Making the Most of Campus Visits

In last week’s blogpost, I explained the importance of the college campus visit and how it impacts “demonstrated interest.”  How can your son or daughter make the most of these trips?  The answer, simply put, is pay attention to everything you see and hear; ask smart questions; take notes; and maintain connections.  Here’s how.

Visit colleges on your preliminary list – this may seem obvious, but many families do not yet have a college list in place and make a trip to a college nearby just to begin the process.  If your son/daughter has not yet met with the high school’s college counselor, make an appointment to speak with a guidance counselor to get some idea of which colleges make sense based on your student’s grades, and PSAT scores (if available).  For students who do have a preliminary list, try to visit one “reach” school, and one “target” school to start.  Leave the “safety” schools for later in the process.  If you have time to visit several colleges, aim to see more “targets” than “reaches.”

Keep the number of trips reasonable – The campus visit is not a quick tour, especially these days when so much emphasis is placed on students finding the “best fit.”  Prospective students need time to soak up the atmosphere on a given campus, to really look at the college students and to sense if this campus “feels right.”  If your son/daughter feels enthusiastic being on this campus and can easily envision sitting in classes, and hanging out with, these college students, then he/she is closer to making a solid match.

Three Colleges A Week

Ideally, students should spend several hours at any one college so planning out the trips in a manageable way is important.  If a college is in a city, or even a small town, spend time exploring the downtown area also.  For these reasons, I recommend touring no more than three colleges in a week.

Pay close attention – to everything you see and hear and take notes. (Key Pointer: parents, this will inevitably become your job so make sure to write down your son/daughter’s thoughts and reactions.) During the information session, an admissions representative will recite a script about everything the college offers academically, socially, etc. Listen for what appeals to your son/daughter (and you!), and what does not. Most importantly, listen for features you have not heard from admissions representatives at other colleges as these are the aspects that make this school different.

Ask the Tour Guide

On the campus tour, a student guide will recite a script also, but here is the opportunity to go beyond the script.  Try to get an honest answer to: what is the one thing about “X” College that has disappointed you?  What is the number of students in your largest class and how many of these sized classes have you taken?  What are the most popular clubs and organizations?  What are the traditions that make this college unique?

Demonstrating Interest

Spring break is the traditional time for college tours and there is nothing better than walking around a campus, sitting in an actual class, listening to students in the cafeteria and speaking with professors to give a prospective student a real sense of what that college is all about.  But to today’s college admissions landscape, the campus visit is also the most important way to show “demonstrated interest.” 

These days, more and more colleges are placing greater weight on “demonstrated interest” as they review applications.  Colleges want to see and hear why  a prospective student wants to attend. An applicant must prove why a particular college is such a good fit for him/her so students must 'demonstrate' their 'interest' in a personal way.

So how exactly can students show their interest?

Demonstrating interest:  The insights, impressions, recollections a student feels on a college visit are crucial to expressing substantive interest.  The more personal details a student includes in an essay or email, 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.

But demonstrated interest can also include joining the mailing list on the college's website, ‘liking’ a college on Facebook, or reading student (or Admissions) blogs on the school website.  The more engaged a prospective student becomes with a college, the better.  Of course, the ultimate best way to show how much a student wants to attend a given school is to apply Early Decision.

A recent Forbes article reports that colleges are using data mining including tracking email open rates, link clicks, website visits, and social media engagement to gauge interest on the part of prospective students.  Colleges use these data to track the applicant’s enthusiasm about a particular school.  For many colleges, particularly smaller ones, demonstrated interest can be a predictor of yield - the likelihood that students will attend the college if they are accepted.

“As the admissions process becomes more digital, it makes sense that data analytics would play an increasing role in the admissions office determining the depth of a student’s interest,” says Peter Zimmermann, a past Stanford admissions official quoted in the article.  Yet, many colleges don’t like to bring attention to how much data analysis they’re really doing. 

