Game Plan

The top 10 college admissions myths.

In his recently published book The Price of Admission, Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Daniel Golden exposes the crooked admission policies of America’s top colleges. Below, he distills them into six succinct myths:

Myth No. 1: Elite colleges turn down many valedictorians and students with perfect SAT scores because the schools are seeking a “well-rounded class”—meaning that they’re looking for the best scientists, poets, philosophers, et cetera, rather than individuals who are good at everything.

Reality: They reject high achievers to make room not for brilliant specialists but for lesser lights who enjoy the “preferences of privilege,” such as donors, celebrities, children of alumni and faculty, or athletes in upper-crust sports. It is estimated that from one-third to one-half of first-year students at elite colleges get the boost.

Myth No. 2: Elite colleges are need-blind; that is, they don’t refuse admission to students in need of financial aid.

Reality: The Ivy League, Stanford, and Duke may be need-blind, but they are not wealth-blind. A student from a family with the capacity to be a major donor has a big advantage in admissions.

Myth No. 3: Admissions preference for athletes helps the poor and minorities.

Reality: That’s true only for a few sports, primarily football and basketball. Athletic preference overwhelmingly helps wealthy prep school graduates, because most sports played at elite colleges—squash, crew, sailing, polo, golf, horseback riding, and the like—are not offered at public high schools. Title IX, the gender equity law, has abetted this problem by spurring women’s teams in primarily aristocratic sports, such as crew and horseback riding.

Myth No. 4: Colleges maintain a firewall between their admissions and their fund-raising operations.

Reality: This is completely false. At most colleges, the president and fund-raisers funnel a “development list” of applicants from rich families to admissions for priority treatment.

Myth No. 5: Colleges give an admissions break only to children of their alumni, not to children from families with no prior relationship to the school.

Reality: False again. The admissions edge for a child of an alumnus who can’t afford to give money is far less than for a child of a non-alum in a position to make a significant gift.

Myth No. 6: All applicants go through the same review process.

Reality: Children of key alumni and donors enjoy advantages every step of the way, such as extended application deadlines, personal interviews with admissions deans, “special student” status, and deferred admissions (as with Harvard’s “Z-list” for well-connected applicants).