The perplexing math of college admissions

An admissions dean says, ‘We know it doesn’t make sense’

Adrienne Amador Oddi grew up in Woodstock, Georgia, and now serves as the dean of admissions and financial aid at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

In this essay, Oddi discusses the hard realities of admissions to colleges like hers that receive more applications than they can accept.

By Adrienne Amador Oddi

15,000. 5,000. 500.

I studied math. That pattern is pleasing to me. Years of outreach and engagement with future college students distilled to a few numbers: Those who inquire. Those who apply. Those who join us.

If only college admissions were that simple.

Recently, I was speaking to high school juniors and their families who live in Georgia. They could have been students from anywhere and everywhere. Inevitably, as these students begin their college search processes, they want to know the science to getting into college.

We’ve taught them the simple mathematics of college admissions offices: Good grades plus good involvement plus good scores equals getting in.

They’ve been fed the lie of American meritocracy. Maybe we all have.

We fill ourselves up with stories of individual people, generation after generation, pulling themselves up through good grades plus good involvement plus good scores. Their singular experiences make it harder to see the systemic forces at play. Make it harder for families to see the work we are doing to fight those forces. Make it harder for colleges to be the vehicles for social mobility we want them to be.

Education is a powerful force for positive change. I believe this deeply and wholeheartedly. And I see the opportunity gap each day in my work as an admissions officer. I see — every. single. day. The g r o w i n g space between “good” schools and “bad” schools.

With knowledge of abundance and scarcity, I must assess and evaluate — as fairly as the conditions allow — these varied student experiences in order to answer, “Who gets in here?”

Fueled by black coffee (at least in my case), admissions officers all over the country are grappling with our reality. We are seekers of potential. We are optimistic, future oriented. We are shepherds of institutional priorities. We are responsible, constrained. We are human beings.

For so many reasons, we want education to operate outside of the “real world.” We want to believe that good enough is, truly, good enough. Instead, we read the impassioned stories from thousands of students from around the globe knowing we have both physical and financial limitations on to whom we can say yes and how.

We look for you, students, in those applications. We look for your voice, even if it shakes. We celebrate your triumphs, no matter the size. We forgive your shortcomings, especially when you forgive yourself.

Sitting at the intersection of aspirational and practical, we have difficult decisions to make. We’re rarely (never) choosing between someone who would flourish in college and someone who would not. All of the students who apply to Trinity are capable of succeeding in college; many would thrive at Trinity.

Credit: Trinity College

Credit: Trinity College

I hold the language of inclusion in my heart and the financial realities of all institutions in our capitalist society in my head. My hands try to marry these conflicts as decisions get released.

I hope we got it “right.”

Cue the phone calls:

But this student had a B, and I had all As. She got in, and I didn't.

My friend took the full IB diploma, and I didn't. I got in and he didn't.

We have the same grades. We worked the same job. We come from the same place. I got in, and she didn't.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

We try to make it make sense, for you, for us. We know it doesn’t make sense.

For maybe the first time in your life, you begin to see: “Good grades plus good involvement plus good scores does not equal getting in.”

American meritocracy begins to crumble. For the students and families who are waiting, searching, preparing, the equations aren’t simple. Because people aren’t numbers and places have souls.

You’ve done everything you can in preparing your applications. Know that fully. Reading your stories, I see you blossoming on campus. I see you walking across the graduation stage.

I see you persisting through challenges and defining new norms.

I see this for all 500. 5,000. 15,000 of you. And, yet, only 500 will join us in August.

I’m overjoyed that 500 of you will join us. I’m devastated that only 500 of you will join us. To the 500 students who will arrive in August, we know you’ll use your education to disrupt and evolve the systems of today. We’re counting on you to help us change our future.

500 from 5,000 from 15,000.

If only it were that simple.

I’m glad it’s not that simple.