College Admissions Flaws, Grand Ideas, and Moving On

March 23, 2024

Even in my little neighborhood, these months of college acceptances and non-acceptances feel like times of great uncertainty. When I worked in schools, you could feel the anxiety building from the beginning of the senior year. For those students who are applying to colleges, there is stress that is involved. And for the parents, that stress is often even more intense. For years, as an educator and now as a neighbor and friend, I have tried to convince parents and students that this stress and intensity is not necessary. It’s going to be OK. The system is not perfect, and our students have many avenues to success.

I started thinking about this topic because, this week, several colleges announced that they were reinstating the SAT or ACT as a requirement of admission. MIT, Dartmouth, UT-Austin, Yale, and Georgetown are all bringing the test back. Their reasoning is primarily that nothing predicts success in college better than the SAT/ACT: grades are not given on the same scale across the nation; essays – who knows who (or what) is writing those? So it’s the SAT/ACT exam that gives a consistent barometer.

Yale is actually allowing AP tests in lieu of the SAT. I like that strategy a lot. The SATs, which are an accumulation of a lot of information, may seem like an objective test on the surface. But students whose parents have the means often take expensive courses to prepare themselves, giving them an advantage over students who do not have those means. AP tests cover material taught in class, and tutoring is much more rare, so it seems more fair, though, in this arena, too, students with means likely have more access to AP courses and greater chances of success on AP tests as well.

I have readers across the political spectrum, and I know some will not want to hear this. There is no denying that college admissions, which seem to be based on objective criteria like test scores and GPA, are inherently unfair. Affluent families are better at knowing how to play the college application game, because they played it themselves. Students from affluent families are often surrounded by other high performing students, and pushed to excel in a greater variety of AP classes. These students have greater access to tutoring and college counselors. That’s why I’m not against programs that try to level the playing field for those who do not have all the advantages that wealth can bring. And it’s why I’ve always looked for a better way for students to truly demonstrate who they are and what they know, in order for prospective colleges to know who they are admitting.

Back in 1994, I thought I was on the cutting edge of solving this problem. That’s the year that Malibu High School started requiring a schoolwide portfolio as a graduation requirement. Not only would completing the portfolio demonstrate college readiness, but it would also be something admissions offices could review to get a more complete picture of the work each student was capable of doing. Many of us thought it was a wonderful and transformative idea, and nearly the entire faculty of Malibu High School was in the boardroom cheering when the new MHS graduation policy was  adopted. It was a great moment.

Some of the portfolio requirements included:

  • Proof that students had passed a very comprehensive test on civics and the US Constitution
  • Their very best written work, including research papers, over the course of a four-year high school career
  • Proof of 144 hours of verified community service completed over a four-year high school career, and reflections on that work
  • Projects in the visual and performing arts
  • Any awards or certificates earned throughout high school
  • College essays, including a reflective essay on the value of their high school experience

To help students along their way, we developed an advisory system. One of the unwritten rules for high school is that students do best when they have at least one trusted adult on campus. So every Friday, we had a 25-minute advisory period, and every teacher, counselor, administrator, as well as a few other key employees, met with their advisory students. That class could be spent talking about school issues, tips for academic success, study strategies, or anything really. Advisors stayed with their advisees for their entire 4-year high school experience. And at graduation, advisors were on the stage handing flowers to their advisee graduates. 

I very clearly remember our team inventing all of this from scratch, and working like hell to implement it. We tweaked it regularly. It was hard, it was messy, it was fun, and it was mentally taxing. I don’t think my friend Luke, a great counselor and a rather traditional educator, ever truly understood what we were doing or why, and I think the Friday advisory schedule still makes him shudder. But he too, along with so many on our staff, jumped in and tried to make it better every week, month, and year. I know students and teachers grew from the experience.

But here’s the thing: colleges did not want to get more information on their applicants. The portfolios never made it to the admissions offices that were already overwhelmed. And our grand idea never materialized into shifting the landscape of college admissions.

Still, even without the admissions changes, the portfolio and advisory system was a big part of our school for five or six years. But as new employees started working with us, and as the burden of something extra began to be felt, it was harder and harder to maintain, and eventually, we ended it. Some things remained – the Constitution test and the community service – but the rest of it was discontinued.

For me, it was a grand failure. I loved my advisory students, and I know that many students and faculty felt the same way about their advisees. The graduation moments were special. I was inspired seeing the entire school working together, trying to solve new problems that all of these new ideas brought up. 

