Building the College List ~ Part Two

Part One of this blogpost (November 1) outlined the essential factors students should consider as they embark on their college search.  Now that those broad strokes have been taken, let's look more closely at how to evaluate the academics at colleges.

Ask Yourself:  Do you have a favorite subject or long-time passion, or do you enjoy many subjects and don't feel ready to choose a major yet?

Some students know what course of study they wish to pursue in college, but most apply as "undecided" and rather begin their freshman year exploring options. If you already know what you will major in, your website research will be narrowed to that department and everything it offers. Some colleges have separate webpages for each of their individual schools (engineering, business, arts & sciences, etc.) and it is important to look for your intended major here so that you understand the requirements of each particular school. [Key tip: make sure you are looking at the undergraduate department, not the graduate program.]

For students who are not yet certain, it is especially important to review all of the majors and minors a college offers to insure there is more than one that appeals to you. Here too, it is advisable to explore the majors/minors within each school. You may find areas you never considered studying and decide to investigate these further.

Parent Workshop: Take the Stress Out

Ask Yourself:  What type of learning environment is best suited for you? Do you prefer smaller classes with lots of discussion time or do you work better in a lecture setting taking lots of notes?

Most colleges list on their website the student to faculty ratio; the smaller the ratio, the greater number of small classes. Many schools will also include the percentage of classes under 20 which also gives a good sense of class sizes in general.

Aside from class size, you may wonder about your classmates themselves. One benefit of being in a "better" school is being surrounded by strong and motivated students who make discussions more interesting and collaborative projects more successful. Furthermore, since professors must often tailor the level of their classes to the students in them, chances are better that you'll enjoy a more challenging curriculum with brighter classmates.

Pay Attention To:  the "extras."  Some colleges have an Honors College within them for top students which is worth investigating. Other schools have a "first year experience" with a broad variety of courses that may be particularly helpful for students who need to figure out their prospective major. The variety and strength of the internship opportunities and even study abroad programs can also tell you a great deal of what a college has to offer.

Stay Tuned ~ next week's blogpost, Part Three, will offer good ideas for making the most of your meeting with the college counselor at your high school. This can be particularly important if you are in a large high school where the college counselors are responsible for hundreds of students. You want the school counselor to get to know you!


More Early Applications, More Deferrals

According to NACAC's State of College Admission survey, there was an average increase of 4% in the number of Early Decision applications, and an average increase of 9% in Early Action applications between 2016 and 2017.

Colleges with Early Decision policies in fall 2017 reported a higher acceptance rate for their ED applicants as compared to all applicants – 62% versus 51% overall.  Roughly 30% of private colleges offer an ED option, and more than half of the most selective colleges (those whose acceptance rate is less than 50%) offer an ED option.  Similarly, the admit rate for Early Action (EA) was 74% on average compared to an admit rate of 64% on average for Regular Decision applicants. 

Different Story at Ivies

Of course, the above statistics are averages for colleges and universities across the country.  The table below shows how different the numbers are at the Ivies where the highest admit rate for early applicants was roughly 25% (Dartmouth) and the lowest admit rate was 14.5% (Harvard).  And for some of the other highly selective schools, early admit rates were 12% at Georgetown; 21% at Duke; and 25% at Notre Dame.

 If a student is not accepted during the ED/EA round, he or she is either rejected outright or “deferred” to the Regular Decision pool of applicants. While this may be encouraging for students who theoretically still have a chance at acceptance, the number of deferred applicants who ultimately are admitted is very low.  Many top tier universities, unfortunately, are guilty of deferring far too many early applicants.  

What You Can Do

Nevertheless, deferred students often prefer to remain optimistic and try to increase their chances of acceptance. Here’s what a student can do:  ask the high school counselor to call the admissions office to learn if there is anything you can do (i.e. an alumni interview, another recommendation letter). More importantly, the counselor should inform the office that you will definitely enroll should you be accepted in the spring.  The counselor can also find out if writing a deferral letter may work in your favor. But if the college specifically asks deferred students not to write a letter, don’t.

If the counselor gives you the green light to draft a letter, keep it short (no more than 250 words) and write about how this institution can help you grow your interests and achieve your goals.  What does this school offer that others don’t? How will you take advantage of their courses, internship and/or research opportunities?  Choose one area about yourself and describe how you fit into this particular campus.  It’s up to you to give this top-choice school another reason to take you.

