Transparency in College Admissions: Optional Components of the College Application

I am going to keep this one short and sweet since a number of the posts in my “college transparency” series have been quite long. If you want to maximize your chances of acceptance, don’t consider any optional components of a college application optional. Here are some common optional components:

  • Essays
  • Interviews
  • Videos submissions
  • Letter of recommendation (any or extras)

Option to write an optional essay? Write it.

Option to Interview? Sign up (then prepare for it…more on that here and here).

Option to create and send a video introduction, for example, like U Chicago and Bowdoin offer? Do it.

Option to send an extra letter of recommendation, or to send one at all if optional (many schools require zero LORs, so if you can submit one as an option….)? Request one and have it sent.

Why submit optional materials? Because by doing so you are going above and beyond what other applicants will do to demonstrate who they are as well as their commitment to being accepted to the school to which you are applying. You are giving yourself the opportunity to let the admissions committee get to know more about you. And because there is more of “you” for them to evaluate, assuming the you that you present is in a good light, you increase your odds of winning over the admissions committee.

Also, for many AdComs, not submitting optional materials looks lazy. If I have applicant A and applicant B on the table, and all things are equal but A submits extra materials and B does not, there is a higher likelihood I am going with A. I like to see the extra hustle, and colleges do, too.

 

*Stay in the know! Subscribe for news, tips, and advice*

Class of 2023 Regular Decision Notification Dates

College and universities are gearing up to release regular decision results this month and into April. Schools often post results in advance of their “official” notification dates, but with many reporting a record number of applications again this year, we will see.

My favorite college-admissions-related data site, College Kickstart, has compiled the most recently updated dates along with the notification dates from last year, which might help you predict when a school will release early if they do. Bookmark this page, as they post updates often.

 

*Stay in the know! Subscribe for news, tips, and advice*

Our Favorite Test Optional Schools

More and more schools are going test-optional—and we love that. More than 220 colleges have de-emphasized the ACT and SAT since 2005, and the list keeps growing. Even uber selective schools like the University of Chicago have dropped standardized testing as a requirement*. Why? As the recent Chronicle of Higher Education ‘Trends on the Horizon‘ report notes:

One reason the list is likely to keep growing: data, data, data. Colleges are using ever more sophisticated statistical analyses to better understand how their students perform. On many campuses, deep dives into enrollment data have helped admissions offices determine which pieces of information they collect from applicants actually help them predict a variety of student outcomes, such as first-year grades and progress toward a degree. Chicago found that ACT and SAT scores didn’t tell it much about who would succeed and who would struggle.

*Always a caveat!!! Although we wholeheartedly support the test-optional movement, we have reason to believe that not all test-optional policies are created equally. Many skeptics of test-optional policies see them as applicable only to certain student groups, for example, students who are disadvantaged in the admission proicess—not middle to upper-class students who have access to test prep and other resources but just don’t “test” well. We have heard through the grapevine that this is the case at quite a few schools. If this is true, it is just one more way that the college admissions process lacks transparency. We are working on finding data that reveals who is admitted without test scores at some of the schools in question (Chicago, Wake Forest, Bowdoin, Wesleyan) but it is not readily available.

Anyway, we want to shoutout a few of the test-optional schools that we have found to be genuinely test-optional, and where we have students who are thriving both inside and outside of the classroom. They are:

  • Pitzer College
  • Drew University
  • George Washington University
  • The University of Arizona
  • Whittier College
  • University of Delaware
  • New School

For a comprehensive list of top-tier schools that are test-optional, and to stay up to date on the test-optional movement, head to FairTest.org.

 

*Stay in the know! Subscribe for news, tips, and advice*

 

Transparency in College Admissions: Playing Sports in High School

I was an athlete growing up. I played a sport every season, but I eventually decided to play just one at a very high level. I never thought about whether it would help me get into college until I was in high school and was winding down competing nationally and internationally. Given the very little that my high school counselor knew about recruiting and the fact that the sport I played was not one that many students were recruited to play (in 2001), it ended up being something that differentiated me but not something that got me into college.

