10/18/2012 06:01 pm ET | Updated Dec 18, 2012

Why Harvard Doesn't Take Every Straight A Student

The Supreme Court's hearing of Fisher v. Texas has created some thoughtful writing about the use of affirmative action in college admissions, and some very thoughtful writing about the ways colleges select students when they have far more applicants than spaces to fill.

A strong example of both can be found in Rafael Figueroa's piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Regarding college admissions in general, the center of Figueroa's column offers some powerful insights into the way colleges make sense of their applications:

"Admissions officers at selective colleges are in the business of denying the qualified, of passing over the deserving. Far from a science, admissions is an attempt to maximize the experience of every student who enrolls at a given institution. The process never has been -- and never will be -- objective. To quote Fred Hargadon, former dean of admission at Stanford and Princeton Universities, "we do precision guesswork.""

This probably isn't the news college-bound families want to hear, but the truth is that highly selective colleges -- those schools that garner most (if not too many) of the headlines and anxieties of high school seniors and society in general -- run out of room long before they run out of qualified applicants. Since doubling the size of Harvard promptly makes it something less than Harvard, that isn't an option; instead, thousands of straight A, top-of-the-class students are thanked for their application, told the selection process was difficult, and wished well at another college of their choice.

If straight As and great test scores don't assure a "yes" from a highly selective college, what does guarantee an offer of admission? Again, Figueroa replies:

"If you told me an applicant's standardized-test scores and nothing else, I would be unable to say whether he or she would be admitted to a highly selective college... Tell me about the applicant's test scores, grade-point average, high-school curriculum, and extracurricular activities, and my guess would become very accurate.

"Yet, even if I had all that information, I would still be guessing. No outsider can tell what a college's applicant pool will look like in a given year. And every year a balance must be found among all the different abilities and institutional priorities."

In other words, admission depends on what the college is looking for in any given year -- and that changes -- and the strengths and differences of the applicant pool in any given year -- and that changes, too. The media may tell you that every college needs more kilt-wearing viola players, but the only way you know what will give a student an extra "boost" is to see the applications of every other student who has applied that year. Since the only time you can do that is once the application deadline has passed, that knowledge is of no strategic value to the applicant.

As prices continue to soar for tutoring, K-12 private schools, and even kilts, more and more parents are measuring the outcome of these experiences by their impact on college admissions. Figueroa's comments about college selectivity support what counselors have advised for years, something parents seem more unwilling to accept as they look for what they see as a "guarantee" on their "investment:" support your student's education and interests in ways that will expand their understanding of themselves and the world around them. This will not guarantee admission to a highly selective college, but it will ensure your student will be best positioned to apply to any college, and be happy and successful there to boot.