For most colleges, May 1st is the response deadline (the last day for prospective students to commit themselves and their dollars to a particular school).  It was an eventful and exhausting day for many on ALL sides of the decision process.   Right up to the 11th hour (in this case, literally so), colleges were still reading and ‘reconsidering’ students’ appeals.  Consultants and counselors were seeing their students come off waitlists, and some families were still huddled around the table weighing their options.

I guess it was a fitting end to what has been the most competitive and vexing year in college admissions.  In no uncertain terms, the Class of 2015 had a tough go of it, both statistically and anecdotally.  College admissions rates dropped markedly from years past… and though the data is still being tallied, it is widely expected that admit rates (the percentage of students accepted v. the number of applicants considered) will be the lowest in history.

And what’s most interesting is that this precipitous drop was across the board.   Nearly every college (and especially ‘brand name’ schools and those accepting the Common App) saw a surge in applicants – as much as 50% higher than last year at some schools. This has made an already a competitive process turn to one that is becoming downright absurd!   And this admissions mania is not just limited to so-called ‘elite’ colleges.  Colleges, across the board, irrespective of their track record for educating and graduating students who are prepared to face the world, were beating their chests last Friday about record high applicant pools and record low admit rates.   This was especially true at well known (or should I say, well-marketed) institutions including a few stand-outs in the Southeast (me thinks a brutal winter everywhere has and will continue to hyper inflate interest in schools like Tulane, Emory, UM, Vanderbilt, UF, FSU, Wake Forest, UNC, Rollins, etc.).

Not every school has reported yet, but I know from my conversations with my colleagues in Admissions, that there is a trickle down affect of this uber-competitiveness everywhere.

– Tufts, where both Jill and I went, had a record low (16%) – a 10 point drop over the last five years. Must be the elephant mascot.   At American University in Washington, DC (where Jill got her MBA), they’re boasting about a near 11-point drop from last year.  That’s never happened before.

– Boston University dropped 2 points (and that’s huge). Brown received 11,000 more applications this year than in 2012,  for the same number of seats. And the University of Pennsylvania which likes to ‘tout’ its competitiveness is gleefully reporting that it had its most competitive year ever (nearly 40,000 applicants – only 3,800 accepted).

Our results were interesting and telling.  We had many kids earn acceptances and great awards from some schools you likely know well, including the above-mentioned American, Columbia, Cornell, Princeton, Duke, FSU, George Washington University, Georgia Tech, Harvard, Stanford, University of Chicago, BU, University of Florida, University of Miami, Washington University of St. Louis, and Villanova.  And we had a few students who experienced head-scratching, rather surprising disappointments.   But by far and away, our students who had the least stress and the most options on Friday (both from an Admissions and Financial perspective) were those who followed our suggestion to resist the ‘herd’ mentality and who worked with us to identify great schools that fit their educational needs, career aspirations and their parents’ budgets.  These schools may be less well-known to their neighbor or to their overburdened counselors (who reported nationally to have had the worst student to counselor ratios ever), but their focus is on educating students and preparing them for life after college, which is really what the undergraduate years should be about.  And I’m talking about great students to just OK students, some highly ranked and some not so much who had options on Friday (and great awards) from some wonderful colleges including many considered  as Colleges that Change Lives: such as Eckerd College (which boasts a 90+% four-year graduation rate and is still reading applications), Allegheny College, Clark University, College of Wooster, Juniata, and New College of Florida.  Others include Drexel, Elon University, Fairfield University, Gettysburg College, Marist College, Rollins College, Stetson University and others (I expect more students to come off waitlists this week)… and on Wednesday, May 6, I’ll be posting NACAC’s College Openings Update which is a searchable list of colleges and universities that still have openings, financial aid and housing available to qualified freshman this coming Fall.   You might be surprised, but there are still quite a few really good schools whose Admissions counselors are reading applications, even as I write this.

In the interim though, I’ve got a warning and a few takeaways for this year’s 11th graders and future classes.

– This ubercompetitiveness is not going to subside anytime soon.  It’s fueled by (some might even say intentionally manufactured by) a myriad of entrenched institutions including, but not limited to: the ACT and College Board, who both benefit from testing fees and application fees; testing companies, the colleges (whose perceived competitiveness boosts fundraising, bond ratings and more) and Admissions Counselors, who profit from the increased case load and appalling counselor:student ratios in many public high schools  (the national average is a pretty dismal 1 counselor to every 570 potential applicants and in some states, the ratio is as bad as 1 guidance counselor to every 1000 potential college applicants).  And private Counselors from coast to coast are charging obsene rates, as high as $50,000 for guidance and $1,000 an hour for test prep.