Fast forward almost 20 years, and I want to save all of the athletes out there a little bit of trouble; I want to dispel some myths around playing sports in high school. And this is not based on my experience alone, but the experience of many students I have worked with and the experiences of my colleagues.

Before I get into it, please note: I love sports! I hike, I bike, I snowboard, and I know how amazing they are for the mind, body, and soul—but this post is not about that. It is about whether or not sports help students who are not getting recruited get into college.

Let me outline a few common examples.

Example 1: I was trying to get recruited, but I ultimately was not. The coach knows me and says she will put a good word in with admissions, so this means I am getting in, right?

No. If you are not recruited, you are not recruited. Will coach put in a good word for you? Maybe. But you won’t ever know and should not bank on it because in many cases it either does not happen or does not move the needle.

On the positive side….after going through the recruiting process you likely have been to campus a few times, and, hopefully, have gotten to know the school’s offerings and culture better than other applicants. You can use this to your advantage in the admissions process as you write your essays as well when you interview (if an interview is offered).

Example 2: My son loves sports and 90% of his extracurricular time is spent playing sports. He is a devoted player, coach, and even the captain of a team at his high school. He is not getting recruited, but his commitment to sports will be a differentiator as will his leadership, right?

No. Colleges give preferential treatment to recruited athletes only. High school student-athletes who are not getting recruited get no significant bonus points for playing a sport or even captaining a team.

On the positive side….you have shown commitment to an activity or a set of activities over time and have some leadership to highlight. You can and should highlight leadership skills wherever applicable, and even try to translate the skills you gained in a sports leadership role to different activities (academic if possible) in which you hope to participate in college. You can do this is via your essays. This is just one way to spin the experience to be highly received by college admissions officers. Focus not on the playing of the actual sport but what you gained from it and how that is transferable to other activities in college, or how it helped you grow as a person.

Example 3: My parents told me that colleges want well-rounded applicants and that playing a sport is one way to appear more well-rounded. I have to play even if I hate sports, right?

No. Sports are super time-consuming and tend to detract from academics for many students. They do not help much unless you are getting recruited (see above!). Also, and most importantly, if you do not like sports do not play sports! Do what you love, please do not waste time on activities that do not really interest you.

On the positive side….your parents care a lot about you and are just looking out for your college admissions related wellbeing! Give them a pass on this one, share this post, and explain to them that you will have more time for homework (or something else they will like to hear), and exploring your other curiosities and the extracurricular activities that are meaningful to you—a win-win!

The bottom line is sports only significantly help students get into college if they are recruited or have high potential as a walk on. If you are going to possibly be recruited, you will know fairly early on in high school if you are on that path.

 

*Stay in the know! Subscribe for news, tips, and advice*

5 Ways to Thoroughly Research Colleges

Subtitle: For when you can’t get to campus or want to go beyond what a traditional campus visit can provide!

The in-person campus tour is not the be-all-end-all of college research. Neither is that gigantic Fiske guide, College Confidential (that site is horribly stress-inducing please stay away from it, same with Reddit), or what your older sibling told you based on findings from their college search process. From my experience, most college research can take place from the comfort of your own home, but it takes time and effort. And planning, a little bit of starting early and planning!

College/University Websites

Read the websites of the schools on your list, and not just the admissions and financial aid pages. I would read those—but for the purpose of understanding how to apply, not why to apply. Unless it is one of the admissions office/officer’s blogs that I talk about here; those might help you see why you’d want to attend. If class visits are offered those can be very informative, but you’d need to get to campus to attend. I will talk more about how you can get a look at a college’s classrooms and student life later in this post.

I suggest starting with the pages of the department in which you hope to study (or think you might hope to study). What does the curriculum look like? How many and what type of classes are offered? Are there affiliated clubs, events, other special programs of interest? Find a faculty member who is undertaking research in your area of interest and reach out to them with three or four questions you have about the program or their research that you can’t find answers to online. If they are unable to speak to you, ask if they can suggest someone else who might be able to help. Can’t get through to any faculty members? Contact the department’s administrative assistant or department coordinator and see if they can help you make an initial connection. For example, here you can find the contact info for the program coordinator of Penn’s Department of Psychology. If not, ask your regional rep to help you get this information.

