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It Only Takes 15 Minutes, On Average

June 23rd, 2022 by

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.

‘This is Crazy!’ What’s Happened To All The ‘Safety’ Schools?

April 22nd, 2022 by

On the very first page of the very first book I ever wrote (ok, co-wrote) about college (Never Pay Retail For College) I referred to college admissions as being in a ‘Code Yellow’ State of Emergency. Since I’m pretty sure there were only about four people who read that book (including my mom), here’s the gist of why I’m bringing this up today.

Among my many concerns at the time was the increasingly hyper-inflated nature of college selectivity – the result of a confluence of newer intentional and unintentional factors (read: technology, aggressive marketing tactics, price differentials, ratings targets, etc.). While I went on to explain those factors ad nauseam in the book, for our teens specifically, as well as the parents who love them, and the high school counselors who support them, I expected this to cause quite a shock to their fragile emotional systems. Uh, ya think?

That was 14 years ago.

And if it seems to you as if the ‘selective’ colleges have only become increasingly so since I first published, you’d be right. Take Tufts, where Jill and I met. For its Class of 2015 the admit rate was 22%, with 17,000 applications. This year Tufts admitted only 9% of its 34,000 applicants. Or Tulane, where my youngest is finishing his freshman year: back in 2018 Tulane boasted of a drop in its admissions rate from 30% to 17%. This year Tulane admitted only 10% of its 42,000 applicants. And perhaps the largest change was at UCLA, which in 2015 received almost 93,000 applications with a 17% admit rate; today that number is a record 149,772 applications, with only about 10% admitted.

Considering this trend of increasing selectivity, NY Times Money columnist and higher ed author Ron Lieber has referred to such schools not as ‘highly selective” but rather “highly rejective”.

I get that this is frustrating to all involved. I truly do – as a professional sure, but equally important, as a parent. It seems absurd when a hard-working, high-achieving, strong student and good kid doesn’t get admitted to a school where that student appears to be more than qualified.

In any given year, I’ll have a few eye-brow raising, head scratching moments. Like this year, when I learned that a student was admitted to UC Berkeley, but not UF…another who was admitted into Georgetown, but not American University down the road…or still another who was accepted at Cornell, University of Chicago, Rice and UF, but not Boston University.

There’s more: for example, did you know that this year Northeastern University’s acceptance rate (7%!) is equal to Northwestern’s? For parents who applied to college back in the 1980s or early 1990s, that’s a shocking fact. But Northeastern made a strategic decision about 20 years ago to boost its selectivity in order to rise in the US News rankings. That strategy has worked, with Northeastern now ranked #49 in what I believe is mostly a meaningless formula.

I’d certainly understand if you are a parent and looking at the data in a mild state of panic. I understand if it makes you angry. It makes me angry… but after 15 years, I also know that it’s far better, and more productive, to get educated (about the process) than to get angry about it. I guarantee you that your ranting won’t move the needle on your child’s admissions chances – at least not in a good way.

With proper information AND admissions planning, the college application experience should not be a soul-crushing, frustrating endeavor. Each of these students I mentioned above has really great options – despite (and sometimes because of) this data. This is by design. By intention. With each of my students, we set expectations early – before the first application is even started, and our goal is not perfection but greatness of fit – and multiple options.

So what can you/your child do right now to tip the odds in your favor?

For starters, they need to go the extra mile with admissions offices at schools they are considering well before they submit a single application – reach out and ask questions, make yourself heard, attend virtual sessions, even visit campus if you can and then follow up with an email to admissions. Show that you care, that you’re interested in their school.

And all students, parents, GRANDPARENTS and counselors need to reevaluate what is meant by “safety school”. Parents who applied to college 30 years ago may recall some schools that were deemed to be “safe”, only to look at the admit rates of those schools today, as well as average SAT/ACT scores, and react with shock at their current selectivity. Examples may include FSU, and the aforementioned American University and Boston University, with admit rates of 23%, 32% and 14%, respectively.

I know it might be easy to just throw up your hands and succumb to the notion that all college admissions is a “crapshoot” or a “lottery”. While sometimes it can feel this way, this sentiment misses a larger point, which is that high school performance does still matter. Getting denied admission to a school where you feel you are qualified might hurt, but it’s not an indictment on who you are or will become! By and large students do end up where they are supposed to be. Especially when they have and follow a thoughtful college plan!

It’s true, the admissions process isn’t always fair. There are inherent advantages as well as hidden landmines all over the admissions landscape – to the privileged who can afford test prep and other counseling services; to Legacy students whose parents may have attended the school; to people of color who may benefit from affirmative action programs; to athletes who are recruited by coaches who may fast track their application; to Development Cases, or students from families who donate significant money to the school.

It’s ok to acknowledge these benefits and challenges. I recommend that you do what you can to learn how the process works so that you can make it work in your favor. It’s not that I’m out to change the system; I’m making no such recommendations in this column. Rather my mission is to help you and your student to navigate the system – both admissions and financial aid – so that you can identify advantages for your student and then act upon them.

I sometimes hear from people that “where you attend college doesn’t really matter, anyway, so why all the fuss?” I agree that where you go to college is less important than what you do when you get there. But I also emphatically believe that where you go can have a big impact on what you do once there. Not only do some schools offer unique research opportunities, or co-ops, or other experiential learning benefits. But also there are, or at least there can be, major advantages derived from those with whom you surround yourself. The people you meet in college, the connections you make, could prove far more valuable years down the road than the simple name on your diploma.

