’re getting that message out there too! It’s a really important one, given everything I just said.


  4. Rob
    Posted March 10, 2012 at 1:43 am | Permalink

    Hello Tom,
    First off, is this entry still active? My question for you is similar to the question regarding (B students). I understand as a liberal arts institution you do not consider ones possible major in your admissions process. Is this also the case for transfer students? If a student demonstrates immense ability in the studio arts, does the University take that into special consideration. In shaping the class, is this considered valuable. I have not heard much of the Studio Art program at Richmond, and am wondering if the college is looking for artists to join the college. Does strong artwork compensate for B’s? My son is interested in transferring to Richmond. -thanks

    • Rob
      Posted March 10, 2012 at 1:48 am | Permalink

      I realize “Bs” is rather general. Consider 3.3+ college gpa in a rigorous curriculum, remaining in all of the academic disciplines.He also had a below average high school GPA. I understand most all applicants to this institution produce incredible letters of recommendation. Does this play a large role in the transfer process?

    • Tom
      Posted March 12, 2012 at 11:01 am | Permalink


      Indeed, all admission blog entries are still active and can be commented upon.

      The process is a little bit different for transfer applicants. In the case of transfers, the primary factor under consideration becomes grades in college (with less emphasis on the high school transcript for each semester of college completed — for a student transferring after two years of college, we focus almost exclusively on the college transcript). Competitive transfer students are typically in the 3.3 and above range, though there is some weight given to the type of institution attended (e.g. community college vs. selective liberal arts college) alongside the grades themselves.

      We do consider a transfer student’s intended major more heavily, particularly in evaluating the curriculum and preparedness for Richmond. But regardless of the curricular area, we’re still going to place more emphasis on the grades (even the grades in art courses) than on another factor (such as a student’s artwork, research, or extracurricular involvement). Letters of recommendation play a role, too, but more in the selective sense of helping us differentiate between similarly qualified applicants.

      Richmond does, incidentally, have a strong Studio Art program — very well resourced but characterized by a high level of personal attention.

      Hope that’s helpful!


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