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 with lower class rank, test scores, etc.  How do seemingly “better” students, with better grades, and better test scores, not get in?

The answer is the most significant, and least talked-about word about undergraduate college admissions game:


A college is like a big city. It needs all kinds of people. A cohort is a piece of that big puzzle that the school needs to fill on its campus: Buddist or Baptist; Geologist, poet, journalist, nurse; Swimmer, golfer, freestyle Frisbee® player.  Students are needed to fill in all of the “roles” in the community.

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.


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.”


There is a difference between people who “walk the walk,” and people padding resumés. Don’t think for a minute that most colleges can’t pick out how legit you are.

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.

A lot rides on understanding how legit you will be. 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.  It gives confidence to the admissions committee that they’re getting what they wanted.

Essays and supplementals that are too generic, that look “safe” but tell the reader what 300 or 3,000 other people who also play it “safe” don’t help the reader factor out the student well, relative to these cohorts.


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

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

  • 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 might be in a go-to market for a particular recruiter. 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.
  • Geographic diversity is a big cohort, often overlooked. If you live in Florida and apply to go to school in South Dakota, chances are good that you will be one of the few students to fill that cohort, and might stand out above similar students with similar resumés, grades, tests, etc.


Your resumé is very important. Provide it to your guidance counselor and to your teachers writing letters. The more that everyone is on the same page in talking you and your strengths up, the better off that you will likely be.


One way to increase a school’s understanding of you, relative to what you contribute to the community, are interviews. A fair number of 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, 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 might aid in your cohort-filling.


Cohorts fill up. It’s 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.

Like Tetris, when a school receives your application, and breaks it down, they start plugging you into what they need to fill for their school for that year.

Too many golfers last year said yes? Fewer this year. They under admitted Hispanic students who love to knit? Perhaps a few more make it in.

When you apply does have some impact on your cohort value at many schools.  Academically, some top universities could fill their entire class-year with brilliant Asian 5.1 concert pianists. The lack of diversity, though, would not benefit the students.

Cohorts fill up. When they’re full, a school will go on to other needs that the admissions director has to fill to meet the very broad diversity needs of their school.  If someone exceptional comes along, will they make an exception? Sometimes. There are no absolutes. It is less likely, though.

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 honestly, 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.


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

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

  2. Pingback: Who You Gonna Call? Teacher Recommendations – TaDa!Education

  3. Pingback: I GOT IN!!! Now Haggle Like Your Education Depends on It (It Does) – TaDa!Education

Comments are closed.