Ivy League Early Round Acceptance Rates

What College Admissions Committees Are Really Looking For

The absolute number one factor in college admission is a rigorous high school curriculum according to a recent survey reviewed in the above-titled article. This year's survey of independent college counselors resulted in a somewhat different list for the top criteria used by college admissions offices, the top three being:

1.      Challenging curriculum

2.      Grades/GPA

3.      Standardized test scores 

Understandably, colleges want to make sure that students are up to the challenge of that school's academics. "It is far better to take on a challenge, show some grit, and if necessary, earn a slightly lower grade. Nowadays, a transcript with easy courses and straight A’s is not well regraded at competitive colleges," the article asserts.

Number 4 on the list, comprised by the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), is the essay, specifically the personal essay.  Its purpose is to give admissions readers an idea of "who you are, what shaped you, and what makes you tick." Regardless of the subject, an essay becomes compelling through rich details and anecdotes and most importantly, an authentic voice. It doesn't matter what the student writes about as long as it's important to him/her.

Number 6 are strong teacher and counselor recommendation letters.  Indeed, these have become more important in the admissions process and students can actually enhance teacher letters by providing them with more information.

Ability to Pay

Interestingly, the IECA report notes two new factors in its ranking: the family's ability to pay at number 7; and a student's character and values at number 12.  It shouldn't come as any surprise that colleges and universities will keep an eye on the bottom line despite their rhetoric about "holistic reviews" and "need blind" admissions.

Character and values are reflected in the student's resume from which colleges learn how actively engaged the student is in school community, service and extra-curricular activities.  Colleges pay particular attention to unique skills, talents, and backgrounds.  Often schools will also look at how a student's values match those of the institution.



Building the College List - Part One

The college list is like a piece of art, a work in progress, constantly modified throughout the college search and beyond. While some high school counselors draft a preliminary list for juniors, most students will be on their own to begin, and then continuously develop, their own list of schools. This is the first in a three-part series on how to explore colleges to generate a strategic and sensible college list that best fits the student.

'reach'  'target'  'safety'

It is important to maintain a realistic attitude when researching colleges. All students should have a handful of each type of school: "reach, target, safety." Because the final list will have this variety in terms of selectivity, the preliminary list should also include colleges across a spectrum. 

Parent Workshop: Take the Stress Out

ESSENTIAL FACTORS:  Some of the essential factors for selecting colleges are location, size, academic majors, campus life, and of course, the student's current academic record. 

Location – how far from home do you really want to go? If you’ve had enough of northern winters, do you want to spend the next four years in sunnier climes?  

Size - do you want to be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond?  If you're in a small high school and want the feel of a lot more people around you, consider visiting some of the larger universities (at least 25,000 undergrads), but also visit colleges with 10 to 12,000 undergrads in order to compare. If you're in a large public high school and prefer smaller classes and greater access to professors, consider visiting smaller colleges (4,000 undergrads or fewer).

Academics - If you have some idea of what you'd like to study, checking the list of majors and minors is important. Many universities will have schools specific to areas of study (business, education, communications, engineering, etc.). If you have no idea whatsoever what to major in, review the majors at the liberal arts colleges.

[Part Two of this series will cover the specific criteria with which to gauge academic majors and minors as well as the quality of academic programs]


What Do Colleges Want in An Applicant? Everything…

The above-titled article in the New York Times last year is a genuine representation of today's college admissions process  - "a maddening mishmash of competing objectives, " as the subhead states. Yet, the piece points out that "only 13% of four-year colleges accept fewer than half of their applicants."  Hence, casting a wide net is always in the student's best interest.

Many colleges rely on "holistic" evaluations where an applicant's personality and character are assessed in addition to the numbers (grades and test scores). At Trinity College, admissions officers now look for "evidence of 13 characteristics - including curiosity, empathy, openness to change, and ability to overcome adversity" as they review applications.  How do admissions readers judge? From information included in essays and recommendation letters, which make these components especially important.  

Even More Student Info

Yet because of the increasing number of applications each year, some admissions offices seek even more information about applicants.  At Olin College of Engineering applicants are selected to compete in a two-day audition. They work in small groups to complete a tabletop design challenge and later more complex tasks (i.e. designing a new campus building). Evaluators observe how students collaborate and communicate with one another. "This allows us to see them in motion, in an educational moment," explains Olin's dean of admissions. 

Some colleges are exploring alternative ways to measure student potential. One asks applicants to demonstrate their "emotional intelligence" to highlight their ability to work with others, and another wants students to display "their fire for learning."  The new Coalition application, accepted by more than 130 campuses, features a virtual "college locker" where students can upload videos and written works throughout their high school years and then include them in college applications.  

Yale's dean of admissions is pleased with such options: "Now, we have the ability to get to know a student better from a different type of submission."  He goes on to describe one high school senior who submitted a four-minute video documenting his Eagle Scout project in which he was involved in constructing a veteran’s memorial. 