I also suggest pinpointing two or three clubs you might want to join. See if you can connect with a current student or faculty lead within each to learn more. Most clubs general admin contact info is posted online. Here is the contact info for Fordham’s Finance Society, as well as a zillion contacts for USC student clubs.

Lastly, you might want to get a sense of what the campus looks like, and can do so via a virtual tour if you can’t go in person. Many colleges provide virtual tour options now. For example, here is one created by Santa Clara University in California.

CampusReel

Speaking of tours, whether you can get to campus in person or not, you will want to check out CampusReel for an insider look at the colleges and universities on your list. Real college students submit their own video clips that take you through a day in the life, dorms, dining halls, classrooms, and so on. For example, I enjoyed this video from a UC Santa Barbara student on what she wished she knew before she started. You will also get a pretty good sense of what the campus looks like in reality as the guides are not employees of the admissions office, and what you see is probably closer to what you will get compared to the virtual tour created by the school.

Coursera and edX

If you can’t get to campus and glimpsing a school’s academics firsthand is important to you (it should be!), then head over to Coursera and edX and sign up for a class. They are free, informative, and you might learn something, not to mention they give you an extra talking point (or ten) for application materials and the interviews if you have them.  You will definitely get a sense of what college-level courses entail, and I also see it as a way to demonstrate interest. A few courses I like and have had students take include:

Case Studies in Personalized Medicine

Becoming an Entrepreneur

The Science of Wellbeing

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

A Law Student’s Toolkit

Local Alumni Groups

Don’t know anyone who went to your dream school? Look no further than your local alumni group. If you are not sure your area has an alumni group just ask Google. I entered “NYU alumni club NJ” and got the link to info on the NJ group right away. You will be sending a cold email but I don’t see anything wrong with that. You are showing interest in their alma mater. If someone is a member of their alumni group, they probably like to connect with people like you. You are demonstrating a desire above and beyond other prospective students to get to know the school, and they love their school! That is never a bad look. And if no one replies to you, at least you know you tried. If there is no local or even regional group where you live, try to one closest to you. Again, there is really no downside to trying to connect with alumni to learn more.

Social Media

Not the best way to get to know a school well, but some are not half bad. I follow quite a few schools on Instagram, and the “takeover” stories by admissions office staff and students can be insightful. I particularly like the UChicago and Barnard pages.

 

Everything above being said, if you have the opportunity to see a school in person or meet an admissions officer, regional representative, current student, faculty member, or alumni in person, take it! I wanted to present the suggestions here because not everyone can get to campus, and a standard campus visit alone is not a very good way to really get to know a school. If you believe in finding a school that is best matched with your goals for college (not just a school with a certain name, good sports team, etc.), the above outreach will help you figure out which school that might be—so time to get to work!

 

*Stay in the know! Subscribe for news, tips, and advice*

Transparency in College Admissions: On Being Well-Rounded

Being well-rounded is beneficial in many ways, and might help you connect with people out in the real world, but colleges are looking for students with something unique—specific talents, skills, or developed interests to add to their next class. Students who drill down on their interests early on in high school will be better positioned to tell a clear, focused story in their college applications (and may speed up ‘time to graduation’ in college, too). By doing so, you hand the reader of your file precisely what they are looking for—you make it easy to see your value add.

Think about it this way: You may love all five clubs you joined, as well as the two bands you play in, and of course, enjoy the three sports you play, but how much can you meaningfully contribute to all of these activities?

Sometimes less is more.

In my experience, the answer tends to be not very meaningfully. I suggest that students try to narrow their interests and corresponding activities by the end of 10th grade. Think about how you can engage more meaningfully, and at a higher level, with the set of activities you love the most. Maybe it’s your Relay for Life work or the independent research you are doing with your science teachers, or maybe it is your job as a tutor for elementary school kids. It’s a bonus if the activities you decide to drill down on relate to your potential college major, or support it in some way!

Drilling down on your interests to develop a clear narrative for your college application goes a long way in the admissions process, and is one of the focuses of our college counseling work with high school students, especially in 9th and 10th grade. By 11th grade, you still have some time to narrow. However, as most things go, the earlier you start, the better.

