Mythbusters: Selecting a Class

One of the most exciting (and daunting) tasks that admission offices face is selecting or creating a class. Each year, admission committees at selective colleges across the country are tasked with reviewing and considering thousands of applications in order to create a unique, exciting, and well-rounded incoming class for the next year.

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions surrounding this selection process, particularly for highly selective colleges. Having just gone through my fifth season reviewing applications and sitting on the admission committee, I find that this is a very fresh topic on my mind, so I thought I’d share a few thoughts. For senior applicants, I hope this gives you a good sense of what we’ve been doing for the past few months; for junior and sophomore prospects, this should give you a sense of what to expect next year or the following.

A note in advance on terminology: by “selective colleges,” I mean schools with low admission rates (i.e. with applicant pools significantly larger than their first-year class size); by “selective admission,” I mean the complex process by which those colleges go about creating a class from sizable and highly qualified applicant pools.

Myth #1: Holistic consideration means that numbers are not important.

I think that, sometimes, selective colleges overemphasize the holistic nature of their admission processes. We do this mainly to form a contrast with competitive admission processes (think large public universities) that run things almost exclusively by the numbers, but I fear that our overemphasis may cause some students and parents to begin equating “holistic” with “numbers don’t matter.” In fact, grades and test scores are often the most important criteria at selective colleges, too; they’re just more balanced by consideration of curricular rigor, personal qualities, accomplishments, and experiences. At Richmond, your high school transcript is the number one factor we consider in your application; even the strongest personal achievements rarely, if ever, make up for poor grades or a lackluster curriculum. When we say we’re holistic, it means we’re looking for “both and,” not “either or.”

Myth #2: Admission profiles are good predictors of admission at selective colleges.

In light of what I just said about Myth #1, I want to check myself and also emphasize that, though academic criteria are often among the top factors selective colleges consider, it’s a mistake to think you can take a selective college’s profile and predict admission based upon it. If you look at Richmond’s academic profile, you’ll get a good sense of the type of applications we’re admitting; but for every approved application falling in the profile, there are several more just like it which are not approved.

This is what we mean when we say “selective.” Selective admission does not mean selecting the tippy-top percentage of students based on certain criteria (that would just be competitive admission, the numbers-driven model, on steroids). Selective admission means selecting from among very many top students using a wide variety of criteria. It’s a nuanced distinction, but it’s an important one.

Myth #3: Okay, so holistic consideration means that admission is determined by students’ academic and personal accomplishments.

Well, yes… generally. Those are the main criteria we consider. But there are dozens of factors that go into admission decisions at selective colleges, and some of them are quite simply outside of your control.

Often times you’ll hear admission staff try to explain selective admission with an example along the lines of, “The orchestra needed a bassoonist this year, so maybe that’s the reason one student was admitted over another.” Granted, this example is a bit of an exaggeration; rarely, if ever, is there such a specific campus need that is addressed so directly by the admission process. But every college does have institutional priorities, which can vary from year to year, and which certainly have an impact on who’s being admitted.

Perhaps there’s a particular disciplinary area (like the arts or the natural sciences) that the college is seeking to grow. Maybe there’s a specific geographic region where the college wants to expand, so students from that area are a little more likely to get in (or, for public universities, there are in-state quotas to meet). All colleges pay some level of attention to their alumni and legacy applicants (some institutions more so than others). NCAA athletic programs have varying levels of influence on admission decisions at most schools. Many colleges consider your financial situation as one factor in the puzzle (Richmond, with our need-blind admission policy, is not one of these), while others look at the level of interest you’ve expressed in attending. And you better believe that colleges are going to pay attention to students whose last names are on campus buildings.

Note that most of these examples are things you just can’t control, even with the strongest academic and personal accomplishments. While they’re not the most important factors influencing admission decisions, they are often secondary or tertiary factors that do have an impact, especially for schools seeking to select from among many qualified applicants.

Myth #4: Students who have achieved to the maximum level possible within their setting should get into any college they want. After all, they’ve done everything they possibly can.

We wish this were true. Really, we do. We wish that we had space in our first-year class for every high-achieving, deserving applicant. We spend so much time reading so many wonderful applications, and we wish we could take all of them, because they’re all so amazing. But this just isn’t possible when we have 10,200 applications and 765 spaces in our first-year class.

I think we, as a society, need to move away from the very prevalent notion that college admission is a reward for good work, a prize to be won. If we admitted every deserving student, we would have a first-year class of thousands and there wouldn’t be space for everybody on campus (not to mention the small class sizes we advertise would become a thing of the past). Every selective college faces these sorts of tough decisions. College admission is a match to be made, a journey to be taken, but should not be construed as a reward.

The consolation and good news is that there are many different colleges out there with differing criteria and differing priorities. The vast majority of our applicants are admitted to several schools, whether or not they’re admitted at Richmond. So when all is said and done, we’re confident that every student will have a home next fall, whether at Richmond or elsewhere.


  1. Red
    Posted March 24, 2012 at 2:55 am | Permalink

    Do we receive notification via email or mail? And if it’s through mail, since April 1 is a Sunday and the mail won’t come, should we expect a letter earlier or later than that?

    • Tom
      Posted March 26, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Permalink


      See the new post that just went up. We notified via the mail on Friday; letters should be arriving early this week.


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