Colleges admissions are still imperfect. Testing is helpful, but flawed. College essays, between AI and very expensive college admission counselors, may or may not be written by the students. And the most competitive schools receive applications from far more overqualified students than they can admit. An admissions director from a prestigious university once told me, “We admit 2000 students a year. But most of us believe that if we did not accept them, and took the next 2000 on the list, we would have an outstanding freshman class.” In other words, it’s pretty random. 

Students should remember that colleges make these decisions without knowing students as well as they should. It’s not really their fault – they would need to significantly increase staff to do truly in-depth analysis of applicants, and even then, it might be a best guess scenario. I don’t know if that makes students and parents feel better or not, but for those who are not accepted, it’s one more great reason not to take it personally.

And it matters far less than many people think. There are not just 12 to 15 colleges that matter. There are hundreds of great colleges where students can get a fantastic education, and some of those may be better fits for them than the so-called elites. Don’t believe me? Read Frank Bruni’s 2015 masterpiece, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. The so-called “safety schools” that people apply to may actually be the best fit for many students. Be open minded!

My advice to this year’s seniors and future seniors, and the parents of those students is still the same: it’s going to be OK. It’s an imperfect system, and it is not always fair. Don’t fall in love with schools where acceptance can be truly random. Who you are, your work ethic, your ability to collaborate, your creativity, your problem solving abilities, your kindness, and your sense of gratitude matter far more than the university name on the top of your diploma.

So here’s to grand failures, putting forth our best efforts, accepting results often determined by others (and sometimes by chance), and then moving on toward the next sensible or nonsensical goal in our lives.

Have a good day y’all,

– Mike Matthews

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Post #104 on


I was turned down by two universities when I applied to school back in 1980. Harvard was a long shot, and they wanted nothing to do with me. But I also applied to Duke University. Back then, there was no downloadable application. You had to request the application by mail, receive it by mail, then use your typewriter to fill in the application boxes. 

I had finished my Duke application, laid it on the kitchen counter, and went downstairs to find the envelope and some stamps so I could put it in the mailbox. I got distracted by a few things, and it was probably 30 minutes before I came back to the kitchen, ready to send it off. But the application was gone. I started looking around the house . . . nothing. The mail delivery person was coming soon, and it had to be postmarked that day. I asked my Mom, who knew where everything was, and she didn’t know. Starting to panic, I yelled out to my siblings if they had seen it. They ignored me as usual, then my brother Pat said, “Wait. What did it look like?”

I told him it was three pages, and the top page had a lot of dark blue on it. He grimaced. Uh oh.

He said that he was changing the battery in our car, and he didn’t want to mess up Dad’s garage counter, so he saw some papers in the kitchen, and just used that to protect the counter. I said, “So there’s a dirty, acidic battery on top of my application?”

“Sorry, dude. Was that important?”

So, I took the application, with a soiled front page and the battery acid already working on working its way through everything, put it in the envelope, and sent it off.

I was supposed to hear back on April 15.

In early March, I received notice that I had not been accepted. At least they were able to read the application. I often wonder if the whole envelope was in shreds by the time they received it. They should have sent a Polaroid picture of the entire Duke admissions team laughing at my poor excuse for an application. It would have been deserved.

All it is now, is a good story – a grand failure, followed by a whole lot of moving on.

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  1. Kim Holz says:

    Hi Dr. Matthews,
    I really loved this post! The stress that students feel regarding college admission is incredible, and I remember both my kids applying like it was yesterday. I agree with everything you wrote and wish there was a better way to handle college admission. I honestly do not know how colleges can determine an authentic application. The Frank Bruni title is something everything family should keep in mind (and repeat to themselves over and over). Thanks for another great post!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks so much, Kim! I will say that i was fine with any of the universities that my kids applied to, but I will admit that I was nervous in the process. I felt the same way as a parent that I felt as a high school senior: once I/my children were accepted to one college, I knew I/they were going somewhere. That felt much better.

  2. Great post Mike! We are waiting for SLO to announce, but city college route with transfer isn’t a bad route to take if the first option doesn’t happen. We will see, and keep remembering to breathe. What drives me crazy is why kids feel they need to apply to 15-20 schools! Seriously think that doesn’t help!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Students are applying to that many, because they are hoping that with at least one, the odds will be forever in their favor. And there is peer pressure to do that. SLO is awesome, but it too is highly competitive. Good luck with the process, and thanks for reading!

