It almost never fails. When I speak with a group of high school students and their parents, there is at least one person who wants “professional advice” about how to get in to a specific college. Somewhere along the way they have adopted the belief that there is some kind of formula for getting in to a given school, one that guarantees acceptance there. Or that there is “insider information” about doing so. They place all of their hopes on their “dream college” and really don’t want to consider applying anywhere else. These parents and students never like the answer that I give them: The reality is that there is no specific formula for getting in to a certain college. There are no secrets, no magic, and there never has been despite what they think or have been told. College admissions can actually get very complicated, and what allows a student be accepted one year at a school may actually be different from the following year. In fact, the admissions staff at a particular college can’t even say what is needed to get in, because they couldn’t possibly know themselves. Let’s look at why admissions can be such a complex issue for college.
The “Good Match” Admission Process
When a student applies to a college, they are essentially asking to be added to their student body, and colleges review student information to determine whether they are a “good match.” What does this mean? I recall sifting through many Q&A transcripts with the Deans of Admission from highly respected colleges, and this good match issue was an omnipresent theme. A good match might mean that a student has had the academic success that shows they are likely to do well in the school’s curriculum. But in other cases this match might also mean that the student fills a need the school has. In one instance a Dean gave the example “if that year we happen to need an oboe player, and you play the oboe, it might give you an advantage for admission.” While this may sound quirky, this is part of the good match basis for acceptance. At small colleges especially, they review student applications to see who fits their student body, both philosophically or personally, and this doesn’t necessarily mean that the students with the highest grades will be admitted.
From the same Deans Q&A, another gave the example of schools that want to keep their student body ratio of male to female at 50% to 50%. She pointed out that for these schools they may select less academically qualified applicants for various reasons including their gender (as to how this is legal I leave it up to greater minds to determine). Since young women in the U.S. choose to attend college at a higher level than young men, a young woman might be at an admissions disadvantage at these kinds of schools since fewer young men will be applying. Yet, in order to maintain the school’s 50/50 ratio, young men may be offered admission ahead of more qualified young women.
The Personal And Impersonal Levels Of Admissions
The gender balance issue for admissions is more characteristic of some smaller colleges, and not large state universities. Keep in mind that as the size of the college increases, the odds of them receiving a greater number of applicants does as well. Some large state schools have so many applicants that they simply can’t attend to each application personally, so they tend to use more numeric cut offs for admissions offers. Larger schools are more likely to rely exclusively on GPA and SAT scores to make admission decisions than their small college counterparts. In fact, I personally know admissions staff at some large public colleges who privately admit that they are so overwhelmed by the amount of applications they receive that they don’t even look at essays or personal statements, let alone teacher recommendations or other supplemental information. They are just too understaffed to go in to depth, so the student’s quantitative scores become the cut off for who is offered admission or not.
When applying to small colleges, you might find the exact opposite approach as compared to larger schools. Small private colleges tend to take a more “holistic” view for admissions in that they consider the whole student, including their circumstances, and are more likely read student essays and recommendation letters. Many of these smaller schools use either their own application or the Common Application, although many larger schools have rushed to accept the common application in recent years to make it more convenient for students to apply. Even so, you can still expect the same score-cutoff approach for admission decisions at these larger schools. At smaller schools, the holistic approach means looking at the student in an overall context. For example, did they have good grades, but achieved this while having to work to support their family? Or did they struggle with a medical condition, yet made the honor roll? When applying to small schools an essay can help explain many things that can’t be seen on a mere transcript, and it’s more likely that the student’s explanation of their circumstances will be heard at smaller schools.
The Supply And Demand Of College Admissions
Another factor that can come in to play for admissions at a particular school is actually who else applies. College admission can have some characteristics of the same economic supply and demand that we see ever day: When supply is scarce, price goes up; and when supply is high, price goes down. For college, it’s not tuition cost but the quality and number of applicants that a college receives that can cause the threshold for admission to go up or down for a given school year. For example, if a college generally says they require a minimum of a 2.5 GPA to be accepted, then they get a lot of students with a 3.5 GPA who apply for that school year, their requirement may shift upward to a minimum of a 3.25 required GPA to be considered for admission. The same is true if they receive few or only low GPA applicants, they may relax their standards, especially if they need to fill their incoming freshman class. Colleges always want to accept the best students that they can, so if they can admit a lot of top students for the beginning of a school year you can bet they’ll choose them. But if they have mostly students with a 2.5 GPA or below applying, and few or none above a 3.0, this may open the door for more moderate students. Keep in mind that colleges are economically dependent on their freshman class for many reasons, and often have enrollment goals to meet. So if you happen to apply to a school during just the right year, even if you don’t feel that you’ll be accepted, you just might.
Making It Harder For Yourself To Get In
A lot of students inadvertently make it harder for themselves to get in to a school by doing one simple thing: They declare a major as an incoming freshman. This is true, though, for only some majors, like mathematics, engineering, nursing, computer science, and others that have a high GPA requirement or very competitive entry in to the program. In some cases if a student does want one of these majors, they could apply as undeclared, or at worst pick an easier major just to get in. There may be no credit loss later when switching majors once accepted since their first semester as a freshman usually holds classes that are counted as general education requirements that can apply to most or all majors. Common first-semester classes are college writing I, communications or public speaking, behavioral sciences like sociology or psychology, college algebra and others. So if you do enter a school under a “temporary” major to get in, the odds are that you will be fine for a semester while you build a GPA so you can request a change. Keep in mind that your college GPA will normally trump your high school GPA once you are accepted to a college, so a department will look at your current grades when you want to change majors.
