College admissions is not a meritocracy. It’s a game.

Antonio Buehler is a college admissions consultant and cofounder of Abrome, a unique online learning community based in Austin. With degrees from Harvard, Stanford, and West Point and experience working in top-tier admissions, he has plenty to tell you, especially if attending a highly ranked college or university is your child’s goal. Many thanks to Antonio for sharing these valuable and timely insights.


College admissions is not a meritocracy. It’s a game. Those who know how to play the game began years ago. They’ve donated consistently and substantially to their alma maters, they’ve provided their children with ample opportunities to stand out in the admissions game through their experiences, they’ve provided the support necessary for their children to get top grades, and they’ve paid for SAT prep courses.

The college admissions season is nearly one month in; the Common Application went live on August 1. Those who know how to play the game have already paid an admissions consultant to help their children craft their essays, and their kids are cozying up to their recommenders and getting ready to submit an application to their dream school (or their strategic reach school) via Early Action or Early Decision. If your child (or you) plan on attending a highly selective college or university next year but have not started the application process, you’re already behind the curve.

This past year, only 2,145 out of 42,167 (5.1%) of Stanford’s applicants were accepted.  Of Stanford's applicants from 2008 to 2012 with SATs of 2400, the highest score possible, 69 percent didn't get in. Over 24,000 of the applicants vying for one of Stanford’s 2,145 offers had a 4.0 or higher GPA.

The odds at Harvard weren’t much better; only 2,048 out of 34,295 (6.0%) of the applicants were accepted. It is said that Harvard rejects four out of every five valedictorians who apply, and this past year over 3,400 applicants who were vying for one of the 2,048 slots were ranked first in their class. While most colleges don’t have the benefit of having 20 applicants for each available spot, even state schools such as the University of Texas now reject more applicants than they accept.

Many guidance counselors will claim that the admissions process is random and that every applicant who wins a spot at one of these coveted institutions is extraordinarily qualified for admissions, but that is a lie. There is nothing random about admissions, and the process is not fair.

Many people mistakenly believe that where the process is the least fair is that athletes and underrepresented minorities have an advantage in the admissions game. Schools need to balance the need to field winning sports teams and to ensure that their classes are sufficiently diverse, but athletes who are among the best in the country (e.g., Stanford football or tennis, Harvard crew or squash) and also are outstanding students can hardly be considered unworthy, and while underrepresented minorities get a small benefit in the admissions game, the ones who are admitted are typically well qualified. The average SAT score of black students in the Harvard class of 2017 was 2107. (Diversity is measured in many ways, not just along ethnic or racial lines. Diversity can also come in the forms of family circumstance, socioeconomic status, geography, nationality, religion, sexual preference, life experiences, and academic and extracurricular interest.)

Where the process is less fair is in the advantages it offers children of professors and alumni. These connected students are essentially double dipping, having benefited from their parents’ education and/or source of income, and then receiving the added bonus of gaining admission to elite schools over better-qualified applicants. However, where the process is least fair is in the benefits that underqualified children of the very wealthy, corporate elites, and the politically connected receive. This benefit is so large that “[r]esearchers with access to closely guarded college admissions data have found that, on the whole, about 15 percent of freshmen enrolled at America's highly selective colleges are white teens who failed to meet their institutions' minimum admissions standards.”

So what can you do, now that it is almost the eleventh hour, to play the game well and ensure that your child gets into her dream school? Sadly, if you haven’t been giving your child the opportunity to lead a remarkable life by allowing her the space to dive deep into areas of interest, to develop and demonstrate her intellectual curiosity, to attain excellence in ways that are relevant to her life, you are behind the eight ball. However, I have specialized in helping students who are behind that eight ball get into top colleges and universities for years, and there is plenty of gaming that can be done even at this late stage.

First and foremost, your child must be able to tell a story that convinces the admissions committee that he has led a remarkable life filled with excellence based on what he has experienced. He may not have started a company, done graduate level research, or started a social movement, but he should have unique interests that he can speak to. The process of doing an audit on one’s life experiences and then organizing and presenting those experiences in a compelling way through the essays is time-consuming but necessary. In the admissions game, packaging is as important as substance; without either, the chances of getting into a top school are zero, but with one, there is a chance.

Second, applications to the elite schools must be as perfect as possible. GPA (if the student goes to a traditional high school) is set, and SATs are unlikely to shift much. However, the candidate has full control over her essays (her story) and significant control over the recommendations. Those essays must be perfect because they are the most important part of the application. Unlike law school, where a perfect GPA and LSAT will get you into Harvard, a perfect GPA and perfect standardized test scores are no guarantee that you will get into a Top 5 undergraduate program. The story that comes through in the essays (and to a lesser degree in the recommendations) must accompany the numbers in a way that convinces the admissions committee members that they need a particular applicant in their incoming class. That story is much simpler for the children of senators and Fortune 500 CEOs than it is for a middle-class or upper-middle-class child, but not even Harvard or Stanford can completely fill its incoming class with development cases, legacies, children of professors, recruited athletes, and diversity candidates.

Third, your child must begin working on her applications today. Creating those perfect essays and ensuring that the recommendations are just right takes time. It is not uncommon for my clients to do up to 20 turns of an essay before they are ready to submit it. Every single word must add value to one’s story, even articles and conjunctions. And the candidate must begin today because she must submit an Early Action or Early Decision application this fall, before she submits the bulk of her applications by the regular decision deadline for most schools.

Those who play the game know that the chances of admission skyrocket through Early Action and Early Decision. At Harvard, for example, a candidate had a 21 percent chance of being accepted through Early Action, but only 3.1 percent of regular admissions candidates (which included deferred Early Action applicants) were accepted. Stanford, meanwhile, accepted 10.8 percent of their Early Action candidates, compared to only 4 percent of regular admissions candidates.

The time to act is now if you want your child to get into Harvard, Stanford, or another top program. The time to act is now, as well, if your child wants to attend a competitive state school or a more local private college such as those listed in the table above. If your child is applying this year, he should be working on his essays each day, working with his recommenders, and continuing to excel academically and at extracurricular activities.

However, if your child is not applying this year, and has several years to prepare, then she can play the game by simply focusing on living a remarkable life, today. Those clients are the ones who are always the easiest to get into top programs.

Antonio Buehler