Most importantly, the earlier you start to think about your interests and do the exploration and reflection needed to narrow your focus (or determine a few in the first place) the more likely you are to craft an authentic application that best highlights 1) the time you have spent “figuring” it out and 2) how that time has been meaningful to your personal and academic development. Sometimes the journey is just as important as the destination. Often, this is one of those times.

Also remember that colleges seek to build a well-rounded class comprised of students with unique talents and skills, not a class full of generalists. They are not looking for well-rounded students.

Want us to help you drill down on your interests, or figure out how to best develop them in the first place? Contact us for a free 30-minute consultation call. 

 

*Stay in the know! Subscribe for news, tips, and advice*

10 Things to Know About Getting Into College

As juniors are now getting their college applications together, I’d like to share and encourage all students and parents of those nearing the process to give Eric Hoover’s 10 takeaways (all of which I have also seen be true) a close read.

Admissions decisions aren’t all about you.

When colleges choose applicants, they’re juggling competing goals, like increasing diversity and bringing in more revenue. Admissions officers aren’t looking for students who fit just one description — say, those who’ve earned all A’s or won the most awards. So don’t take rejection personally.

Grades and test scores still carry the most weight.

Colleges often say they want to get to know the real you, but that’s probably true only if your academic accomplishments (and the rigor of courses you’ve taken) pass muster.

You’re more than a number.

After colleges identify a big batch of students with outstanding credentials, differences among them become more important, admissions deans say. Among some of the attributes they tell me they would like to see evidence of (in essays, extracurricular activities, recommendations) are: leadership, risk-taking, emotional intelligence, fire for learning, critical thinking, curiosity, empathy, optimism, grit, perseverance and the ability to overcome obstacles.

Express your authentic self.

Overwhelmed by slick, boastful essays, colleges are eager for what they call “authentic” glimpses of applicants — their experiences, passions and goals. Some deans believe they’ll get deeper insight through alternative formats like videos, pictures, audio files or documents (an Advanced Placement English paper, maybe). A handful of prestigious schools, including Yale, the University of Chicago, Pomona College, Reed College and the University of Rochester, recently introduced this option. As with essays, too much polish is no good, deans say, so you might think twice about hiring a professional videographer. At Yale, about 400 applicants (out of nearly 33,000) for this year’s freshman class sent in something in an alternative format. In at least one case, the submission — a video showing leadership and impact on others — was, the dean told me, a “difference maker.”

Diversity counts.

Are you a first-generation or low-income student? Many colleges are trying to increase access, so it can help to emphasize your background — and how your personal story relates to your achievements — in essays and interviews. Admissions officers are thinking harder about socioeconomic context, such as the quality of an applicant’s high school, to better understand the opportunities they’ve had and the challenges they’ve faced.

But money does matter.

At many colleges, financial circumstances come into play. Being able to pay all or some of the freight is a bonus. And some qualified students of limited means might get rejected for no reason other than lack of money.

Geography is (partly) destiny.

Many selective colleges want students from all over, ideally from all 50 states. Last year’s presidential election illuminated the urban-rural divide, which some colleges have been trying to bridge by paying closer attention to promising applicants from less-populous areas. Generally, a Northeastern college will look more favorably on an applicant from Montana than an equally strong one from the Northeast.

Legacies aren’t a shoo-in.

Legacy status certainly helps, but big-name colleges reject plenty of these applicants. Don’t assume Mom or Dad’s connections alone will get you in.

Do (real) good.

Turning the Tide” urges admissions offices to reward applicants for sustained community service. And some colleges, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are taking a closer look at what applicants have done to help others, be they neighbors or family members. You don’t have to fly to Belize to do good (admissions officers are often skeptical of these fleeting trips). Showing up to tutor someone at the library each week might be even more impressive, and rewarding.

Colleges want to be your first choice.

About one in five colleges allot “considerable importance” to “demonstrated interest,” whereby applicants convey their willingness to attend the college they’re applying to. Open those emails. Connect with admissions officers. Let them know when you visit campus. Only those who are sure about their first choice and don’t need to compare financial aid packages should choose the strongest expression of demonstrated interest: applying early decision, which is binding.

Full article here.