So, while I do believe that some fuss is deserving, I think it far wiser to help our students to be pragmatic and assemble the right list of schools to maximize their chances of success with admissions, with financial aid/scholarship, and while on campus. What I still see are far too many families stuck chasing the herd, doing the same thing as everyone else…and this becomes a problem in spring of 12th grade when the numbers dictate that too many qualified students will needlessly get waitlisted or denied from the same batch of schools.

The fact is, 80% of colleges admit more than 50% of their applicants. There are some good schools in that group, both private and public, that are worthy of your student’s consideration. The trick is knowing which of these is appropriate for you (or your child). When it comes to college admissions, students (and parents) should place less emphasis on the names of schools and more on the type of learning environment where they will thrive. Such a strategy will result in far greater success in the long run.

The ONE Course That All Competitive Colleges Want You To Take in High School

March 23rd, 2022 by

I have, for several years now, been tracking and recording a considerable amount of data (both anecdotal and empirical) on college admissions and financial aid decisions. And yes, I do know that I’m a bit of a geek! That notwithstanding, I do use this information to help inform my opinions and how I advise my students and their families.

For about a decade now, I’ve noticed a new pattern emerge with respect to high school students who are seeking admission to relatively competitive colleges and universities: those students who take calculus, and especially AP calculus, are better positioned for admissions success than those who do not. Period.

It used to be that Calculus was a baseline need for students interested in STEM pursuits. Increasingly, calculus has become a minimum requirement for all students seeking admission at highly selective universities. Academically, I’m truly torn on this issue; but nonetheless, when counseling my students in course selection, I’ve always paid very close attention (starting in middle school) to their math track and performance – so as to give them an option to take calculus in 12th grade.

Inclination aside, the reality is that not all students have the opportunity to take calculus in high school due to a variety of factors. For many it’s a matter of inadvertent choices made for them well before most students are thinking about college (as in 6th or 7th grade).

That’s right – decisions made in middle school, in particular whether the student completes Algebra 1 before entering high school, can theoretically (actually empirically – see study below) have a major impact on a student’s success in gaining admission to a most selective college. You may find this to be ridiculous, or unfair, or both. But it remains true. Taking Algebra 1 in middle school opens up the opportunity for Geometry and Algebra 2 completion by 10th grade, which offers the student the chance at pre-calculus and then calculus (possibly AP calculus) by 12th grade.

For the record, evidence-backed data now supports the trends and anecdotal conclusions I’ve reached – a recent joint study from NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) and Just Equations highlights the importance that admissions counselors place on calculus in their decisions to admit or deny applicants. As one admissions dean from a selective, private university noted in the study, “Calculus is the gold standard that people in this business use as a shortcut,” whether the student chooses a STEM major or not.

Clearly, if a student is pursuing a major in engineering, chemistry, physics or math, then calculus is an important measure of a student’s ability to succeed, and admissions officers should look at calculus when making such admissions decisions. But calculus is considered by highly selective schools in their admissions decisions even if a student is pursuing other subjects like English, humanities, or political science. For me this raises an academic dilemma. Why continue this emphasis on calculus if it will have little impact on a student’s educational or career path?

For years I’ve been torn on this issue when advising students. Taking calculus will boost one’s chances of admission, even if taking statistics is likely the more relevant course for most careers, and for life. Should I offer advice for a specific end – getting in? Or should I offer advice based on which class will be more useful over their lifetimes? The reality is, students want to get admitted – in fact, in a 2017 study cited in the report, 81% of student respondents chose to take AP Calculus not because of a love for math, but because “AP Calculus looks good on college applications”.

I’ve always hated that expression, “looks good”, because I find that it trivializes the entire high school experience as well as the college application process. I prefer that students follow a passion and do what they love (or like), rather than subscribe to set of high school activities based on a packaged formula. Still, there is a certain reality. Course selection is a real contributor to admissions success. The transcript – both grades and course selection – is the single most important factor in admissions (it’s really not even close!), and calculus remains at the center of a student’s course selection process.

But herein lies an opportunity for change. Admissions officers don’t necessarily like change – for example, many of the more selective schools resisted the test-optional momentum until COVID-19 forced them to change their practices. Today, calculus remains a pivotal high school course, unless admissions offices decide to de-emphasize its importance for non-STEM students. Besides, not all students have the opportunity to take calculus simply because it’s not offered at their schools. According to the study, 50% of high schools offer calculus, but only 38% of schools with predominantly Black or Latinx students offer calculus. Requiring a course that is not even offered by thousands of high schools prevents millions of students from having a fair shot at admissions.

When it comes to advising students, I like to start with a student’s goals. Do you want the Ivy League? Northwestern, Duke, Vanderbilt or Stanford? Year after year, these schools look at their applicant pool and the vast majority take calculus, or even AP calculus, in high school regardless of their proposed college major. That’s the reality, so if you want in then that’s part of the formula.

But those schools aren’t for everybody. The “best school” is not necessarily the highest ranked school. I believe in finding the right fit for students. Indeed, sometimes the right fit is a top ranked school. Sometimes it’s a school that you or your child never heard of before coming to my office. Either way, it’s the journey getting there, and what you do there, that is often the most exciting, the most challenging, and the most rewarding.

If you agree in starting with your child’s goals, and then creating a customized approach to best help him or her in meeting those goals, then let’s chat. You have nothing to lose and so much to gain.