When Good Students Are Rejected

Reader and parent Gary B. writes in, unsatisfied with the college admissions process and looking for suggestions:

My daughter was rejected from UCLA. That's a common phrase from parents, I'm sure, but here's what's uncommon: Her GPA was 4.1 weighted, 3.89 unweighted. She achieved 30 on the ACT, 740 on SAT II math, and 680 in chemistry. As I'm sure you know, these scores rank her in all the top percentiles. Though she didn't always take the hardest courses available to her, most were honors and AP. She was Vice-President of a club, spent three years on a sports team, two of them varsity, plays a musical instrument and did about 55 hours of community service in her junior and senior years. So I guess my question is: If she is so far above the averages, why was she still rejected? And what can I do to appeal the decision?

Thanks for writing, Gary. I wish I could give a more exact response, but I'm afraid that I just don't know enough about your daughter's unique background to know precisely why UCLA might decide not to accept her. She does seem like quite a talented young woman, though.

I would like to reframe your thinking a bit. Remember that college admissions is not just about the numbers game. An application full of high test scores and impressive GPAs complete with a resume padded with accomplishments and activities may look like a guaranteed admission, but there are other factors considered, too. Simply comparing basic statistical information between students rarely paints the entire picture. Application review is a holistic process, which evaluates the totality of a student's experiences. This explains some of the apparent inconsistencies that arise from comparing applicants.

Also remember that with the competitiveness of all students constantly increasing, there is more subjectivity than ever in the decision-making process. Two essays of equal technical merit and on comparatively deep and analytical issues may resonate differently with the same admissions officer. Sometimes getting lucky and penning a personal statement that touches upon the reader's particular emotions that day is the difference between acceptance and rejection, unfair as that may be.

Finally, remember that college do not simply admit the "best" 2000 applicants for their 2000 available seats. A university wants to build diversity into its new student body. Thus, if the "best" 2000 students all happen to play a musical instrument but have never competed in a science fair, the 2001st and 2002nd "best" applicants who did may be accepted over someone in the top 2000. In other words, similarities your daughter shared with other applicants in the same general test score and GPA bracket may have hurt her, even though these are circumstances completely beyond her control.

We can never really know for sure why admissions committees make some of the decisions they do. At best, we can plan and strategize, but ultimately luck does play a role, especially at the more elite colleges. Though I must recommend against pursuing to your final question, "what can I do to appeal the decision?" What you can do is much different than what your daughter can do. If she would like additional review, she may contact the admissions office herself and request information about the procedure. I encourage you to support her in this process if she decides to do it, but do not force her and especially do not do it yourself.

The most important thing you can do as a parent is to remain positive and supportive. Be there for your daughter and help her through the disappointment she is feeling. This time is incredibly stressful for her. I highly recommend my article on this topic, How Parents can Deal Positively with Rejection, which should provide additional guidance for you and some tips for how to support your daughter. Know that a single rejection is never the end of the world, and that if UCLA was your daughter's dream school, there are still avenues to her ultimate enrollment there. Good luck to you and your daughter, and thanks again for your question.

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