“Because colleges are not transparent about their use of data mining,” the piece goes on to say, “applicants may want to err on the side of caution. Demonstrate your interest to the college through all avenues; you never know how or when they are tracking your interest but they very well could be.” 

College Steps for HS Freshmen & Sophomores

High school juniors are now in full swing of their college search.  Yet, college is certainly on the radar of parents (and some students) in earlier grades. 

With the ever-increasing competition, as evidenced by the continually decreasing acceptance rates at colleges, more and more families are beginning the college journey in sophomore year. The extra time is a true bonus on every level, and it can – and should – be used to the student’s advantage.

Here are the steps that your freshman or sophomore can take right now to ease the pressure, and boost applications, later.


·         Visit your guidance counselor to discuss next year’s course selection. You want to take the most advanced classes available at your school, but only if you feel confident that you can handle the academic rigor. 

·         Stay focused on schoolwork. Freshman grades will appear on your high school transcript so aim to finish the year on an upswing.

·         Participate in after-school activities and clubs. Find the one that interests you most and stick with it.

·         Volunteer for community service events in and out of school.

·         Talk to your teachers about possibly taking an SAT subject test this June.  It’s best to take these as soon as you complete a course so that the subject matter is fresh in your mind.

·         TENTH GRADE

·         Focus on schoolwork. Colleges want to see an upward trend in grades throughout high school.

·         Concentrate your time on one or two extra-curricular activities that you are most passionate about.

·         Consider a summer program that enriches your extra-curricular interests and investigate internships and classes.

·         Plan to start test prep this summer for the SAT or ACT in fall of junior year. 

·         Begin test prep now  for the SAT subject test you plan to take this June. [Many sophomores take one of the History subject tests or the Chemistry SAT.]

·         There is a huge bonus to getting a head start on campus visits. Start a preliminary college list and visit campuses this spring.  [See blogposts from November 1 and December 3 for details on building a college list].


More Colleges Are Test-Optional

Last year at this time, Fairtest announced that the number of test-optional colleges and universities had topped 1,000 institutions and now includes 300+ “top tier” schools.  The appeal of going test-optional has apparently ramped up in the past four years, with over 100 colleges jumping aboard the bandwagon in this time period.  This past summer, University of Chicago became the first top-10 research institution to drop its SAT requirement.

A slew of articles followed the announcement, but The Conversation presented an excellent overview of the test-optional movement, its critics and proponents.  For years, critics contended that without standardized tests, colleges would be unable to attract high-achieving students.  Yet, just the opposite has occurred.  At Wake Forest, for example, “the average high school GPA of our incoming freshmen increased after we stopped using standardized test scores as a factor. Our students are better because we look at the whole person, not a test score.”

Grades are Key

Proponents insist that high school grades and overall academic performance are the best predictors of success in college.  High school transcripts are the most revealing portion of the application as they demonstrate grit, ability and accomplishment.  Standardized test scores say nothing about a student’s creativity, passions or community engagement. The article suggests that “nearly 70% of what matters to a young person’s college grades cannot be predicted by academic variables. College admission remains more art than science. Fairness and merit are best served in a holistic review than in a numeric cutoff.”

So the question becomes: should my teen even bother taking the SAT or ACT?  It is always worth taking an exam especially if a student prepares for it.  Let’s remember that while 1,000 schools may be test-optional, 3,500 colleges and universities do accept test scores.  Hence, applicants who plan to submit their scores will have more options.

Some Students Should Not Take a Test

That said, some students may simply be poor test takers regardless of how much they may prepare.  Others may be so anxious about a test that decides college entrance, they perform poorly.  And others may be strong students whose test scores don’t reflect their academic competencies.  From my perspective, each student must weigh the pros and cons and come to a decision he or she can live with. 

A student who is certain about not taking the SAT or ACT must also be realistic about how this decision will limit college options.  A student who is determined to at least try taking an exam can always decide later on whether or not to submit test scores. 


