The Hidden Cost of Wealth

(中文) I grew up in one of the wealthiest suburbs outside of Boston. Despite being at a public school, our student parking lot was packed with Audis, BMWs, and Mercedes. Students regularly took ski vacations at resorts in Vermont and New Hampshire. More than that, they were known for going to elite colleges. There were three other students at Cornell with me from my graduating class of fewer than 180 students, and off the top of my head I can name at least 10 other students from my grade who attended Ivy League universities.

This is indicative of a wider trend in higher education where college has been reserved primarily for the wealthy. Maybe “trend” is the wrong word. Tradition would be better. Until the early 20th century, post-secondary learning was reserved almost exclusively for the wealthiest fraction of society, with top universities accepting students primarily from prestigious “feeder schools” like Exeter and Andover. The SAT was actually invented as a means of creating a more meritocratic system of admissions, though, ironically, scores today are closely correlated with family income. Top universities have received a lot of widely publicized bad press recently for the lack of economic diversity on their campuses (here, here, and here, for a few examples).

Now, schools are doing what they can to eliminate this reality. The percentage of Pell Grant recipients (some of America’s lowest income students) has been rising at places like Harvard, Yale, and Columbia. That’s not to say colleges don’t still accept wealthy students (most can’t afford not to, and many still operate under need aware principles for international applicants, where they’re more likely to admit you if they know you can pay for it), but simply that they are making more of an effort to recruit students who don’t come from money.

This shift in the admissions philosophy at elite colleges is excellent news for high-achieving low income students, but what does it mean for those from more privileged backgrounds? To answer that question, put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer. Who would you rather admit to your school? The underdog who struggled to help their family make rent, juggled school with part-time jobs, and, against all odds ended up with an application? Or the spoiled rich kid who spent summers on a beach in Malibu, took an SAT class, and got the straight A’s that were expected of them? While the latter might feel like an overgeneralized caricature, when you signal upper class privilege in your application, you risk being thrown into this pile. Admissions officers are faced with difficult choices every day and look for any excuse to label a student in a way that helps them to justify a rejection. Having wealth will not necessarily disadvantage you in this process but flaunting it might. The best thing you can do when applying to college is to show that you are a passionate person of character with deeply rooted interests, not because of your wealth but in spite of it.

Here are a few ways that students often unnecessarily indicate their socioeconomic status that you should be aware of, which may ultimately make you less appealing to an admissions officer:


When possible, try to avoid indicating your involvement in after-school or leisure activities that require a certain income level to enjoy. It’s totally fine to participate in those activities, but just know that they might not be as impressive to colleges as you think they are. There is a hugely important caveat here, however: these activities become acceptable and even encouraged if you are amazing at them and have the achievements to prove it. Otherwise, they can often be seen as exclusionary since only the wealthiest few can participate in them. The activities that fall into this category typically require expensive travel, membership to an exclusive club/group, or high costs of equipment. This list includes sports such as skiing, scuba diving, golf, equestrian, polo, or sailing. Leisure activities or sports like music, programming, basketball or soccer are less likely to get you labeled as wealthy. Refer to my last post (中文) for additional advice about activity selection.

Summer Activities

Aside from costly activities, US colleges are accustomed to seeing parents “buy” impressive achievements for their kids. It’s incredibly common in America for kids to spend a summer in a developing country, building houses or teaching English. The fact is, admissions officers see these as desperate ploys to manufacture impressive sounding accomplishments. Many of our students take similar trips, but the difference is that they use these trips to build out their Spikes and pursue projects relevant to who they are as people. If promoting sustainable agriculture is your passion, then it makes sense for you to pursue it in a developing country regardless of whether or not your family is wealthy. But if you take an expensive and seemingly random service trip simply to appeal to colleges, admissions officers will see right through it.

Parents’ profession

The common application asks applicants to provide information about their parents’ occupation. Your instinct here might be to try to impress colleges: but your instinct is wrong. If your mom is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and your dad is partner at a prestigious law firm, select “businesswoman” and “lawyer” respectively. The less detail you give about your parents’ position, the fewer opportunities you offer the admissions officer to judge you based on how rich your parents are. Simply put, there are places you should brag and the parents’ profession section is not one of them.

At the end of the day, coming from a well-off background will not hurt your admission chances unless you let it. The key to getting into college, no matter how wealthy you are, is to be loved by the admissions officers reading your application, and upper class privilege may end up being a barrier to that. In other words, the more indicators of money you provide in your application, the more biased admissions officer could be against you. But as we emphasize in every post, find interests that you are legitimately excited about and determine ways to convey that excitement to others. And if those interests don’t require a massive amount of personal income to explore, it might help show colleges that you’ve succeeded because of who you are and not how much you’re worth.

These situations obviously vary greatly on a case-by-case basis and involve a good deal of nuance. If you have any doubts about how colleges might react to your application, feel free to email me with any questions.

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