The Jigsaw Puzzle of College Admissions

Lee McGowan |

By Guest Blogger Todd Richman

When I was area chairperson for alumni admissions interviewing for Brown University, I often heard from interviewers and parents who were frustrated that highly talented students were being rejected. They all asked “What does it take to get into a school like Brown?”

The Brown Admissions Office explained it this way: “Brown receives over 30,000 applications each year, many from students at the top of their class with near-perfect test scores and impressive leadership activities. We accept fewer than 10%, meaning we have to say no to many qualified candidates. Our job in making admissions decisions is like putting together a big jigsaw puzzle each year. We’re looking to create a diverse community of talented people who each contribute his/her unique part to the whole. We may be looking for a specific piece with a certain shape to fit this year’s puzzle (cellist for the orchestra, goalie for the soccer team, innovator for the robotics program, first-generation international student). Without this internal view, it’s impossible to appreciate what goes into deciding among so many qualified applicants.”

This is why students applying to selective colleges need to have a range of options. Not just for Ivies, but for all schools with competitive admissions. You don’t know whose puzzle you’re going to fit best.

This metaphor works in the other direction as well. When you are a high school student considering colleges, look at how each school’s pieces fit together for you. Go beyond the name and rankings. How do the academic programs and learning environment fit your priorities? What about social fit in terms of student body, school spirit, sports and clubs, Greek life, etc? Geographic fit in terms of campus setting, weather and distance from home? And financial fit – what are the all-in costs, does the school provide merit scholarships, is need-based aid weighted towards loans or grants?

It’s a challenge but if you focus on the pieces that are important to you, you’ll be happy with the finished puzzle!

Todd Richman is the founder of Achieve Admissions, an independent educational consultant in Sudbury MA that helps high school students and parents navigate the college process. He can be reached at