My father used to say, “If you are waiting for life to be fair, you are going to be waiting a long time.”
Nothing drives this point home quite like the college admissions process.
I hear, with alarming regularity, “it’s not fair” from students and parents.
They are absolutely correct.
There are, however, many strategies that students and families can employ to improve the odds for a favorable admission (and financial) decision.
Here is a peek behind the curtain for perspective on some common college admissions myths.
Understanding how this process really works is key to finding a college that is a great fit from an academic, social, and extracurricular perspective.
MYTH #1: Colleges are seeking well-rounded students
REALITY: While that’s true, colleges are seeking to build a well-rounded class. They desire students who will contribute to the diversity and vibrancy (socioeconomic, ethnic, regional, personal, first-generation) of the institution.
Many students will be incredibly well-rounded, others will have a uniquely desirable quality: they will play the tuba, replace the graduating point guard, be a published author, etc.
A “sharp point,” if you will.
Simply put, an applicant “checks boxes” for colleges. The boxes are institutional goals (e.g., attract more females to STEM or enroll more first-generation students.)
The student with the most checked boxes wins.
We don’t always know what the boxes are, but some colleges are very forthcoming with information regarding students they are trying to attract.
Speaking of regional diversity (a very common institutional goal), on a recent visit to Amherst College, I heard an admissions officer say to the large crowd, “There is one thing you could do that would almost guarantee admission.”
As you can imagine, everyone was on the edge of their seats! “Move to South Dakota. We try to attract all 50 states, and we can’t seem to get a student from South Dakota.”
My daughter looked at me pleadingly, and said, “can we?” She was only half-joking. South Dakota folks: take your cue, that is your sharp point!
PRO TIP: It’s widely considered far better to excel at one or two things than to spread yourself too thin. A meaningful, sustained commitment speaks volumes!
Think Eagle Scout, All-State Band, sustained and meaningful community involvement.
Want to level the playing field? Cultivate a skill or talent, the more rare, the better.
MYTH #2: Test scores are of critical importance in the college admissions process
REALITY: Well, for some colleges they are. However, only 26 colleges remain on the list of schools that require the SAT writing test. (Many still recommend it.)
More and more colleges are joining the ranks of schools that have test-optional or test flexible policies because they’ve de-emphasized the importance of test scores in the admissions process.
Why this trend? Colleges know that high test scores are strongly correlated with socioeconomic privilege.
They also understand that many other factors (character, grit, curiosity, etc.) determine whether a student will ultimately be successful at their institution.
According to the 2015 report by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) “The State of College Admission Report”, test scores as a top factor for admissions is “considerably important” for only 53% of colleges.
PRO TIP: Because many colleges do place considerable emphasis on test scores, getting those scores up can open more doors. At a minimum, link PSAT and SAT scores to Khan Academy for personalized test preparation at no cost.
Strong students with weaker test scores: take heart.
There are plenty of colleges for you! Be sure to research test-optional colleges.
So, what is the most important factor in college admissions? Hands down, grades in college preparatory courses, followed closely by the strength of your high school’s curriculum.
To gain entrance into a competitive college, a student simply must go above and beyond to excel in a very rigorous course schedule.
Even if rank isn’t reported, colleges can determine through information included on the high school’s School Profile how a student stacks up against class peers.
MYTH #3: Ability to pay is not a factor in admissions decisions
REALITY: Alas, a student’s ability to pay is often considered in the admissions process, and some schools give preference to full-pay students. (No, it’s not fair.)
Very few colleges are “need-blind” because they can’t afford to be; schools need full-pay students.
Still, colleges pride themselves on the amount of aid they distribute, and many have institutional goals to increase opportunities for low-income students.
Look at any college’s website or Common Data Set and you’ll see the percentage of students who receive aid.
PRO TIP: If you can pay the full sticker price, consider applying Early Decision if there is a standout school. It’s a binding decision, not to be taken lightly, but it could be the best chance for admission.
