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A Case of 16 College Rejections: Lessons Learned and Pitfalls to Avoid

High test scores, a passion, multiple academic awards, and your own start-up. Is this enough for admission into Top Schools? Or, in this increasingly competitive game, is this profile enough to get you considered, but not enough to stand out? This is the dilemma faced by many high schoolers and their families who are aiming high by seeking admission into top US colleges and universities. 

One of these students went viral for his story of a disappointing college application journey. His name is Stanley Zhong and he was rejected from 16 out of 18 colleges. Among these rejections were 5 UC schools, Cal Tech, and UMichigan. Where was he accepted? University of Texas and University of Maryland.

In a change of fortune, Stanley followed up that disappointing list of rejections with a very notable acceptance. At just 18-years-old, Stanley is now one of Google’s newest software engineers. It was this fact that elevated his story to both local media outlets in the Bay Area, where Stanley is from, and international social media platforms. How can someone as talented as Stanley, evidenced by his job at one of the largest tech companies in the world, be rejected by these schools? Those reading his story wondered, “What went wrong?” and “If he faced so many rejections, what does that say about my or my child’s college chances?

Google headquarters.

Stanley and his father, Nan Zhong, stated that they are publicly sharing Stanley’s story in order to advocate for transparency in admissions decisions. The fact of the matter is, not even Stanley himself knows why this happened, that is for the schools’ admissions committees to know alone. Many parents are on his side, asking for more transparency from colleges that will explain the reasons behind any given “yes” or “no.” Additionally, they share this story because it has resonated with so many other individuals who have faced nearly identical problems. 

In the following article, we will use our knowledge and expertise in the field of College Admissions to brainstorm what might have gotten in Stanley’s way this application cycle and how to avoid these pitfalls when it is your child’s time to apply. Of course, it is impossible to know the real reason, which is why families like this are pushing for more transparency.

Current Admissions Landscape

It is first necessary to understand the current admissions landscape, which is ever-changing. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve noticed changes to the admissions process at the institutional and national level, altering the “norm” forever. 

The first of these is the switch to test-optional policies, originally begun as a temporary response to the pandemic, but more frequently adopted as permanent policies at many top schools. US News recently released a list of top schools that still required tests, including MIT as the only Top 20 school to do so. Test-optional policies open doors for students who may not have the resources necessary to effectively prepare for standardized tests. In general, it reflects a trend in admissions that is increasingly focused on non-academic unique factors to set your application apart. 

Royce Hall at UCLA. Credit: Elena Zhukova/University of California.

The second recent change concerns UC schools specifically, which is relevant to Stanley’s specific case as he applied to 5 of them. The University of California launched their Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) Initiative in 2022. What this means is that they are aiming to get all of their nine undergraduate campuses federally recognized as HSIs (5 already are!). HSIs are schools whose student body consists of at least 25% Hispanic or Latino students. The reason behind this initiative is to reflect the demographics of California residents (neary 40% identify as Hispanic or Latino). The federal recognition comes with increased support for Latinx students and other underrepresented demographics in the form of federal funds and a positive campus climate. Initiative such as these result in more diverse, supportive, and realistic campus environments that reflect the larger community. However, applicants might see these initiatives and worry their slice of the pie is getting smaller.

This leads us to the most wide-reaching change to the college admissions landscape: the SCOTUS decision on race-conscious admissions, or the repeal of Affirmative Action policies. In summary, the Supreme Court ruled that colleges and universities are unable to consider race as one of the factors deciding admissions, threatening their ability to counter historical biases and systemic racism in higher education. For more details, you can read about the decision here. Students and parents are left with many questions: How does this affect my application as a Black, Asian, Hispanic, or Indigenous student? One’s ethnic and cultural background is often central to who they are as a student, applicant, and individual. Schools are responding to this decision in a variety of ways and having to adapt their admissions policies in real time. 

These are the changes that provide the background to the admission’s landscape. While the SCOTUS decision occurred after Stanley applied, it is still relevant as conversations around race-conscious admissions policies have been hotly debated for years. Like Stanley’s family, countless families across the US and the globe are wondering how to adapt their college planning strategy to achieve success in their application season.

What went wrong?

Our analysis of Stanley’s situation focuses on common pitfalls that catch many students off-guard as they apply to universities. With all of the institutional and national changes in admissions policies occuring behind the scenes, individual students still must take ownership over their application package and think strategically about how to present their holistic self to the admissions committee.

