If you have "no place to go," come here!

Back to School: Your College Admissions Primer

chicago dyke's picture

It’s Back to School time again, and in that spirit I’m going to expand on a letter I wrote to a sweet young woman who wanted some information about applying to college. I’ve been in the college admissions racket for years, and I’d like to share some tricks of the trade with my readers. Keep in mind I have a very elitist bias when it comes to education, and that my opinions aren’t necessarily shared by everyone in the business.

I’ve written before about how little faith I have in today’s schools, public and private. The latest numbers about declining SAT scores don’t make me want to change my mind, for all I think the test meaningless. So the first thing I’d offer to all parents and students thinking about college: wake up to the fact that no one is going to do the hard work for you, and the system is gamed to favor a select few. Every step of the process is fraught with peril, and most “professionals” in the counseling business aren’t going to help you as much as you may want or need. If your goal is a selective college, or even a second tier school, you’re going to have to work really, really hard to get in and to get paid. Just accept that on the whole, the process is unfair, biased, and full of traps designed to keep the Little People off the track to success, power and wealth.

That said, I hope most people understand that the road to college admission begins in the 9th grade, sometimes even earlier. From your child’s first day in high school, you should be thinking about the college application, and what’s your child is going to be able to put in it. Some students have the ability and opportunity to take high school classes in middle school, so for those families it’s important to remember that those grades will show up on an applicant’s transcript. But in all ways, students and their families need to think of high school as important in every year, and waste no opportunity that may come at any stage.

For selective schools, the most important part of an application are the grades, and caliber of high school course work. Thanks to nonstop grade inflation, it’s now practically unacceptable for superior applicants to have more than one or two grades below a B on their transcript. Further, successful applicants are those who are taken a large number, 8 or more, of advanced placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. I’ve seen transcripts with over 20 of these courses; those kids win scholarships. If you have the opportunity to choose your child’s high school, make sure it’s one that offers a wide range of either or both of these courses. In my opinion, the full IB diploma, with it’s rigorous liberal arts requirements, is the best that is offered in this country and parents should support their child’s efforts to successfully complete it. Whenever possible, parents should support and encourage their children to be in courses designated as “Honors.” It is my belief that too many parents allow administrators and teachers to select a smaller number than is proper for the Honors track. The simple fact is that overall standards in secondary education have declined so much in the last 30 years that what is considered ‘advanced’ and ‘more challenging’ would’ve been for average students in the past. The work required for the Honors track is a quantity I believe a majority of students can handle, with proper support and discipline from their teachers and families.

Test scores, unfortunately, are far too important in the college admissions process. Many selective schools employ cut off points, in which applicants who fall below certain scores are automatically placed in the “deny” pile. I hate standardized testing, and what it’s done to education, but I’m not in charge and I can’t make them go away. Until I am, parents need to take the testing process very, very seriously, and give their child every advantage before the testing season starts in earnest. Which means test prep for the PSAT, as well as the SAT or ACT. Spend the money on the books, computer programs, and/or classes at the proprietary places that offer them. Monitor your child’s scores and progress with multiple practice tests. Students who take lots of practice tests in advance of the real thing score higher, stress about them less, and learn a valuable lesson about how some moments in life carry great weight. Further, many large and important scholarships are tied to test scores- those who do very well don’t want for money for college. My own scores brought me tens of the thousands of dollars in scholarships over the course of my career, so trust me when I say an hour a day for part of the pre-testing phase of the year pays off, bigtime.

Some colleges still read application essays closely, and the new SAT writing section of that test supposedly helps admissions officers gauge an applicant’s ability. I have my doubts about just how objective the scoring of that section can be, but nonetheless, working on good writing skills is critical. Many successful students take writing workshops at community colleges or over the summer in enrichment programs. I recommend this, as well as an enforced reading schedule supplementing whatever books the student gets in class. I can’t stress enough the difference between those students who are well read and those who are not- it’s completely obvious when reading essays or during the interview. Obviously, the students who are better read before matriculation are the ones who do better in college. Turn off the TV, limit time on the X-box to no more than an hour a day, and put a book in your child’s hands. Reading books together is also helpful.

