Today’s Applicants, Tomorrow’s Reputations

Josh Stephens
5 min readFeb 19, 2019


Back in the days when high school social scenes were the stuff of John Hughes movies and Beverly Hills 90210, reputations were all but ironclad. Whoever was a nerd, an artist, a jock, a socialite, or a stoner the first day of ninth grade often remained a nerd, an artist, a jock, a socialite, or a stoner through graduation day. Barring extraordinary circumstances, like spending Saturday detention with group of disparate strangers, social reputations often changed very little over four years.

It’s probably hard, then for 18-year-olds — then or now — to fathom how the reputations of entire institutions, some of them centuries old, could possibly change. Prestigious, ultra-selective schools have always been prestigious and ultra-selective. And middling safety schools have always been middling safety schools. And they always will be, right?

Fortunately for today’s college applicants, nothing could be further from the truth.

For as long as today’s high school seniors have been alive, the cohort of American high schoolers has grown larger each year and college admission rates have plummeted. They have reached truly insane levels: 20 percent here, 15 percent there, and less than 10 percent at some of the most selective schools. (Here’s one of hundreds of articles I could have cited to illustrate these numbers.)

This year, impressive, personable, and astonishingly well qualified applicants may and will be rejected not just by ultra-selective reach schools but also, possibly, by schools they considered safe.

Colleges agonize over great kids that they have to reject because they simply don’t have enough spaces. The most selective of them often report that they could admit one or two more classes full of applicants they rejected and be just as happy as they are with the classes they admit. They also admit that those final decisions are nearly random.

This trend means that kids who reasonably dreamed about certain schools — because they have great grades, class presidencies, even writing awards and scientific research — may have to “settle” for schools they find disappointing. Those students may even draw sympathy or, worse, mockery from classmates and relatives who expected them to do “better.”

Many students will lament these results. Some will even consider them “unfair” and worry about their long-term futures. They should not. Almost all of these students are going to end up enrolling in colleges that are actually better than their current reputations imply. As long as they enroll with the right attitude, they will accomplish great things.

If we as a society are going to continue to assign reputations to schools (itself a dubious prospect) and link those reputations to high school seniors who haven’t even set foot on their college campuses yet (an even more dubious prospect), we at least need to recalibrate our expectations.

Today’s high school students should not care about colleges’ reputations of a hundred years ago, ten years ago, or even today. They should care about colleges’ reputations tomorrow, five years from now, and twenty years from now.

It’s no exaggeration to say that a college ranked 10th, 40th, or 60th today is graduating students who are, in the aggregate, just as knowledgeable and capable as did colleges ranked 5th, 20th, and 30th 20 years ago. Kids are clamoring to get into some colleges these days used to be afterthoughts. Employers are clamoring to hire those kids. Likewise, there are adults out there in the world today who, at the time, received undistinguished educations but now find that, without writing a single essay or taking a single test, they are alumni of some of the most sought-after colleges in the country.

Colleges are getting better largely because their students are getting better. If admission rates mean anything, then plunging rates at countless colleges equate with greater academic achievements, better career preparation, stronger social and professional networks, and better career performance. The potential of today’s college students will translate to tomorrow’s accomplishments, which will ripple outward for decades, with each successive generation of students benefitting from the good work they do out in the world.

Are colleges just passively benefiting from bigger, stronger applicant pools? Hardly. Especially in the economic boom of the past ten years, colleges across the country have invested mightily in new facilities that, in many cases, put to shame the weathered, ivy-covered halls of prestige. (In some cases, they’re also investing in resort-style amenities, which are, I think, less praiseworthy.)

They’re also hiring faculty from exceptional talent pools. Every year, more graduate students receive doctorates and go on the job market than could possibly be hired (that’s a frustrating situation in and of itself). In some disciplines, colleges can get 200 applicants for a single job opening. What does this mean for applicants and their prospective colleges? It means that pretty much every professor — whether at a redoubtable Ivy, a faceless state university, or a demure liberal arts college — will be an impressive, accomplished scholar.

Ultimately, a college doesn’t need to be 342 years old in order to be great. And, while reputations take a little time to build, they don’t have to take centuries. The world changes on a daily basis. Students inclined to be disappointed or frustrated by admission rates might wish we were back in the good old days. Really, though, the changes are in their favor: there are more great, well respected colleges than ever before, and more ways than ever before for students to thrive.

What if you’re one of those students who has been relegated to a “safety” school and isn’t all that psyched about it? One option is to sulk. The other option is to become the very type of student who will embody the trends I am discussing.

Every college in the country offers abundant opportunities for students who are ambitious, aware, and upbeat. If you’re relegated to a second choice, or even a last choice, you do no one any good by being disappointed. You can still love your school, love your schoolmates, and embrace your education. You can still be a success, and you can become exactly the sort of student and graduate who raises your college’s esteem in everyone else’s eyes.

And whether a student was a nerd, an artist, a class clown, a socialite, or a stoner in high school — not to mention an athlete, a basket case, or maybe even a criminal — everyone who wants to can be a brain in college.



Josh Stephens

Josh Stephens is a veteran teacher and college counselor based in Los Angeles. Josh can be reached at