I think you might want to settle in for this one.  I’m fresh off two days of meetings with Admissions and Financial Aid Officials at the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA) Annual Summit, and a day touring the beautiful, highly selective and generous Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee (the first ‘official’ stop on the 2013 College Pete College Tour). I’ve got a lot to report. 

First, some of my notes from the HECA conference.  For those who may be new to my blog, HECA is a global organization of over 700 independent education consultants, all who assist students and families with the complex process of gaining admission to college. Nearly 200 attendees participated in this year’s conference, sharing best practices, admissions tips, and networking among each other and with the college officers from schools around the country.

There were several takeaways from the past two days, far more than I can share in a short blog, but  here are a few of the more Frequently Asked About  topics and/or eye-brow raising trends that were discussed:

  • Legacies, Athletes and a Level Playing Field:   You probably won’t read this on their website (and it’s not nice to hear), but the reality at the MOST competitive schools is that 80% of the spots are already accounted for by athletes, people of color, legacies, performing/visual artists, and maybe the VERY RICH (Development Cases).  That leaves about 20% of the spots for the rest of the applicant pool.  Thus, a 10% overall admit rate quickly shrinks to less than 5% for the remaining applicants.
  • APs vs. a Great GPA:   I get this question a lot.  It’s a very individual computation.  What’s  important to understand is that the rigor of  your student’s academic course load should be contextual (i.e., relevant and specific to the student’s interests and skill set).  More is not necessarily better. If you’re taking AP classes, you should be doing well in them; and if student’s interest is pre-med or engineering (for example), then she ought to be taking AP Calculus and AP Sciences (Bio, Chem, and/or Physics)… not AP Art History.
  • College Admissions Means Business!I  I know that my regular subscribers and clients have heard me  talk about how the admissions process is heavily (and disproportionately) influenced by US News & World Report.  I know it sounds nuts, but a school’s US News ranking can be a factor in its bond rating.  Thus schools are encouraged to support applicants who can help boost their ranking in this widely circulated and utilized report.  That said, of all the admissions criteria evaluated in the report, the three that are most likely to impact the school’s ability to borrow in the financial markets are its admit rate (how many students were admitted v. how many applied), yield (how many students who were admitted actually decide to attend), and the average SAT score.  The emphasis by Colleges on these ‘BIG 3’ not only reconfirms the fact that admissions is BIG business, it also presents prospective families with admissions and financial opportunities to leverage (and potential landmines to avoid).
  • Taking that one step further, it’s worth noting that despite of or perhaps because the contest for financial aid dollars (need-based and institutional merit endowments) is becoming increasingly competitive, the formerly presumed firewall between business and academia has become increasingly porous.  The admissions office will often go out of its way for applicants who stand out to them (i.e. satisfy one or more of these criteria), AND I have personally seen (many times) that if a school wants your child badly enough, they will find a way to make it financially viable.
  • 20 Minutes To Make A Lasting Impression:  Finally, the first — and arguably the most influential read of your student’s college application — will be done by the Admission committee’s regional representative — in 20 minutes!  That means that your child will have 20 minutes of undivided attention.  Since these readers are experts at sniffing out an inauthentic, padded or ‘packaged’ applicant, I recommend that all of my students either attend the local college fairs where they can meet their ‘readers’ personally and/or reach out to them directly by phone, skype or email.  Trust me, the regional representatives love to have a face and personality to go along with an applicant.  Some characteristics that I know will stand out to them include well-informed kids (those who can speak about many topics, including current events); kids who involve themselves deeply in more than one “group” in high school (i.e. basketball team captain and star in the high school musical, a la Troy Bolton); and kids who are catalysts in the classroom as constructive drivers of discussion (even if they aren’t A students).   Regardless, the application should be consistent with a student’s true self, not what she thinks or has heard the school is looking for on paper.

Other items we discussed at my meetings included:

-What makes a file stand out from the pack (among equal qualifications)?
-What summer activities should students consider?
-Which disciplinary issues may be overlooked, and which will shut the door on your student’s chances?
-How important is the high school your child attends when evaluating his/her college admission?
-How important is social media in the admissions process?

Knowing the answers to these questions can make the difference in your child’s admissions chances and scholarship opportunities… and I promise more on these in the coming weeks and months.   But after two days of  very serious HECA meetings, I was happy to spend a more relaxed Monday afternoon visiting Vanderbilt University…. which would have been impossible to walk away from without being impressed!  I’m not surprised that Vanderbilt has become one of the hottest schools in the nation.  A 12% admit rate for 2013… that’s just below Ivy numbers. The combination of excellent academics, a great engineering school, generous financial aid, SEC athletics, and location in the great city of Nashville make Vanderbilt a superb option for the most competitive students.

What left the greatest impression on me was the emphasis that Vanderbilt’s administration and culture places on student-professor interaction.  This is no small achievement at a school with 6000+ undergrads and an international reputation for research.    At Vandy, professors vie for several dormitory residences including in every freshman residence hall.  It is clear that Vanderbilt places a premium on professors teaching students, rather than graduate assistants carrying this burden, which is not always the case at many similarly competitive universities.  But it’s the way it should be, and it’s one reason why Vanderbilt has such a great four-year graduation rate.  Another (reason, that is) is that Vandy is also a generous school, with a declared commitment to meeting 100% of demonstrated financial need.  Personally, I’ve counseled more than a few students who are currently reeping the benefits of a great Vanderbilt education at considerable (five-figure) discounts from the list price.  Of course, none of this happens by accident. Students who get into Vanderbilt are top performers and the families who receive the most coveted tuition discounts are among the most informed and proactive.

Vanderbilt has a very high sticker price and college, in general, is an expensive endeavor (duh!).   Information and Action are the best way to ensure that  you minimize your out of pocket cost AND ensure that your child goes to a great school. I will be discussing  all of these Admissions Trends, the Common Application and the intersection of admissions and funding with the12th graders attending this Saturday’s 7th Annual ‘Thick Envelope’ College Admissions Bootcamp in Pinecrest.

And I will elaborate on the takeaways and trends I discussed at my meeting, and share my conclusions on how to use this knowledge to stack the odds in your favor at my next public workshop in July.   There are two events scheduled – one in Weston and another in Miami.  If you want to know how you can send your kids to an elite college without blowing through all of your savings or sacrificing your lifestyle, then I highly recommend attending this event.  There is no cost to attend, but missing this information may cost you thousands of dollars. Click here to get more info and register.

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