Last week I spent two days talking to seniors at Carnegie Vanguard High School during their English class. We talked about what colleges are looking for in applicants, how the different parts of an application work together, and how colleges actually process all those applications. The students also had tons of really great questions.
But first, I had some questions for them. Before our talk, I asked them to fill out a quick questionnaire. Here are the questions I asked and some comments on their responses. If you’re working with college-bound students—either in a school setting, as a parent, or because you are a college-bound student yourself—this may be useful for you.
1. When it comes to college admissions, how are you feeling right now? Please circle the face that best describes how you’re feeling.
5% of the students circled 0. That’s awesome! 6% circled 10. Oh no! The median score was 4. A few students did something like circle 2…and 8…and note that it depended on the day. This is obviously a question where there is no right answer, but checking on yourself and being aware of your stress level is always a good thing.
2. If you were only going to apply to one college, and you had to choose RIGHT NOW, which one would it be?
The college they wrote down as their answer isn’t really important. What’s important is the process that got them to the decision. Especially when we’re stressed out and sweating the details, it’s easy to lose track of how we make big decisions. Students who thought “If I’m only applying to one, then I’m going to Go Big and make it my dream school. If I don’t get in, I’ll figure something else out later” are likely to make the same sort of high-risk, high-reward choices when it comes time to choose their college. Students who thought “If I’ve only got one shot, I better make a safe choice” are likely to do the same in May when they choose. I have no opinion when it comes to other people’s risk tolerance or finances—I only want students to be aware of their own risk tolerance and finances.
I noticed a few trends in their results. 5 students named an Ivy League school, and 4 wrote down Stanford. (There were 130 questionnaires total.) 13% of students wrote University of Houston, the local public university. 27% chose other Texas public schools, U.T. Austin or Texas A&M. 10% chose Rice University. Two people found themselves unable to answer the question, which is actually lower than I expected.
3. True or false: you’ve talked to your family about money, and you have a good idea of what you can afford for college.
28% of the students said “false.” That’s a problem.
4. Imagine you have to choose your college blind, without knowing the name or seeing any photos. You only get a list of adjectives and descriptors. What adjectives and descriptors would you look for?
This question is inspired by an actual anonymous college fair I read about recently. I absolutely love the idea. I got a wide variety of answers, and most of them showed that students have a pretty strong sense of what they’re looking for. What surprised me was that almost 10% included the word “fun” in what they’re looking for. Note to students: you can have fun at just about any college. That’s all about you, not where you go. Note to college recruiters: make sure you emphasize how much fun people have at your school. It’s important to students.
5. What school is currently on the bottom of your list of schools to apply to? In other words, what is the school you feel good enough about to have it on your list, but not higher than the bottom of your list?
This is kind of the college application version of the Mendoza Line. In-state public schools dominated this question. 6% said U.T. Austin, 16% said Texas A&M, and 29% said University of Houston.
6. When it comes to college applications, you feel most prepared for….
26% said they feel most prepared for the essays, which is really encouraging. However, 16% wrote some form of “nothing.” They said “nothing” or “I don’t know” or “none of it.” Some left it blank. 20% said that what they’re most prepared for is literally filling out the paperwork of the application. I’m not sure what to think about that. I mean, yes, basic data entry is technically part of the application process. But, um, that’s it? That feels a lot like a “nothing” answer to me. Maybe I’m misinterpreting?
7. When it comes to college applications, you feel least prepared for…
“Essays'“ was the most popular answer for this one, too. 51% gave that answer. Taking care of the financial aspects (9%) and getting recommendation letters (8%) also made strong showings.
8. Where does your family want you to go to college?
I don’t know what I was expecting when I asked this. I was mostly just curious to see what kind of answers I got, and if there were indications of strong tension. What I found is that families would like their kids to stay close. 47% of students named a Texas university as where their families want them to go. Around 6% named a very selective, “elite” university. 8% wrote down Rice University, which is both local and elite. 10% said that their parents want them to go someplace affordable. The really fantastic trend is that almost a quarter of students said their family wants them to go wherever they choose and will be happy. Way to go parents!
9. What’s the most recent book you read completely that wasn’t assigned to you? How long ago did you finish it?
Let me be clear: this isn’t meant to be a “what’s the matter with kids these days?” kind of question. I know that I read a lot fewer books than I used to, now that there’s so much high-quality reading online. And this particular set of students get a lot of assigned reading. So there’s no judgement about their outside reading habits, only curiosity. Almost half—47%—have finished a book of their own choosing in the past year. 20% said that it’s been so long they can’t remember. Everyone else named a book they finished over a year ago, many of them saying that it was in middle school.
10. Three questions you have about your college admission process are…
I had such a wide variety of questions written down here, and an even wider variety that people asked during our talk. Three common themes on the survey were “How do I make myself stand out?” “How do I write the best essay?” and “How do I figure out the financial part college?” These have probably been the most common questions for decades, and will be for decades to come.
Thanks for reading, and a giant thank-you to Carnegie for letting me come and take up a class period of their time! If you’ve got a group of smart, ambitious high school students—from 5 to 200—who might benefit from a workshop with Apply with Sanity, let me know! If this was interesting to you, please share it with people. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like me on Facebook and Twitter, get the monthly newsletter, or connect on LinkedIn.