Extracurriculars are also very important in selective college admissions. There are a couple of points to make in talking about them; they are not all the same. Most admissions officers respect the fact that many applicants have no choice; more and more families rely on children’s wages to get by. So if your child has to work so much that she doesn’t have a great deal of time for sports or clubs, don’t sweat it. Try to work in at least one or two if that’s possible, and if not, encourage your child to take increasing responsibility at the job, and get letters of recommendation and accomplishment from the boss. If you child is lucky enough not to have to work, make sure she’s very busy after school. Sports are helpful, after a fashion. They are most helpful when your child has significant ability and a record of accomplishment in a sport, and the intention of playing at the Varsity level at the school of her choice. If that’s the case, make sure college coaches have met your child; summer training camps and visits to colleges to stay with the team are critical. If sports are only a high school activity for your child, make sure she’s also got a significant list of more academic or volunteer extracurricular activity to show. One of the schools for which I’ve worked used to have a saying, and I concur: it’s more impressive for a student to have 3 or 4 extracurriculars that last all through high school and include some leadership positions, than it is for a student to be a member of 12 clubs and groups of a semester or two each. Let me stress that academic clubs are better than volunteer clubs for most selective colleges, although some volunteer work is always a good idea.

Some schools look closely at letters of recommendation, some don’t. I favor them, especially when they come from teachers. Most of the time, it’s a good idea or at least won’t hurt to include one or two in the application. Letters from family friends and employers from businesses that aren’t particularly intellectually oriented are less valuable. Letters from high ranking members of the community can carry a lot of weight, but not all the time, depending on how much the college cares about “impressive” connections. Students should always take care to ask for letters of recommendation greatly in advance of the application deadline; I have seen more than one application tank because overworked teachers couldn’t get them done in time to make a difference. A sealed letter the student hasn’t read is always better than an open one.

Enrichment programs are greatly appreciated by most selective colleges. It’s taken as a sign that the applicant is serious about learning, and will likely go far and improve the academic community of the school; most love to boast about the numbers when it comes to college performance of the school’s aggregate. A partial list includes summer academic programs at colleges and universities, community college classes in addition to or in place of high school courses, academic competitions, time abroad in academic programs or volunteer opportunities, and internships that have an intellectual development aspect. Students usually have a great deal of fun in a summer program at a college, and students who take college courses while still in high school are better prepared for the rigors of college study. Parents should help with researching the options, not all are prohibitively expensive and some are funded or free for those who qualify. Many of the scholarship winners I’ve evaluated have had significant enrichment program qualifications in their applications.

For schools that offer them, applicants should always make a point to schedule an interview. The interview isn’t usually too important, on the other hand I have successively tanked applicants who looked good on paper but failed in the interview miserably, and saved applicants with inferior numbers on the basis of their impressive performance in person. If you have an interview: just be yourself. Don’t lie, don’t try to puff up your qualifications, and let the interviewer lead you in terms of questions. Don’t do anything stupid, like offer the interviewer money or favors. Relax, and laugh if you can. Parents can help students prepare with mock interviews in advance of the real thing. If a school doesn’t offer interviews and doesn’t specifically discourage them, a visit to the school on scheduled “information days” for prospective students is also a good idea. In general, students should absolutely always visit the schools to which they are applying in advance of matriculation. More than one student has found herself totally miserable in her first college year, failing to understand the character of the place because of enticing, shiny glossies that don’t communicate what the environment of a school is truly like.