*Stay in the know! Subscribe for news, tips, and advice*

March Action Plan – Juniors

The college process is in full swing! Here are a few things to have on your radar and work through this month:

  • You should be meeting with your counselor at school to talk about your college list, testing plan, and letters of recommendation.
  • If possible, fit in a few more college visits. Are you going to sit in on a class? Do you want to try to meet with someone in your intended department of interest (major, minor, etc.)? Not all schools offer formal pathways to these opportunities, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make them happen.
  • Some colleges open up their on-campus interviews this spring. If you plan to interview, please prepare. You should always prepare for interviews, even if a school states they are not evaluative.
  • Do you know what major(s) you will mark on your application or is your strategy to go ‘undecided’? This is a critical part of the process that should be determined now.
  • Keep focusing on your grades, test prep, and strengthening your narrative through your extracurricular activities! By this time, you should have a plan for the summer and that plan should support your “story” for college.

 

 *Stay in the know! Subscribe for news, tips, and advice*

11TH GRADE: TIME TO START THE COLLEGE SEARCH AND APPLICATION PROCESS


By 10th and 11th-grade college talk should be consistent—especially if you are, or have a student who is—aiming to attend a selective college or university. That said, we start the majority of our work with students, which includes applying to summer programs, narrative development (your “story” for college), developing your college list, and completing the personal statement and resume, in 11th grade. There is no better time to start the process than right now!

Juniors should consider the following:

  • It is test prep time! If you have not started yet, start now.
  • Meet with your school counselor. S/he will write one of your letters of recommendation for college, and the letter will be much more personal if you know each other! Talk about your plans for this year and next year; let them know about your preliminary college list, any visits you have scheduled, and your testing plan.
  • Now is the time to build your story for college! Have you gotten more involved with any of your extracurricular activities, especially those that relate to your academic interests? Look for leadership opportunities in school and consider activities outside of school as well. Think about ideas for new and different activities, or for how to get more involved in your favorite activity (academic and non-academic).
  • Visit the websites of the schools you are interested in. Explore the admissions and academics pages. Start to think about your major of interest and how the activities you are involved in support this interest; you should be exploring your interests outside of the classroom/school!
  • Visit colleges in person! Spring is a great time to visit colleges. Talk to students, faculty, and staff, and take notes about classes, clubs, etc. you might want to include in your essays.

Email us or fill out the contact form to schedule a consult and find out how we can support you in your college planning and application process!

 

*Stay in the know! Subscribe for news, tips, and advice*

Repost: Taming the Admissions Anxiety

Timely post by Bari Walsh on Harvard GSE’s Usable Knowledge page. Give it a read below!

You’re at a holiday gathering in your neighborhood, and the parents, once again, are talking college — exchanging the vitals on where their kids are applying, or where they’ve already gotten in. When one father beams about the highly selective schools his daughter is targeting, you don’t immediately beam back. Your son is applying to some state schools and a few private colleges, but after a tough fall term, he’s also thinking about working for a year and taking classes at the community college.

You look around and notice that the kids are standing nearby, soaking up the very different moods each parent is conveying.

The Weight of College Pressure

In a highly competitive world, the college process feels fraught with pressure — for students and parents alike. For the vast majority of families in America, that pressure centers not on personal achievement or the bragging rights of a selective college but on affordability, access, and equal opportunity. Only about 4 percent of U.S. students go to colleges that accept less than 25 percent of their applicants, and most American kids either don’t attend or don’t graduate from four-year colleges, says developmental psychologist Richard Weissbourd, who studies the social and emotional lives of teens. The barriers confronting that majority need to be front and center in public conversations about college, he adds.

But a different and also serious problem is affecting students in middle- and upper-income communities, where debilitating academic and social pressure is fueling a public health crisis of anxiety in high-achieving schools and districts. Some research has shown that rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse are higher among affluent teens than any other group of young people, and achievement pressure is a significant contributor. “But you can see this even without reading the research,” says Weissbourd. “You just need to spend some time in a high school where this is going on, and you can see how wound up kids are about college and where they’re going to get in.”

College admissions is an important rite of passage in America — a time for parents to engage their kids in deep conversations about their hopes and dreams, their values, and what kind of adults they imagine they’ll be.