Fewer Admits, More Deferrals

Every year, the number of students who submit early applications increases and a recent WSJ article notes that colleges and universities are now filling up to half of their freshman classes with early admits.  Consequently, the number of applicants deferred to the Regular Decision pile increases as well.

Numbers Are Overwhelming

“Fewer admits and more deferrals. I mean, across the board. The most extraordinary applicants are getting deferred,” claims one admissions counselor in the article.  “So many strong candidates were aiming early this year to top-tier schools, the numbers were just so overwhelming.”

A look at the chart below shows a huge spike in early applications at some institutions. The University of Rochester, for instance, saw an increase of 35% from last year. “It’s been a long trend for us,” said Jonathan Burdick, Rochester’s dean of admissions. “The numbers keep growing rapidly. We’ve had double-digit increases each year for as long as I can remember.”

Burdick also emphasizes that the Early Decision contract is a binding one and that students who apply to additional institutions after being accepted to U. Rochester run the risk of having their acceptance revoked.  Hence, students must be serious about attending a given school.

Looking for Every Edge

Nevertheless, as evidenced by the numbers, more and more prospective students are applying early in the hope that this will boost their chances of acceptance.  Admit rates during the Regular Decision round at almost all of the Ivies last year were less than 10% and some (Harvard, Yale) were less than 5%, as was Stanford.  Hence, despite the low early admit rates, students still feel that they have a better chance of acceptance during the early round.

Below is the preliminary early application data for the Class of 2023 at selected schools on the U.S. News & World Report list of top national institutions. These totals reflect only first-round data — for applications due in October or November — even though several schools offer further chances for early admission (known as ED II) in the winter also.

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Building the College List: Meeting the School Counselor

January is typically the first time students, and parents, meet with the college counselor at their high school. This is an important meeting for several reasons so students should come in prepared.

School counselors often have a questionnaire for both students and parents to complete.  Don’t rush through this. Really spend time on thoughtful responses and include as many details and anecdotes as possible. The questionnaire becomes a template for the counselor’s recommendation letter which will accompany college applications so the more information he or she has, the more interesting the letter.

Parent Workshop: Take the Stress Out

In order to make the most of this first school meeting, here are other items to bring to the meeting (in addition to the completed questionnaire).

Preliminary college list  – Hopefully you’ve used the previous two blogposts to help you comprise a preliminary list of colleges. If you don’t have a list, be ready to share your thoughts as to what you are looking for in terms of size, location, academic major, etc.  These criteria will help the counselor recommend additional schools for you to research and visit.

Student resume – this can be a simple draft of achievements both in, and outside, school as well as community service, summer experiences and employment.  The counselor may not know that you are captain of your basketball team, president of the photography club or treasurer on the student council. If you play on several athletic teams, mention the position you play and any awards you’ve gotten over the years. If you’ve competed in competitions, even if you never won, include the when and where for the contests.

If you are unsure if a given activity or interest merits a place on your resume, put it down and ask the counselor if it is indeed appropriate. You want the counselor to know as much about you as possible, but you also want his/her advice as to what your final resume will include.

Be forthcoming – Remember, the purpose of this meeting is for the counselor to get to know you and to understand what you’re looking for in your college experience. Try to give as much information as you can even if you’re not 100% sure of what type of college you think is perfect for you. Are you excited about going to the football games? Might you consider joining a fraternity? Do you want to be surrounded by creative people? Musicians? Artists?

If your counselor asks a question you weren’t expecting, respond with “I’m not sure, let me think about it and get back to you.”  Make sure he/she knows that you want to keep a dialogue going especially after you’ve visited a few campuses. And always give the counselor feedback on your college visits.

Be open-minded - The counselor may suggest colleges you've never heard of or didn't consider as serious contenders. Ask the counselor to explain why he/she believes this school would be a good fit for you. Then take the time to research the college online and if possible, plan a visit to really understand if the counselor is right.

