Delusions of the College Applicant

By: Judi Robinovitz | Last Updated: October 15, 2012

Everybody’s an expert, right? The neighbor has three kids who are in, or have completed college, and she knows everything. After all, I mean, she should know, shouldn’t she?

The old tales that get passed around, and that grow in detail with every addition of false information, can sink an applicant who is not careful. We’ll address three of the worst delusions that are making the rounds among more and more families. Getting into college doesn’t get easier every year; at the “brand name” schools that attract tens of thousands of applicants each year, the number of dorm spots and class desks hasn’t increased all that much—certainly not in proportion to population increase. So, the degree-of-difficulty creep, that is, the increasing competition for spots in a freshman class, is rising steadily.

Here are the worst current delusions:

  • SAT and ACT results are growing less important each year
  • Your financial aid application won’t have an impact on admission
  • Equality in the consideration of each and every applicant is a foregone conclusion

Now that we’ve identified these as delusional, let’s go behind the scenes to look for the reality of the college admissions picture.

FIRST Delusion: Test results are less important than ever

In a word, NO. Colleges still use these scores to measure students against one another nationally. These test scores are almost the only data that actually are global in scope. Students everywhere take the very same tests, answer the same number of questions, stack up against the school’s measures for the sort of freshman it’s looking for. These test results are second only to the transcript of high school courses—the rigor of study that a student has completed in his or her first three years (and those courses proposed for senior year).

Colleges may not own up to it, but when 30,000 high school seniors apply for 6,000 freshmen spots, a quick read of test scores may allow the admissions office elves to perform a rapid-fire cut. A half century ago, when I applied to college, there were five schools on my list—a common, robust number. Now, seniors are cranking out eight, ten, twelve applications or more. How’s a school to cope with the glut of applicants?

Visited an admission website recently? You’ve probably seen the “FAQ” section or its equivalent which contains data on the latest incoming class. These data will include test score ranges—the middle 50% of students who received letters of acceptance. So, 25% were above the printed range, and 25% were below. Well, guess what: you have to be pretty special to get in with test scores in the lower 25% range. Perhaps you’re an athlete, or from a group that is under-represented, or the first cousin of someone whose name is etched in the granite above the science building entrance. If Florida State University’s mid-50% range is 1750-2000, you definitely want to be toward the upper end of that range to have a decent shot.

If you’re like most students in that you have no special hook for the colleges to latch on to (like being an outstanding athlete), the race tightens, and competitive scores assume new importance.

Remember that college will cherry pick from among the sets of scores that you send. Most won’t mix SAT with ACT, but they will look at multiple sets of scores and match the highest sub-scores to create the magic number. After all, when they report their results to the public and to U.S. News and World Report each year, colleges want to appear as competitive as they can!

There’s a small but growing number of schools in the U.S. that are Test Optional. These include names like American University, Arizona State, Bates, Bowdoin, Connecticut College, DePaul, Frankling & Marshall, George Mason, Lake Forest, Rollins, Wheaton, to name a few. When good grades come face to face with test anxiety, these schools and more offer kids a real break. But be sure you know the score on these test-scoreless schools. If you’re looking for NCAA-sanctioned athletic scholarship, you must submit test scores even if a college is test-optional.

Now test-optional means just that: you have the option of not reporting your ACT or SAT scores. But you do have the option to report your scores if they’re good!! Going test-optional is yet another way that college can boost their images when they report out to U.S. News and World Report on the caliber of their incoming classes. After all, since kids with lower scores won’t be sending their scores to the college, the average test score will automatically increase!

Life in the Stratosphere - In the rarified atmosphere of super high test scores, you’ll find the students who are applying to the cream-on-top schools. If you don’t have scores in the 700’s, look elsewhere. You’ve got to have some kind of hook to be really considered at the Harvards and Browns and Stanfords. Students who score in the high 600’s on the SAT form a significant, large group from among which very, very few students are accepted into the top echelon schools.

Then there’s the money. Monetary awards for a meritorious high school performance go first to kids with the big test score numbers. It’s the reality. Despite that 4.0 GPA, a student who scores are in the 600’s will not be viewed in as favorable a light as the one with the perfect scores.

