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

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.