Do not rule out any school just because of the name. If the location is not appropriate, that's one thing, but you may be pleasantly surprised when you investigate other people's ideas, particularly if the person is a college expert.


"Nudging" Students to Apply Early Decision

As if students don’t feel enough anxiety around college, now they may feel heightened pressure by schools offering second round Early Decision options.  A recent WSJ article reports that some institutions have begun asking students who have applied Regular Decision, to boost their chances of admission by applying Early Decision. Because the ED option is binding, students who are accepted this way must withdraw their Regular Decision applications elsewhere.

“If Tulane is your first choice school, you may want to consider switching to Early Decision II,” with a Jan. 7 deadline, according to an email sent to one applicant. “If you are admitted, your college search is over,” the email went on to coax. Last year, Tulane (one of several colleges using this approach) received 625 additional ED applications and accepted 95, an admit rate of 15%.

Colleges want to guarantee enrollment

Early decision has been growing for years and some institutions fill more than half of their freshmen class this way. “For colleges, it helps guarantee enrollment at a time when they are competing more fiercely for students,” states the article.  If there is such fierce competition for students, why do acceptance rates seem to drop every year?  Clearly, more students must be applying.

“…a runaway train”

“We’re all pushing early decision now,” said Mark Hatch, Colorado College’s vice president for enrollment. “This is a runaway train and it’s not going to stop.”  At Colorado College, 27% of students who applied ED in 2018 were admitted compared with only 5% who applied regular admission. The overall admit rate was 15%.

Despite the statistics, many school, and independent counselors (myself included) view this type of cajoling as unfair to students, and parents. The invitation email alone essentially dangles a string of hope.  “They must want me,” a student may say to himself reading the alluring words “your college search is over.”  Yet, the words are simply a clever marketing ploy for schools.

Self-serving maneuver

This new tactic joins other strategies that colleges and universities have used for years: increasing the number of deferred students (from ED/EA applications to RD); placing hundreds of hopefuls onto waitlists that never budge.  Tactics that serve the colleges’ interest, but not the students.  On the contrary, such tactics only tease applicants and often postpone the inevitable disappointment.

All the more reason to maintain a realistic stance around admissions. Apply Early Decision only if you really want to attend that school, not because you’re afraid you won’t be accepted anywhere else. Yes, acceptance rates for Regular Decision are lower, but if you’ve applied to appropriate institutions, chances are good that you will be admitted to many of your schools.



How Colleges Use Social Media

For years, counselors have been advising students to clean up their social media when they embark on their college journey as admissions offices do consider applicants’ online activity.  Yet, a recent article in the Journal of College Admission (NACAC) examines how colleges use social media to market themselves. Colleges have jumped on the social media bandwagon to attract and inform prospective students.

Social Media Impacts College Choice

During their college search, students tend to use college websites and review sites (Chegg, Niche) to gather information, but as students hone their lists, they turn to social media to get a sense of campus life. The NACAC report found that two in five students use social media to decide which school to attend. Hence social media is not as impactful for increasing student awareness as it is for influencing college choice.

According to the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, US teens use social media as follows: 76% use Instagram; 75% Snapchat; 66% Facebook; and 47% Twitter.  Furthermore, 63% of students use social media to research a college they're interested in and 60% have followed or 'liked' a college they consider.

Visit is "Golden Nugget"

For most colleges, the campus visit is still the "golden nugget," concedes one admissions official.  "It makes a huge difference in the decision to apply."  But for those students who cannot get to a campus, Instagram, where a college features a lot of photos of the campus, helps prospective students see themselves on that campus. And the student-run blog is a way for prospective students to hear about what life is life as a student - the classes, culture and how they fit.

Lately, colleges are experimenting more with video to appeal to "this generation's visual nature," states another college official. "Facebook Live video sessions and 360 shots give an enhanced view of the campus and have high click-through rates."  Such visuals are particularly valuable to prospective students who are unable to visit college campuses.

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