Can’t pay full price? Starting October 1st, complete the FAFSA (it’s not too bad.)
Follow up with the \CSS Profile if required.
It’s a closer look at your financial situation and it’s …unpleasant.
It’s disheartening to see so many families, blindsided by rising costs, scramble at the 11th hour to pay for college.
Two of the best ways to determine the possibility for aid are (1) The FAFSA4caster and (2) each college’s Net Price Calculator. You can do either at any time; knowing those cost estimates can save everyone’s sanity.
MYTH #4: Merit aid acknowledges and rewards students who worked hard in high school
REALITY: Merit aid is used as a recruiting tool to attract desirable (read: wealthy) candidates. The admissions process involves strategic enrollment management (SEM), and it is a fascinating look into how colleges build a freshman class.
Make no mistake, college is a billion-dollar business. With the stakes so high for schools, the sheer volume of data analyzed is unbelievable. Sophisticated computer modeling affords colleges the ability to predict with incredible precision what families are willing to pay and who will accept an offer of admission.
Colleges want students to accept their offers of admission because it increases their enrollment yield. Merit amounts of $5,000 or $10,000 can be just the ego boost a student needs to tip their decision favorably.
PRO TIP: To maximize the possibility of merit aid, consider colleges where GPA and scores fall into the top 20% of admitted students.
Look at Common Data Sets and complete the Net Price Calculator on college websites to determine the possibility of merit aid.
MYTH #5: There is a significant advantage to being a legacy applicant
REALITY: Not so fast. It used to be the case that legacy status was a nearly automatic admit, but an increasingly competitive environment is making it challenging even for these well-positioned students.
PRO TIP: Consider your alma mater’s “fit” for your student. We parents tend to recall our college experience fondly; that doesn’t make it the right choice for our children.
My daughter would have been a third generation student (both parents, grandparent) at a very selective university. She was waitlisted, then denied. Myth busted!
MYTH #6: “Softer” character traits are a minor consideration in college admissions
REALITY: Colleges seek students of exceptional character, who are resilient, persistent, committed, and demonstrate grit.
They desire students with purpose, independent thinkers, and leaders so they can shape a class of compassionate, productive citizens.
PRO TIP: A compelling personal essay that clearly relays strong character is of the utmost importance. Private (usually smaller) colleges place more emphasis on the essay because it illustrates what qualities a student will bring to campus. (Hint: they are looking for your ability to succeed there.)
Just as a student is looking for a great college fit, it’s a two-way street. Colleges want to see an intersection between what they desire in an applicant and what that student seeks.
Strong recommendations, community-based volunteer work, and an interview are other opportunities to demonstrate positive character.
Demonstrated interest can also tip the scale; again, see the Common Data Set to see which schools consider level of interest in their admissions decisions.
This holistic approach (considering all factors) can work very favorably for students who truly separate themselves from the pack.
Do not write your personal essay about your mission trip abroad and how much it changed your life. It doesn’t help the way you think it might, and it could very well hurt your chances.
Myth #7: Colleges don’t look at a student’s social media
REALITY: Oh yes, they do! One unfortunate social media post can derail everything. Clean it up.
Use social media to highlight community involvement or extracurricular activity.
Understanding the Process is Key
The college application process can be very stressful for families. I’ve been through it twice in two years!
Admissions decisions seem shrouded in mystery.
Family expectations need managing, and there are no guarantees.
At the same time, there is a staggering amount of information out there to help inform this significant investment, if you just know where to look for reliable sources.
As for these myths? Knowledge of what actually goes on in the admissions process can calm the process down significantly, as efforts can be focused in the most productive way.
It is not a fair process, but a strategic pursuit of a good fit college can considerably improve the odds of a positive outcome.
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By Amy Trinnaman, who has worked in education for ten years and is an independent educational consultant. She is also a member of our Facebook Group Paying For College 101 and our Road2College Pros Network.