I don’t think parents need to pay for college counseling. I’m wary of anyone who makes promises about getting students into colleges, especially selective ones. It’s my belief that between the Internet, the professionals in high schools and college admissions offices, and the plethora of “how to get into college” books, there’s really no need to pay anyone to help you in the process. That said, many high school counselors are over worked, disaffected or just plain uncaring, and many college admissions offices are understaffed and have semi-official policies of not helping applicants very much. If parents truly can’t make the time to help their child in the application process, it may be the case that money spent on a counselor can help. But be wary, and never spend more than you’d spend on a test prep course or set of books. I believe most admissions professionals to be genuinely helpful, and appreciative of parents who take the time to ask questions. Always try asking them first if you need help.

Finally, throw away the rankings books, just don’t waste your time with them. It’s pretty simple, really: the elite in this country will remain elites in large part because they are a) already wealthy b) tribal and cliquey in the extreme, and willing to extend any amount of assistance to their own at the expense of helping people who are not members of their group c) have effectively rigged the system in more ways than I can enumerate here easily. So stop dreaming that if your child just gets into Harvard, she’ll be a millionaire CEO president by 35. If you’re not already a member of the elite, chances are you never will be. To which I say; who cares? There are many objective definitions of elite, and I wish people would look at them more often.

That is to say: every college and university has it’s up and down sides, and differences that make it ideal for some students, and totally wrong for others. Some schools are little more than diploma mills which never challenge students to grow intellectually and exist for sports and parties almost exclusively. Some schools are greatly overlooked educational and opportunity utopias which have alumni populations who are as connected as family and successful in the extreme. Some schools offer stellar programs in only a limited number of departments but still produce superstars in them who go on to make tremendous differences in the fields and business to which they relate. Some schools have terrific graduate programs but completely worthless undergraduate one, some schools the opposite is the case. So just don’t look at the wholly ridiculous rankings found in places like USNews and other popular “guides” that purport to tell you why 25 schools are better than thousands of others. As my old boss used to say, “Magazine ranking editions are meant to do one thing: sell magazines. They do it well, preying on people’s ignorance and fear of the admissions process.” (I’ll add that the school he worked for is regularly in the top ten of the USNews report, so he’s not just spouting off in bitterness or jealousy.) Educate yourself about what your child truly wants and needs in a school, and at what abilities she truly has, and has the potential to develop. There is a Perfect School for every student, but only you and your child can truly determine that- not some editor looking to impress his friends by making is alma mater “#4 six years in a row.”

One last note: if all else fails, and you find your child not getting into her top choices, don’t panic. There are many backdoors to college admission, and ways to move in the educational system in a nontraditional way. If your child wants to go to a selective private school but has only been accepted at a second tier institution, remember that many schools offer significant slots for transfer applicants. If Sally is stuck at State U for the first year, help her do really well academically, and there’s a good chance she can transfer in her second year to Private College X. Further, many schools offer several admissions cycles- if she didn’t make the cut the first time, post-secondary institutions exist to help bolster her qualifications in the interim, and can help with successful admission in the “off season.” There is also always graduate school- many high school students don’t realize that they are increasingly likely to go on for an advanced degree, as our economy demands this from more and more. If a student has failed to sufficiently prepare for selective college admission in high school, following the above advice applied in a college environment can get her there as a graduate program applicant.

As a parting shot, I want to stress that people, students, parents and family members, should relax, take a deep breath, and tackle the college admissions process together, remaining aware but not freaking out at hurdles they may encounter. College is a very important part of life, but opportunity is everywhere. Life is also full of second chances and mind-altering moments; I can’t tell you how many applicants I met who came in wanting to be doctors and graduated as poetry majors headed into banking. The application process should be taken seriously and with sober mindedness, but it’s not the end of the world if parts of it don’t go smoothly. Parents should at all times remember that they are there to help, and not place undue stress, on their children in this process. You are not your child, you can’t live her life, and her choice of college doesn’t redeem all your shortcomings in life. In the end, a parent should always remember that the college application process is the first foray into adult opportunity and responsibility and that you don’t help your child mature by treating them always and only as children. In the end, it must be her choice. You’ll feel best about yourself and your child if you help her make it, and sit back and watch her thrive and grow once she has.

Best of Luck, everybody!

No votes yet