More Work, More Worry

While all of the above may ease the job of admissions officers, what does it mean for the 17-year old completing a college application?  More work, more worry. Now students have to make sure their recommendation letters say just the right things about them. And the ever-daunting personal essay now looms even larger as it takes on more weight with admissions readers.  Do Yale applicants now have to become filmmakers to be considered? College officials seek to make their own lives easier without any regard to how it impacts the poor teens who are at their mercy. 


Why Fall Visits Are So Important

Most juniors begin college campus tours in the spring and find out that they really should have started earlier. Why the rush? It is virtually impossible to visit 8-10 colleges in a space of 3 spring months, especially when those 3 months are also consumed with test prep, extra-curriculars, and keeping up grades.  Placing this kind of pressure on students is precisely what independent college counselors and savvy parents try to avoid. So let's break it down.

~ Why does my teen need to see so many colleges?  There is nothing better than walking around a campus, sitting in a classroom, listening to students in the cafeteria, checking out the dorms, and speaking with professors to give a prospective student a real sense of what that college is all about.

Yet, this is far from the only reason to see as many schools as possible. In the past three years, college admissions reps are placing increasing importance on "demonstrated interest." Colleges want to see and hear why a prospective student wants to attend. These days, an applicant must prove why a particular college is such a good fit for him/her; students must 'demonstrate' their 'interest' in a personal way.

--- Demonstrating interest:  The insights, impressions, recollections a student feels on a college visit are crucial to expressing substantive demonstrated interest.  The more personal details a student includes in an essay or in email to a college admissions rep, the more genuine that student's interest becomes. It's almost as if the prospective student needs to gather firm evidence to make a solid case to support his/her desire to attend. The application alone is not enough anymore.

How do I select colleges to visit? Because high school counselors typically do not begin the college list process with juniors until January, students and parents are left on their own to do so. College guidebooks are a good start, especially those categorized by state. There are enough colleges within a 2-hour drive from any major city to explore. Criteria to consider include location, size, weather, and academic concentrations.

~ Do I really need to go along on the visits? Yes. Many colleges have activities and discussions specifically for parents. Moreover, parents are most likely to be the note takers and record keepers and writing down as much as possible is critical.

Independent Counselors - Independent college counselors are a tremendous resource for families pulling a list together in a hurry. Counselors know the small, medium and large colleges nearby as well as which schools focus on liberal arts, business, sciences, etc. Counselors also provide families with:

  • specific instructions to streamline college website research

  • key questions to ask on a tour

  • important steps to take before and after the campus visit to build relationships with colleges.


Pros & Cons of Applying Early Decision

Every fall, high school seniors finalize their college lists and question if they should apply Early Decision (ED) to a given college.  Parents wonder if there is any advantage to applying early to a school and worry if their child does submit an ED application, will the family lose the opportunity to compare financial aid offers from a number of colleges.

Higher Acceptance Rate for Both ED and EA

According to the 2017 edition of NACAC's State of College Admission survey, colleges reported an average increase of 10% in the number of Early Decision applications between fall 2016 and fall 2017.  The number of acceptances of ED applicants also increased, by 11% for the same time period. Colleges that offer Early Decision reported a higher acceptance rate on average for ED applications relative to all applicants: 62% versus 51%. 

Similarly, the number of applications submitted through Early Action (EA) increased as well, this time by seven percent. For fall 2017, 40% of applications to colleges with Early Action admissions plans were received through EA applications.  The admit rate for EA applicants was 73% on average compared to an admit rate of 66% on average for Regular Decision applicants.

Hence, there is a significant advantage to applying EA to colleges and there is no down side. There is a down side to applying ED regarding financial aid. Early decision is a binding agreement and an acceptance means accepting the school's financial aid award even if a better one may have been offered from another institution. If a student receives an ED acceptance, the student will receive one - and only one - financial aid offer.  Also, early acceptance typically includes a deposit on enrollment. If you back out of the commitment, you lose your spot and your deposit.

You Can Say 'No' to ED Acceptance

If a student applies for financial aide when he/she submits an ED application, and financial aid officials determine that the family does not qualify for aid, or qualifies for less aid than the family was hoping for, the student can decline the acceptance without penalty provided this is done immediately.  This rarely happens, almost 90% of students accepted through ED do enroll in that institution.


Channeling Inner Kindness in the Personal Essay

Kindness counts.  That's what this recent post reminds students as they approach their college application essays. "...the best essays are born when students dig deeper and share something that makes them tear up, or causes their eyes to twinkle or their tones to shift," confides Jennifer Winward in this Washington Post article. Greater authenticity emerges when students write about moments of genuine kindness.

