It’s college application season, and anxious students and parents throughout the country are strategizing on how to get into the elite colleges of their choice. Journalist and author Jeff Selingo just spent a year inside college admissions offices at three higher education institutions to write his latest book, “Who Gets In and Why.” 

Here’s his blunt assessment: The college admissions game — especially at Ivy League and other elite schools that turn away the vast majority of applicants — is not about what students want or even what they’ve earned; it’s about what those colleges need. And in any given year, those needs change.

Do they need more students whose parents are willing to pay full price so they can afford to accept more middle- or lower-income students who can’t? Are they trying to fill the roster for the fencing or lacrosse teams? Do they need more Advanced Placement calculus students to build the math program? More diversity in STEM majors? Maybe they need a talented oboist for the campus orchestra? 

“We have this belief in this country that if you work hard and do well, you’re going to get to go to the best colleges, and that’s not the case. It never was and never will be,” Selingo says on Strada’s latest “Lessons Earned” podcast. “We all know there are thousands of colleges and universities out there, many of them very good, that accept a majority of applicants that apply. And one hope I have for this book is to let parents and students look up and out and see that there’s a wider world out there. … There are great jobs and great lives to be had no matter where you go to college.”

In his conversation with co-hosts Ben Wildavsky of Strada and Aimée Eubanks Davis of Braven, Selingo talks about what he calls “the black box” of college admissions, offers advice to students and parents, and also shares his thoughts on what higher education leaders and policymakers could do to improve the process.

Selingo says he hopes his latest book, as well as his previous book, “There Is Life After College,” will help students and parents — plus higher education leaders and high school counselors focus less on colleges’ brand names and more on the career-related college experience they offer and their long-term student outcomes.

“I’m hopeful that especially as outcomes become more important for students, that they do think about what they’re doing while they’re in college, the courses they’re taking, the mentors that they’re meeting, the internships, and the other types of experiential learning that we have,” he says. “We know there’s a huge body of research out there that all this matters to success after college. It’s not just getting that degree. It’s not that piece of paper that’s the most important thing. It’s all these other activities that you’re doing that help you.”


To learn more, listen to the conversation on “Lessons Earned.”

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