  3. John "Jack" Loose says:

    Very interesting post Mike. I never had that experience of applying to a number of different schools. I grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, and it was simply expected I would go to the University of Delaware. All my family went there, mother, father, sister, brother, and their spouses. I applied and was accepted, and that was it.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      The University of Delaware features outstanding graduates such as Jack Loose and Joseph Biden. Pretty impressive! And yes, that’s the point that Mr. Bruni makes. The U of D is just one of hundreds of colleges where students can get an outstanding and somewhat reasonably priced education. Thanks for reading, Jack!

  4. Dan Stepenosky says:

    I recommend Frank Bruni’s book to everyone. It’s a great lesson in all aspects of life…college is what you make of it, not where you get into.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Dr. Superintendent Dan! Thanks for trying to lead the way, in a community that I know can get overstressed about college.

  5. Bill Sampson says:

    Great story about Duke, Mike. I guess it evened out – you didn’t get to play basketball at Duke and didn’t get to swim at Stanford. We were spared some of the angst because very near the end of Margaret’s junior year we all decided she could graduate early meaning all the college visits happened in about 4 days – the drawback was that Mom and Dad completed the fill in the blank parts of applications while daughter happily had a senior year, with a diploma already in hand, in Spain as a high school exchange student.

    I attended Caltech until proving to them in one of my five and one-half junior years that their admission decision had been a mistake. My Dad was a Harvard Law graduate who met my Mom (and married her 12 years later) at Knox, alma mater of Steven Colbert. We all did ok. Dad never practiced law and before departing because he’d rather teach, was CFO of the LA Community College District. His favorite of those schools was Trade Tech – certainly not on most students’ first choice list. Rosemary and I are, today, students at Santa Monica College – thanks fellow taxpayers. My Mom, Dad wife and I agree that we would have been smarter and more importantly our daughter woiuld be as well or better off [warning – dangling preposition] had we sent her first to community college rather than directly to four-year – where, as usual, she graduated early.

    SMC had two of the best instructors I have ever had in college or law school. Same for Rosemary.

    So, folks with kids going through this process, enjoy your kids’ last days at home and praise them when/if they attend SMC (or Santa Barbara City College – just as good and we’re small time donors there too). Your kids will be fine. [As usual, if I had more time, this would be shorter and better, but I’ve got to go practice my automotive technology skills on old cars.]

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Great advice, Bill Sampson. And thanks for sharing the stories of your also-a-lawyer Dad. I had not heard those before. I’m a big fan of the honors programs at SMC, SBCC, and others.

  6. Holly Bovio says:

    I love your portfolio concept and it reminds me of the IB program my kids completed. My daughter is #2 in the Unc waitlist for the OT masters program. It’s excruciating!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Holly. Yes, IB does have that concept, and some universities do consider that. Good look with that waitlist!

  7. Rhonda Steinberg says:

    Well back in the day I applied to one school UCLA, didn’t take an SAT prep class, didn’t have a back up school or a reach school. Got into UCLA and never looked back. I don’t think I would get in today but will never know. Life was simpler then. Go Bruins!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      How could UCLA ever turn down their biggest fan? i am 100% positive you would get in. Well, I’m 100% positive you would deserve to get in. Those were the days my friend. And back then, teachers could buy houses. Let’s go back!

  8. mark massey says:

    I would never attend a college or university (what is the difference?) that would not admit me.

    I probably would have gotten more out of my university education and taken it more seriously if I had been required to server a couple of years in a branch of our military immediately post high school. It would be a better path for many 18-year-olds whom I have known.

  9. Brother Mike, Great read today! It seems to STILL matter how well students score on these tests. I am sorry about setting the car battery on your application. It’s really not funny, but it happened and you ended up at Stanford. Many years later, I now look at things like this are all part of life’s plan. You really don’t owe me too many more thanks for going to Stanford 🙂 Love you,..Pat

  10. Ben Dale says:

    What did we always say? “You may not go where you want to go, but you WILL go where you are supposed to go. Harvard laughed me out of the room too, but TEXAS A&M!!!

    I wouldn’t trade it for anything

  11. Kevin J McCarthy says:

    College applications should consist of three questions.

    1. How many people’s lives (current and future) will change if you get into and graduate from our institution?

    2. Why will their lives change because of your success?

    3. What will you need from us to help you to make that a reality?

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