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College Admissions: An Art, Not a Science

Jan 10, 2011

It's that time of year again, when college applications have been submitted and students begin waiting for responses. Many anxious applicants imagine decisions will be made by well-organized, emotionless admissions boards. In reality, though, admissions professionals are regular people who are just as inclined to error as the rest of us. And in some cases, this can result in hurtful mistakes.

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Human Error

It can be easy to imagine an admissions board as a faceless monolith, but the reality is that real people with real flaws are behind college's decisions. Like individuals in all professions, college admissions officers have good days and bad, and sometimes details are missed and mistakes are made. One famous example of this is the case of Adam Wheeler, who was granted admission to Harvard based on an application that was rife with inconsistency and fiction.

In his application, Wheeler made many false claims, some as basic and easily debunked as the high school he attended. Whether through a rare oversight or some systemic flaw, the Harvard admissions team didn't catch on to these lies, and in 2007, Wheeler was admitted to the institution as a sophomore transfer student.

Eventually, Wheeler's lies were uncovered and charges were filed. In December 2010, he pled guilty to 20 misdemeanor and felony counts of larceny and fraud. Wheeler was sentenced to a prison term of two-and-a-half years, though all but 30 days of that sentence was suspended and he was credited for over a month of prison time already served. Though he will not return to prison, Wheeler's conviction will stay on his record - and a record of his actions will stay in news archives, likely to follow him for the rest of his life.

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Hurtful Mistakes, Arbitrary Choices

College applicants can also be hurt by admissions mistakes that are not their fault at all. In one example from 2009, the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) sent an admission acceptance email to an overjoyed high school student, only to revoke that acceptance just hours later by informing him that he received the email in error. An administrative flaw had resulted in the student's receipt of the email intended only for those who had been accepted, and apparently, this was not the first time that UCSD's admissions department has made such a mistake.

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Some current and former admissions officers admit to tossing applications based on seemingly random criteria. In one case, an anonymous admissions professional from a Northeastern state university admitted to tossing out applications based on his or her mood at the time he or she read the application. Other admissions professionals admitted to rejecting highly qualified students because they didn't seem like interesting people, or accepting students without considering their credentials because of a parent's wealth or fame.

What Can You Do?

Now that some extreme worst-case examples have been examined, it's time to consider a more moderate reality. Certainly, Adam Wheeler's example should serve as a cautionary tale rather than an inspiration. It's a safe assumption that most college-bound students would rather end up in a second-, third- or even fourth-choice school than spend any time in jail. And even though the human side of the admissions process may result in officers making inappropriately personal or arbitrary acceptance decisions, that human side can also result in your acceptance - even if your record isn't perfect.

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One great way to set yourself apart from the crowd is to focus on making your unique personality shine through in cover letters, essays and interviews. Instead of treating the admissions process like a contest to see if you can fit into a certain mold, view it as an opportunity to showcase the person you've become through your school and life experiences. If you try to have a little fun with the process, you might stand out as a confident, interesting person in a sea of generic applications. Just know that no matter where you end up going to school, the real quality of your education depends on the work you put into it.

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