Cohorts. A Wildcard Word That Explains the “Insanity” of College Admissions

Frequently, both parents and students wonder how certain members of their class were admitted to a school when seemingly “better” students, with better grades, and better test scores, did not get in. The answer is the most significant, and least talked-about word about undergraduate college admissions game:


Colleges, to simplify, generally will talk to prospective students and their families about “diversity.” They’ll mention race, gender, and socioeconomic status as things that they seek out. They do, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

A huge chunk of your college education, at ANY college, is simply the process of students interacting with one another, and growing up.

Exposing students to diversity not only of race, gender, and economics, but of thought, of passions and interests, of less thought-about abilities, makes for both a better on-campus experience, and for a more dynamic classroom.

Many oversized schools just assume, if they admit, that they’ll get some balance in the random selection of the student population. Some, these days, only spot-check these factors, which is sad both for their lack of resources and time to do it, and for the students who will see that randomness affect their education.

Most people misunderstand the term “selective” when admissions tells you that they are a selective school. Everyone immediately assumes that means grades and SATs. It does, but it also means they’re looking hard at their cohorts, too.


“Cohorts” are groups of people, usually associated by a common interest, that add to that rich parade. Beyond the “diversity” that most colleges or universities will tell you about, they also need:

  • (At non-sectarian colleges): All faiths, and no faith: Baptists, Buddhists, Wiccans, Agnostics and Atheists;
  • All passions: Readers to rockers, Cheerleaders and climatologists, stargazers and Star Wars fans, golfers and gear-heads.
  • All skill sets: Journalists to jocks, rockhounds to runners to rodeo clowns, dancers, divas, french horn players, freestyle Frisbee players, leaders, followers, those who argue, and those who listen.
  • Geographical – Schools try to represent from all fifty states, and have an international student population.  “Nameplate” schools are more immune to the mom factor. For a big name, moms will allay their fears that dragons will eat their children and they’ll never be seen again if they go too far from home. That fear factor may seem funny, but it’s VERY real. Students in Florida who go out west can knock out of the consideration box an identical student from California if the school is trying to fill up a geographical diversity cohort requirement.

Which is why, as you go through high school, your extracurricular interests help to define you. It’s also why your essays, and supplementals, are so vital as part of your admissions “picture.”


If an admissions officer could know everything about you without those, or your essay and supplemental questions, they’d be able to admit you on grades, and/or your resumé.

How does your written work in an application “inform” the admissions committee about cohorts?

It helps them separate the legit from the window-dressing. It is not lost on the admissions offices when students do things to be seen in the right light.

There is a difference between a student who sings in her church choir because it’s expected of her, and one who finds her true passion there. Someone up at 5am to hit the erg machine to make the rowing team, and someone who slogs along in the process because it “looks good.”  We learn these things through your written statements, and those of your counselor and teachers.

The readers try to figure out how “legit” is your connection to this or that cohort. If they pick you, and you aren’t really a part of that cohort, then they lose a chunk of their campus life.

Which is why honesty about who you are, about what drives you through your day, can and does help. When you talk honestly about yourself, it affirms not only your resumé, but it tends to line up with what your teachers and guidance counselor have to say about you.

Essays and supplementals that were too generic, that look “safe” but tell the reader what 300 or 3,000 other people who tried playing it “safe” don’t help the reader factor the cohorts as well.


There is a lot of bias in the cohort-filling game.

Some schools will task regional reps to fill this or that cohort, based on the school’s idea of where they’re most likely to find the particular niche of student that they are looking for.

If you’re from the Northeast and you row, or sail, those centuries-old clubs that churn out uber-kids are going to do well. If you’re a geology guru and you live in the mineral-rich Southwest, you might find a bit of an edge. Latin ballroom dancer from Miami or Costa Rica? You would be a more obvious choice. That isn’t to say, though, if you’re from Ogden, Utah, and you belong to the Tango Club at school, that, if they’re looking for that “eclectic” cohort, you won’t also find yourself recognized.


A fair number of the better schools still let you interview. Interviews are places to really let your passions shine. If you’re a journalist, talking about why you love to hunt down stories, how it’s part of your DNA (Do not repeat that at an interview), or why you love getting up at 5am on a cold day to go cross-country skiing with your high school team, those are things that are observed, reported, and aid in your cohort-filling.


Filling in your campus, aware of the cohorts, is a lot like the game “Tetris.”  Students’ applications keep coming from August-September to the cut-off dates.  Every school has a slightly different way of addressing their cohorts.

When you apply can not only say a bit about you, and your ability to organize your life, but it can help you at schools where they fill up the “slots” for these cohorts.

Like Tetris, when a school receives your application, and breaks it down, they start plugging you into holes of need that they have.

Some schools admit on published “rolling” admissions, where they admit in waves. Some do “rounds” of admissions screening with applications as they come in, without notifying you. Others make note of where you fit in, and leave you in filtered check-boxed groups or interests that they want.

When you apply does have some impact on your cohort value at many schools.  Some top universities could fill their classes with brilliant Asian 5.1 concert pianists. How, though, would that inform them? Educate them to the broader world?

Cohorts fill up. When they’re full, they will go on to other needs that the admissions director has to fill to meet the very broad diversity needs of their school.

So, especially if you are in a racial or socioeconomic cohort that is either highly competitive, or highly overcrowded for a particular school, getting your applications in EARLY, along with getting them written passionately and truly, can help the college plug your “block” into the grid for a yes.


There are a ton of variables as to why schools will admit you at one place, and not at another. How you fill their cohorts is a big answer to the wildcard nature of the college admissions game.

You can’t control it, but, if you’re clear about who you are, and you get yourself into the process as early as you can, you improve your chances of your cohort value taking you from the “maybe” to the “yes” pile.


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  1. Pingback: How to Organize and Start Writing Your College Essay – TaDa!Education

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