All of which is too bad, he says, because the college admissions process is an important rite of passage for many in America. “It’s a wonderful time for parents to really listen to their kids — to hear about their hopes, their values, their expectations for college, and to learn what kind of adults they imagine they’ll be,” Weissbourd says.

With colleagues at his Making Caring Common project, Weissbourd produced a report last year called Turning the Tide, seeking to tame the excesses of the college admissions process and reframe it to prioritize ethical and intellectual engagement, not just long brag sheets of accomplishments. More than 175 admissions deans have signed on to the report’s recommendations. Some of those guidelines, and other advice Weissbourd offers, are summarized below.

Doing the Admissions Process Right

  • Listen to your child. Find out what she hopes for and expects from college.
  • Be a guide and a facilitator, connecting your child to information and to big-picture thinking about the purpose of college.
  • Put the focus on finding the right college for your child, not on applying to or getting into the “best” college.
  • Unclutter your own anxieties; make sure you’re hearing your child’s wishes and considering her best interests, not filtering them through your own hopes, your peer-driven status worries, or your own unmet college expectations.
  • Prioritize quality, not quantity, when it comes to extracurricular activities. Prioritize service opportunities that your child finds meaningful.
  • Make sure your kids are eating and sleeping well.
  • Encourage your child to be authentic, truthful, and reflective in the application process.
  • Make the process meaningful for you and your child: use these conversation starters to talk to your teen.

Confronting Status Concerns

Magazine rankings and other ratings systems fuel the idea that “one college is in some objective sense better than another college, or that there are 25 ‘best’ colleges in the country,” Weissbourd says. It’s a harmful idea, because “what you really want kids to be thinking about is not what’s the best college, but what’s the best college for them.” There are many hundreds of good colleges out there, and any one of them might be the right one for your child. Weissbourd encourages parents in high-achieving districts to visit some schools that aren’t highly selective, expanding everyone’s understanding of what a “good school” is.

Rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse are higher among affluent teens than any other group of young people, and achievement pressure is a big contributor.

But status pressure is real, and kids experience it every day. “We have to have better conversations with kids about what status means and what it doesn’t mean, about the advantage of going to a high-status place and the disadvantages. We have to confront it more squarely,” he says. Students who go to a highly selective school may reap a reputational benefit or gain access to a strong alumni network, for example — but it’s also possible that the student body will be less diverse, or the campus culture more competitive and less nurturing. “As long as parents or students have this perception that there are 20 or 30 great colleges in this country, we’re going to have really stressed-out kids who are anxious about getting in. And many will end up feeling ashamed because they don’t,” Weissbourd says.

Turn the Pressure Down . . .

What’s the “right” amount of pressure for parents to apply? It depends on the child, the family, and the community.

Some kids aren’t thinking about college at all, and in those cases, parents should start talking generally about the importance of college-going in about ninth grade, helping kids develop a college identity and a pathway for work and career.

Other kids start worrying about college way too early, starting with test-prep tutors in middle school. In high-pressure communities, “the conversation about the application process really shouldn’t begin until 11th grade,” Weissbourd says. For parents in these communities, he offers a quick list of “don’ts”:

  • Don’t spend every dinner talking about college.
  • Don’t arrange every family vacation in high school around a college visit.
  • Don’t pop vocabulary cards at the dinner table to prepare for the SAT.
  • When it comes to applications and test prep, don’t over-coach your child. Think twice before hiring outside tutors.
  • Pause and reflect if you find yourself spending too much time worrying or thinking about your child’s achievements.
  • Discourage your child from overloading on AP and honors courses.

. . . And Get Real about the Source of the Pressure

“Our data show that when you ask parents what’s most important to them in child rearing, they prioritize raising a caring child over a high-achieving child,” Weissbourd says. But when you ask them what they think other parents in their community prioritize, they say other parents prioritize achievement.

“So you have a large majority of parents thinking that the problem is a large majority of other parents, and that doesn’t square,” he says. “We need parents to realize that when it comes to achievement pressure, the problem isn’t ‘them,’ it’s ‘us.’”

Illustration: Wilhelmina Peragine