So, if It is true that yesterday’s popular safety schools are now iffys at best and guidance is hard to come by, you’re probably asking yourself what you, a normal, concerned parent are supposed to do to preserve your sanity or your retirement and ensure that your child (not to mention his younger siblings) gets the type of college education that sets them up for a successful life?

I know I was – which I why I founded my company 8 years ago.  And after counseling thousands of families, there are specific characteristics and strategies that when followed can help you stay sane, make the college process stress-free for your family, increase your children’s educational options, reduce your out-of-pocket cost, and as an added bonus (not to be undersold) set your child up for a successful life (for the next forty years).

1. You need to be real with your child (and with yourself) about their best prospects, career ambitions and your budget.   The goal is not to get into the ‘cheapest’ college, or the ‘best’ college, or into every college… it’s to get into the right colleges – the ones that you can afford and will best prepare your children for a successful and fulfilling life.  The happiest and most successful families let real data (not emotion) drive the strategy and the decision-making process.

2. You need to involve your children in the conversation from the outset, help them define a realistic and shared strategy…and then get out of the way. The best life results have come when I’ve worked with parents who view this process as an opportunity to allow their children to come to terms with the grown-up world,  where systems can be complex, unfair, full of loopholes, gray matter and yes, dissapointment.  And that the best option is to have multiple options. I’ve seen these children – those who learn to have skin in the game and a stake in the outcome while still in high school- thrive when they get to college and thereafter, once they graduate. 

3a.   You’ll need to temper your expectations with reality (your children will follow your lead in this regard).  You can’t, for example, expect me, or your child’s school guidance counselor or anyone else to ‘get your kid’ into college.  A ‘packaged’ application, an inauthentic essay, a bevy of gut ‘dual enrollment’ classes, and/or an insincere recommendation are red flags to admissions officers (and employers, incidentally).  Entrance into college, good grades and self-esteem are not bestowed, they’re earned. I honor that.

3b. And as an off-shoot of that, you shouldn’t expect every school to give your child a scholarship or grant.  Some will. Some won’t.  What we can do is identify which will and why… and then position yourself, legally and ethically, to demonstrate that you and your child are worthy of their consideration – both for admission and for financial assistance.

4.  You simply cannot afford to follow the herd.  Each year there’s a new crop of hot or up-and-coming, well-marketed, brand name schools that everyone covets.  You can bet that after the recent winter in the Northeast and Midwest, next year’s hot crop (pun intended) will be like this year’s – brand-name schools located South of the Mason Dixon line.  Focusing all of your attention on the same shiny object as everyone else is a really bad strategy…not only will it needlessly limit your options, it is the surest way to stress your child, sap your sanity and your bank account.

5. You need to get the right advice, even if you have to pay a reasonable price for it.  I’m not trying to be self-serving, and I really don’t care where you seek your counsel – so long as it’s accurate, appropriate for TODAY and agenda-free.  Now more than ever, you simply cannot afford to go this alone… and you cannot avail yourself to the barrage of half-truths, mis-information and urban legends perpetuated by your likely well-intentioned, but misinformed neighbors, colleagues, and ‘friends’ on Facebook.

One good place to start learning about the college process is to come to one of my free public classes on the topic.  I cover quite a bit about Admissions and Funding, including:

  • where you should be looking (and shouldn’t be looking) for scholarships and grants
  • how much your FL Prepaid will cover in or out of state
  • exactly how need-based financial aid is calculated
  • whether your assets will count against you in those formulas
  • what’s changing in Admissions testing and how it could affect your child’s admissions and funding prospects
  • and much more

The class is free, pitch-free and exceedingly stress-free (In fact, this time there’s a wine-tasting included – compliments of Total Wine and More in Pembroke Pines.   You can learn more and reserve your seat here.

Believe it or not, colleges will begin accepting applications on August 1st.   That’s less than 3 months away!  If you have a student in high school, especially a 10th or 11th grader, I highly suggest that you join me at Total Wine on May 11th.  It’s the last time I’ll be speaking this school year, and I hope to see you there.

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