Second Delusion: Your financial aid application won’t have an impact on admission

Look and listen around you: airwaves, malls, and political machinations resonate with news still spilling from The Great Recession. Schools’ nest eggs (endowments) suffered in their own way. The cost of educating, housing, and feeding a student at most every school is in no way covered by tuition, room, and board. The shortfall has always been made up by the annual income from the school’s endowment. Then crash!

Did you hear that sucking sound? It was endowment shrinkage. As a result, schools are not as blind to student needs as they used to be. That is, the college’s financial-aid department has put pressure on admissions to find capable students who can pay full-boat college costs. Unfortunately, it’s a no-brainer: faced with two similar students who differ only their ability to pay, a school may well lean toward the deeper-pocketed parents.

If you call the admissions office at a given school and ask to speak to someone about financial aid, you may get a more clear understanding of where that school stands. Some competitive universities, like Wesleyan in Connecticut, admit that they can’t afford to be completely need blind. And many more are like Wesleyan – dependent on parents who can pay. Call. Ask. Dig.

In another interesting area of the university financial aid world, several very selective colleges are changing their “no loans” aid policy. Before the world economic crash in 2007, wealthy and highly selective colleges indicated that they would eliminate loans from their financial aid packages for students. That has fast disappeared: family income level must be at a prescribed level before a family is offered a no-loan financial aid package. For instance, some of the Ivy League schools offer no-loan aid only to families at the lower or lowest end of the income ladder.

On the other hand, there’s a silver lining to this cloud. For a family that can fork out full tuition,  especially to out-of-state schools, acceptance rates reached an all-time high last year. Make way for East Asians, too, because they usually pay the going tuition rate.

Third Delusion: All students are considered “equally”

Most things never get cheaper. Think of medical care. Think of college tuition. Think Asian tsunami. Yes, with more full-pay students applying from China, Korea, India, Pakistan, and Japan, schools have to make tough finance-based decisions. Add some weight to one side of the scale.

When parents and students come to us with resumes that describe a wonderfully experienced, and well-rounded student, we issue our warning: it’s the “well-rounded class” that the admissions committees are attempting to put together, a mix of everything: athletes, scholars, musicians, North Dakotans, alumni kids, potential big-time donors. It’s important to stand out in one or more categories, because then you fall into multiple categories of admissions office consideration. Add more grains to one side of the scale.

Lots has been said about Early Decision. You probably know the rules: one—and only one—school that’s at the top of the list in every respect. Chances are improved for a student who applies ED, as long as the student meets the criteria in the first place. Aspiring to Duke with an average GPA and so-so-test scores won’t help a student’s cause, no matter how passionate he or she may be about becoming a Blue Devil. You have to have the right stuff as defined by the school in their admissions profiles.

Or perhaps not publicly defined at all because it’s part of this year’s institutional priorities and only the admissions office knows for sure. This year the college may need a tuba player, next year a soprano, and the year after the college may build a Hillel and actively recruit Jewish students, just as Vanderbilt did several years ago and Washington and Lee just did two years ago. There are undercurrents in admissions that influence early decisions, such as really good athletes. Coaches push these boys and girls to apply early. And many ED candidates are self-selecting, that is, they have really high test scores and grades to begin with. If the college falls into your “stretch” category, ED won’t do you much good, no matter your level of enthusiasm and commitment.

Remember that there are over 2,000 four-year colleges across the country, so there are places for everyone. Don’t get stuck in the quicksand of the brand-name institutions. Look for one that seems like it fits the student’s personality, record, and goals for undergraduate life. With the cost of a college education so high—and rising—there’s no need to complete a degree in over five years. You may be forking over an additional fifty grand by the time that fifth year has come and gone. How to avoid that? Be a college tailor: seams, cuffs, hemlines. Find the fit for you!  Whenever possible, visit a school. Speak to local alumni. Deepen your knowledge as much as possible. Put your best foot forward. You’ll appreciate the effort.

Topics: College Application


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