 Winward cites the 2016 report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Making Caring Common,  which found that colleges are drawn to applicants who show concern for others, promote good citizenship and civic engagement, and develop personal responsibility.  The report included specific tips for parents including:

1)     If your teens help to run the household, babysit a younger sibling, or make other significant family contributions, make sure they write about it on their applications.

2)     Alleviate test pressure by discouraging students from taking the same standardized test more than twice.

3)     Have teens engage in meaningful community service not high-profile causes or traveling to exotic countries in the hope that this will make the application stand out.

4)     Encourage students to be authentic and honest about their interests and accomplishments.

 Channel Your Inner Kindness

Indeed, the most compelling essays are the most self-reflective and express ideas and feelings the student has discovered about him/herself in the midst of an experience, event, or activity.  “The students who talk about moments of genuine kindness reveal more authenticity than those who focus on other subjects,” Winward points out.  She advises students to consider situations and times when they have been the kindest and the people who benefited from the kindness. “Being yourself and channeling your inner kindness to build character should be the focus.”

 Winward suggests that students record themselves speaking about something that they love, something disappointing, or something that truly gets them fired up about life.  Upon listening to the recording(s), students find where their voices perk up revealing the event or time, and the accompanying emotions, to write about.  It's a sensible strategy especially for students struggling to find what to write about.  Often the richest essays are about activities the student doesn't consider all that exciting, Yet, the WHY behind the activity can expose a great deal about personality.


Why It's So Hard to Get In ~ Part Two

While there is no secret to being admitted and no one can guarantee you will be admitted to a specific institution, there are ways to better your chance of being admitted:

  • Good grades. Push yourself to get the best grades you can get.

  • Advanced classes. Push yourself to take academically challenging classes. If your school offers AP, IB, or honors courses, take those classes if you are up for the challenge. In addition, take more than the required classes. For example, if your school only requires three years of math, push yourself and take a fourth year.

  • Participate in meaningful activities. Don’t sign up for every club and organization your school offers. Instead, find activities you enjoy and really dive in and get more involved than just attending meetings.

  • Show your passion for the college. Sign up for the mailing list, visit campus, and talk to your admissions counselor. In addition, if possible, show your passion for the institution in an essay if you are asked to submit an essay on why you want to attend the institution.

  • Make a connection with your admissions counselor. Talk to your admissions counselor and ask your questions. This can show you are very interested in the college, as well as letting the admissions counselor get to know you. Build a relationship with your admissions counselor. Later on when the admissions committee is making their decision, this connection could come into play. The admissions counselor may “go to bat for you” if you made a positive impression on them.

  • Stand out from the crowd. There may be hundreds of students who are applying with identical grades and test scores. This is why it is important to do things that make you stand out. Make sure your admissions essay is meaningful and unique. Share your activities in a way that ensure the committee sees your passion and interest.

  • Be authentic. After reading hundreds of applications and essays, many admissions decision makers can spot students who are being insincere. Be yourself throughout the application and essay.

When applying to colleges with low acceptance rates, there is no guarantee you will be admitted. If you are not admitted to one of these colleges, it doesn’t mean you are not qualified. Keep your head high and know that you will find and be admitted to a different school that may be a better fit for you.

Why It's So Hard To Get In ~ Part One

Students often fear the college journey because they’ve heard so much negative hype around it.  Especially now when the admissions world has become so competitive, students often feel that the deck is stacked against them.  One of my missions as a counselor is to instill in students a sense of confidence and assurance that many, many colleges will be thrilled to welcome them onto their campuses.

It is important to maintain realistic expectations as students embark on their college roadtrip.  Understanding how college admissions departments operate may help to balance those expectations. Here’s a look at why it’s so difficult to predict outcomes.

·         Admissions committees make decisions.  Depending upon the size of the college, one or two admissions counselors may review a student’s application, or an entire committee will convene to review and discuss an applicant. Committees include not only admissions counselors, but the admissions director, faculty and sometimes additional administrative staff. The committee at each individual college will evaluate an application differently depending upon the criteria that are most relevant to each school.

·         Admissions department are not only admitting students to that college. They are also admitting students to specific academic disciplines. Popular majors, such as business, may have a lot more competition than a less popular major. This is one reason a straight A student applying to a popular major may not be not be accepted, but a B student is admitted to a less popular major.

          Admissions decisions are very subjective. When admissions committees receive thousands of applications with similar grades and test scores, other factors become critical when making decisions. What is important to one decision maker could be less important to another. Some admissions decision makers may feel a connection with a student and want to take a chance on the student while another committee member may decide not to admit. Lastly, admissions committees can change every year.

Learn what students can do to boost applications in next week’s blogpost, Part Two.