Stanley’s case highlights the significance of choosing a major carefully. He applied as a Computer Science major in the Bay Area– perhaps the region most saturated my high-achieving computer scientists. That is not to say he should ignore his passion and talent for computer science and pivot to an entirely different field. However, one should weigh the pros and cons of any major choice with care. Major choice can impact your admissions decision at large public universities with limited slots for each major, like UC schools. For example, at UCLA in 2022, the admit rate for CS majors was 3.8%, while the admit rate for the school was 9%. If you are applying to a highly competitive major, think creatively about how to set your application apart in other ways. If you are between two majors, do some research into past admissions rates, consider the popularity of each option, and choose the major that both aligns with your interests and has the potential to open the most doors for you.

Another piece of Stanley’s case that can help prepare future applicants is considering the high school he comes from. In fall of 2023, Veritas Education and BranchOut! spoke with 30 admissions counselors from top US colleges, including MIT, Stanford, Cornell, Yale, and UPenn. A common insight they offered to our parents was understanding that each student’s application is read against their high school. Meaning, the admissions committee will not compare your application directly to your peers, but they will compare your course load to the number of advanced classes offered at your school. If you come from a high school that offers 10 AP classes, but you only enrolled in one– that may be a problem. Top universities are looking for high-achieving and highly-motivated applicants to pursue a rigorous course load and succeed. Stanley attended Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California. According to US News, it ranks 23rd within California and has a 78% AP participation rate, demonstrating that Stanley’s application was read against a high-achieving high school background. He had the task of standing out beyond academics.

This brings us to a key point of analysis– that there is no shortage of applicants with high test scores, numerous academic awards, and GPAs applying to prestigious universities. The application process has become increasingly competitive and the non-academic pieces of one’s applications may have more weight than GPA, SAT, and awards combined. Stanley’s profile was very narrowed in on CS. Thinking about Google’s job offer to him, his CS focus was better suited for this scenario. It is also important to mention that Nan Zhong, the father, is himself a Google software engineering manager. This familial connection may have played a role in Stanley’s job offer, in the same way that legacy preferences factor into college acceptances. When applying to colleges, more unique interests outside of this academic field could have helped Stanley stand out. This is not to say that grades and testing are unimportant; in fact, it is essential! But nowadays, the successful applicant has these high scores AND. The “AND” can be a number of things related to interpersonal skills, leadership positions, volunteer and impact work, written communication skills, creative talents, and athletic passions. 

With Stanley as just one example, major selection, high school background, and breadth of activities can make or break an application in a college admissions landscape that is constantly changing, becoming more competitive, and giving weight to non-academic pieces of one’s application.

Avoiding Pitfalls

With all this said, we know many parents and students reading this article may be thinking…now what? The first step is to not feel discouraged. There are endless resources, including those at Veritas Education, to help you navigate this college journey successfully and find a good fit for you or your student. For now, we’ll offer 3 pieces of advice you can take into account whether you are beginning this process now or years down the road.

  1. Branch Out and Make an Impact: We recommend branching out beyond what is typical for your high school peers. While a high GPA and test scores are essential for admission into top schools, do not forget how essential non-academic pieces of your application are. How many students have a 1400+ on the SAT and are part of a high school band? Plenty. But how many students tutor elementary students in reading and volunteer to play the cello at local senior centers? Way less! A unique applicant is one who uses their passions and talents to make an impact on others, demonstrating empathy and maturity to an admissions committee. 

  1. Tailor your Essays and Interviews: Many students we work with are astute and notice a pattern in the many supplemental essays they write during application season. There are common questions each school asks, though in different ways. These can be categorized as “Why Us Essay,” “the Diversity Essay,” and “the Passion Essay” (to name a few). A busy high school student may respond to this pattern by writing one essay for each “type” and simply changing the school name for each application. However, when you do that, you miss the nuances of each school. Schools have unique campus cultures and “personalities.” They are looking for students who will mess well with that personality so each essay should be more intentionally tailored to fit each school you are applying to.

  1. Start Early: This is the most straightforward piece of advice. College applications take a lot of time and energy! Beginning to think about your college goals early on in high school will give you the time and space needed to prepare a well-rounded profile that demonstrates academic talents, unique passions, and leadership skills by the time deadlines roll around. Top universities are rigorous institutions and therefore want to admit students who are goal-settings, effective planners, and intentional thinkers. A rushed application will come across to anyone reading it, so start early.

Despite the changing landscape, some things are constant: the feelings of stress students begin this process with and the feelings of pride when college seniors find success at the end of their journey. Our college advising service is designed to reduce stress and improve outcomes for both parents and students. We hope to support YOUR family on this journey whenever you are ready to begin it!

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