Kudos to Amanda Graves, a high school senior in New Jersey, for calling attention to one of the most cynical games that selective colleges play to boost their prestige.

In a column in the Washington Post on Monday, Graves wrote about how she has received letters and emails from top colleges urging her to apply to the schools. For example, Yale University sent the following message to her in September:

Dear Amanda,

As the Dean of Yale College, I write to congratulate you on your academic success and to introduce you to Yale’s diverse opportunities and communities…As you consider your college options, I hope that Yale remains among your top prospects.

It sounds like Yale really wants to admit her. But Graves, who admits to being “a fairly average” student, was not convinced:

My grades are nothing to brag about, and I didn’t qualify for the National Merit Competition. I haven’t lead a team sport, conducted scientific research or been in all-state band. My mom might tell me I’m brilliant, but I’m not even in the top quartile at my public high school.

After doing some research, Graves learned that Yale sends such solicitations to about 80,000 high school students a year to fill a class of 1,300. The university rejects nearly 94 percent of students who apply. She wrote:

Immediately, that grandiose vision of me, strolling through New Haven in a bulldog sweater, conversing about important intellectual matters with my esteemed peers and professors, was halted by an abrupt reality check.

Graves recognizes that selective colleges that inundate students with personalized letters and emails urging them to apply are not necessarily contacting them because the schools intend to admit them. In reality, colleges often encourage students to apply so that they can reject them.

As my colleague Rachel Fishman and I wrote in Washington Monthly’s College Guide this fall, the aim of the game for these colleges is to boost the number of students who apply and can be rejected. By doing this, the schools see their acceptance rates fall, making them appear to be more selective – which helps them rise up the U.S. News & World Report rankings.

These types of tactics feed into the frenzy of college admissions that leads students to apply to as many schools as possible, even if they don’t have a chance of being admitted to many of them.

This may be an effective strategy for schools in terms of gaming the college rankings. But it is unfair to the students who are being hoodwinked. As Graves wrote, these e-mails and letters give students “a false sense of hope” that is dashed as the rejection letters pile up.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

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Stephen Burd

Stephen Burd is a senior policy analyst in the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation.