The State of College Admissions

The National Association for College Admissions Counseling, or NACAC, released its annual “State of College Admissions” report. The report is based on a survey of over 2,200 high school counselors and almost 500 college admissions officers. You can read the full report here. It’s worth at least browsing and checking out the charts. Here are my top take-aways for smart, ambitious college-bound high school students.

What we all write about is not what’s normal. Based on what you read in the headlines (and on places like Apply with Sanity), every high school student hoping to go to college plans to apply to 12 or more colleges. They all balance AP classes, multiple sports, 100 hours of volunteering per month, and life-changing overseas trips. They all want to go to Harvard, Stanford, or M.I.T. They all apply to Harvard, Stanford, and M.I.T. They’ve all crafted the perfect “sob story” essay, even if their sob story is more imagined than real. They twist themselves into ethical and emotional pretzels deciding which ethnicities to check on their applications. And yes, these things are true of some applicants. But you know what?

That’s not normal.

Only 35% of incoming freshmen applied to seven or more schools. Yes, that’s more than the 10% who did so back in 1995, but it still means almost two thirds of students apply to fewer than seven. Highly selective colleges, those accepting fewer than 50% of applicants, only make up a fifth of the picture: 19.5% of colleges fall into this category, and 20.9% of students attend a school in that category. The majority of universities say that your race/ethnicity, geography, first-generation status, ability to pay, or gender have no influence on their decision. Fewer than 5% of schools give any of those factors “considerable influence.”

(So why do we spend so much time writing about the extremes and not what’s normal? Good question. For one, what’s normal is, by definition, not really news-worthy. Nobody clicks on a headline that reads “a few million students graduated from high school and most will go on to college for at least a little while…just like every year.” Similarly, students who follow the tried-and-true method of “doing well in high school, applying to a few colleges, and enrolling at the one with the best fit” aren’t coming to places like Apply with Sanity to get a better grip on the process.)

The answer to “what do colleges want” may be changing, a little. For years, everyone knew that not all high school classes are created equal. A high GPA built on less-rigorous classes isn’t nearly as good as a slightly lower GPA built on AP or other college-prep classes. Colleges pay more attention to your strength of schedule, grades in the college-prep classes, and class rank than overall grades. But that may be changing.

The percent of colleges who say that grades in college prep courses is of “considerable importance” has dropped 9 percentage points over the last decade. The percent who say grades in all courses is of “considerable importance” has gone up by 29 points. Strength of curriculum has also dropped in importance at many schools.

There are a couple of possible explanations for this. It may be that college prep classes have become so normalized that there just isn’t as much of a difference between a college-prep schedule and a regular schedule. It may be that colleges have realized that students taking 15-20 AP classes over four years of high school, often for no reason other than “it looks good to colleges,” isn’t very wise. It may be that the past few years are a blip, and things will go back to the way they were. So I wouldn’t advise dropping all your rigorous classes for extra study hall or teacher aide periods, but I definitely wouldn’t advise getting yourself stressed about how to engineer the perfect strength of schedule, either. The best way to prepare for college is to be a good high school student.

What colleges want on average may be different than what the college you’re applying to wants. While it’s pretty simple to look at the chart and see that factors like “ability to pay” or “interview” are given little emphasis overall, that doesn’t mean that certain schools don’t pay more or less attention to factors individually. If you have a minute, go to the report and read through pages 20-22. Here are some examples of variations it mentions:

For first-time freshmen, public colleges valued admission test scores more highly than private institutions.

Smaller colleges rated the interview, teacher/professor recommendations, and demonstrated interest more highly for each applicant group.

Private institutions gave more weight to race/ethnicity, gender, high school attended, and alumni relations when evaluating the applications of each student group.

Private colleges gave greater consideration to ability to pay when evaluating first-time freshmen and transfer students.

Your counselor is probably overworked. NACAC and the American School Counselor Association recommend a counselor for every 250 high school students. The average found in the survey, 243, is good. But again, there are huge variations. Private schools tend to have a much better student-counselor ratio, as do smaller schools. Large, public high schools tend to have it much worse. Some states, like New Hampshire and Vermont, have it better. California, however, only has an average one counselor for every 708 students. In Arizona, it’s 1 to 902! And by the way, counselors on average only spend a third of their working time on college admissions work—they have a lot of other things on their plate.

The admissions “game” works both ways. We’re used to students and parents asking questions like “how will my odds of acceptance increase if I apply ED?” and “should I take that wait list spot and hope I get a call, or should I just let that school go?” Parents and students can get really caught up in strategy. Colleges and universities have to strategize, too. They don’t all use the same model. For example, schools with lower yield rates—the proportion of accepted students who actually enroll—are more likely to offer Early Action and to accept more students through Early Action. Private colleges tend to use wait lists more than public colleges, and highly selective schools tend to use wait lists the most and to put more students on a wait list. University admissions offices are obsessed with their yield; they need exactly the right number of qualified students to show up in the fall. Early Decision, Early Action, wait lists, recruitment, and financial aid are all tools that they use to get that yield. Different schools, with their different strengths, weaknesses, budgets, and reputations, use those tools differently. They’re not just passive entities waiting for students to apply and get judged—they’re playing the same sorts of admissions games to get what they want and need.

Colleges still use the basic tools to recruit you. While colleges are definitely trying to be more tech-savvy and up-to-date with messaging, they still mostly rely on the basics to get in touch with you. The recruitment strategies most often given “considerable importance” are email, website, campus visits, and working with parents. Online advertising, texting, and social media are given much less importance. So even if you’re young and cool and live completely in an environment of Snapchat, Whatsapp, and whatever else is popular with teens this year, you ignore email and the World Wide Web at your own peril. And hey, talk to your parents, too.

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Photo by  Zoe Herring

Photo by Zoe Herring