Yesterday I joined a private webinar led by two admissions representatives from highly selective universities- one from an Ivy League school, and the other representing a highly selective, private, southern university.
Every so often I participate in these kinds of webinars to stay fresh and to stay on top of any trends or changes in the admissions process. Yesterday’s program was more about reinforcing what I’ve already known to be true. Still, I’d like to share some of the highlights – and tips for your children – both as reinforcement for all of our subscribers and as a primer for those of you who are newer readers and may be going through this process with your children for the first time.
1. Your child’s application will be given consideration for just about 15 minutes, on average.
When I share this piece of information with students and parents they’re aghast with bewilderment, and I get it. Your child spends 3.5 years of high school attending classes, preparing for and taking the SAT/ACT/AP exams, joining clubs, volunteering, playing sports, leading student government, raising money for causes, visiting colleges, performing in plays and concerts, attending camps or pre-college programs, pursuing internships and working in different jobs…not to mention writing college essays/completing college applications —
And then, they get 15 minutes of an admissions officer’s attention, on average! The two panelists appeared noticeably uncomfortable with the question (“How long does it take you to review an application?”), with the first counselor responding “it’s a lot less than what you think”, after stumbling through a meandering explanation of how different teams are reviewing the application at various stages, yet she failed to specify an amount of time it takes to review an application. Granted, some applications could undergo a lengthy evaluation that might extend into several hours of review, but the first read, the one that serves as a gatekeeper of sorts, “usually lasts about 15 minutes because we’re experienced and we know what to look for” in an application, as expressed by the 2nd panelist.
15 minutes is all you get to distinguish yourself as an applicant, and that’s not going to change.
So, how do you maximize your 15 minutes?
Clearly, it’s critical to write a strong essay. You need to grab the reader’s attention, and then keep it. That’s why we spend considerable time working with students on their essay, helping them make it expressive, specific, emotional and relatable.
It also helps to have a strong transcript. Nothing impresses a reader quite like a regular pattern of strong grades in rigorous classes. The transcript is far and away the most important set of data used in the evaluation, but it’s important to note that about 90% of all applicants to any particular university will have relatively similar grades and rigor.
And it definitely helps if your admissions rep (who is usually also the first application reader) knows who you are before even reading your application. There are several ways you can stand out to your reader, to meet him/her before your application arrives. The most obvious is to visit campus and meet your reader in person. Yes, you can do that, and summer is a good time to plan such a college visit. You can also meet your reader if s/he plans a visit to your high school, or at a college fair in your neck of the woods. The point is, college admissions is relationship driven.
Bonus tip: The critical relationship is the one you have with your admissions counselor, but it also helps to have a relationship with your guidance counselor at school. After all, it’s your counselor who will be writing a recommendation on your behalf, which is sent, along with your transcript, directly from your high school to the colleges on your list.
2. Is Test Optional something that is here to stay? According to these two schools, Test Optional is a part of the admissions process that will undergo regular evaluation. While both schools will remain test optional for the upcoming 2022-23 admissions season, they will also reevaluate that policy at the end of the next cycle. I’ve written about test optional in the past – I support test optional and the idea of giving students the choice on whether they should submit test scores. And according to preliminary data from the two schools represented on yesterday’s panel, admitted students who did not submit test scores still demonstrated strong academic performance during their first year of college.
Some of my students (and even my colleagues) remain skeptical that admissions counselors secretly frown upon an application that doesn’t include a test score, but every admissions officer I’ve heard from has stated categorically that they don’t miss a test score if it’s not included. For many reasons, not the least of which is related to how schools are evaluated for ranking purposes, I believe this to be true! Click here to read more about the connection between test optional, admit rates and school rankings.
Admissions counselors consistently state that for those students who choose not to submit scores (where that option exists), they will evaluate the remaining parts of the application with fairness and thoroughness. If you have a strong test score that is above the middle 50% range for a particular school, then surely it will enhance your application and you should include it. If you’re unsure whether your score is competitive for a particular school, then you can refrain from sharing your score and it will not hurt your chances.
3. How important is Legacy in the admissions process? Both of the schools on yesterday’s panel consider Legacy status when evaluating candidates. Legacy status specifically means that an applicant’s parent or grandparent attended the school. Uncles, aunts, even siblings who attended the school have little to no weight in the evaluation. In the case of some schools, the Legacy status also includes parents/grandparents who attended graduate school.
There has been some pushback on Legacy admissions lately, with some colleges like Amherst and Johns Hopkins recently eliminating Legacy status in their admissions decisions. The two admissions counselors from yesterday’s panel expressed no plans to eliminate Legacy status from their admissions process. Remember, alumni remain a powerful constituent at many colleges, and Legacy status is likely to continue, fair or unfair. As I often tell my students and parents, the admissions process isn’t fair. Legacy is only one example of that.
What you need to do as an applicant is find a way to operate within the rules of admission so that you can stack the odds in your favor, however that might be. Of course, Legacy admissions is directly at odds with the effort by many selective colleges to admit more students who are first in their family to attend any college. But those same first gen students will someday enjoy passing their Legacy status to their children in 30 years.
The entire exercise of selecting colleges and then applying is unique for each student, and to do it right requires effort, attention to detail, and considerable introspection. This is a hard thing to do by yourself. We’re here to help you make your 15 minutes count.