How Important Are My SAT Scores And Grades?
There seems to have been a debate about which shows “college readiness” the best, grades or scores on standardized tests. But this debate has been only in the minds of high school students, parents, and counselors. Colleges already know that standardized tests, which hold themselves out to be predictive of later academic success, are not such good predictors at all. The SAT, as data has shown over a few decades, has turned out to be only a meager predictor of who will do well in college. In fact, there are now nearly one thousand SAT-optional schools, which reflects higher education’s sentiments about the waning value of standardized testing scores for college admission decisions.
High school grades have turned out to be a more stable predictor of who will do well later in college, so colleges have been giving more credence to these scores. The bottom line for both large and small colleges is “who can handle academics? and who can be serious about their studies?” Grades show things that standardized test scores never could. They reflect a student’s work ethic, perseverance, adaptability, and indirectly reflect a student’s level of precision, organization, and decision-making for putting academics as their top concern. Good grades across a broad variety of classes also reflect a student’s range of skills that will allow them to adapt to many kinds of classes in the higher education environment.
Can a good score on the SAT or ACT balance out bad grades? Some people think it will, but again, these are mainly high school students, parents, and counselors. If you are applying to a large school and don’t meet their numeric cutoffs with your GPA, then no, it’s not likely that scores on standardized testing will counteract bad grades. Colleges aren’t stupid, they know that there are students who are “good testers” that can simply do well on standardized tests. They also know that the style of standardized tests these students do well on is precisely not the kinds of test format they will face in college. Content-focused classroom tests comprise the bulk of what students will face exam-wise in college, and they are very different from the SAT and ACT. For small schools, they will consider good testing scores as only one piece of their holistic puzzle for admissions, and they also say that grades speak the loudest when it comes to showing what a student can do in the classroom.
Should I Take Honors Or AP Classes?
Many students and parents feel that honors or AP classes are always the best route since it gives the student a level of challenge that is “more college level” and shows that they can handle a rigorous amount of course work. I’ve worked with quite a few students who earned 30 or even more AP credits during high school, and when it comes to applying to college, honors or AP classes can have mixed blessings. The belief that these advanced classes are best, is again, held mostly by the high school crowd. The common answer that college admissions officers usually give when asked if AP or honors classes give an advantage for admission is that they don’t have a preference about what level of classes a student takes. But what they do care about is that the student does well at what they have chosen. This position covertly puts the focus on the student’s decision-making process, and whether their perceptions match their reality. For example, choosing to take honors or AP classes but doing poorly in them shows bad decision making, and an overestimation of one’s abilities. But taking regular classes and earning top grades shows both a good decision process and an accurate self-perception about one’s skills. Accurate self-awareness that drives real life choices is a positive characteristic for college, and will help students to pick classes and majors they will be successful at. This is what the admissions officers meant by “succeed at what you choose,” they want students who can excel at what they are good at rather than take on too much and falling short.
The AP credit route and the program itself has also proven to be problematic. Not only do many colleges feel indifferent to it, many high schools have actually done away with the AP program in recent years. Keep in mind that both the SAT and AP program are owned by the same company, so there may be no coincidence about how prolific both of them have become. With their applied value waning, colleges have refined their views of them, especially smaller ones who take the holistic approach to admissions mentioned. Also – and this is coming from a person who works with students who are actually in the college system – I see another downside to earning many AP credits during high school. The AP credits offered mostly represent the easiest or first-level classes for college, and earned credits during high school can cause a problem later during the freshman year. While your classmates may be enjoying a lighter load of elective classes, you may be saddled with advanced ones because you’ve used up all of the lower level credits by transferring them in as AP credits from high school. In other words, your first semester and year can be much, much harder because you knocked off the easy credits even before you got on campus. Now you’re stuck with the harder next level ones because you have no other choice.
Essays, Extracurricular Activities, And Early Action
Can a stellar essay make up for bad grades or even low SAT scores for a freshman applicant? The answer is this: It depends. At large colleges where they have thousands of applicants, they may not even read the essays or personal statements, so the probability is very low at such schools that this strategy to work. At smaller colleges where they do read essays, a well written or content-rich essay can explain much. But, there has to be clear reason to successfully explain bad grades for an essay to be effective. As I mentioned, describing personal hardship, medical conditions, or other circumstances that account for low grades may work. But what will not work is a blatant “wow, I screwed up” approach. Believe me, I’ve read many apologetic and conciliatory essays from both freshman and transfer applicants when they applied for admissions, and a self-blaming personal statement or essay won’t get you very far. But in some cases, yes, a good essay might explain bad grades, while in general it’s still grades speak the loudest when applying overall.
For extracurricular activities that make an applicant attractive to colleges, again it depends on the school. Larger schools aren’t as concerned about extracurriculars compared to smaller ones that look at an applicant at that level of detail. As a general statement, modern colleges are looking for students that reflect the times that they live in, so the activities of yesteryear will only seem dull and flavorless to them. Being a cheerleader, playing football, being on the yearbook staff, or handing out bagged lunches to the elderly are all passe. We’re living in an exciting era with many challenges to solve, issues to be addressed, and ever evolving technology. You’ll get beat out by the students whose extracurriculars include Arduino and Raspberry Pi projects, those creating their own YouTube channels to reach the masses, ones crowdfunding for good causes, as well as others that show creativity and innovation within the context of their lives. For example, a story I love is how two girls from the middle east, despite their impoverished circumstances, scrounged the parts to build a walking cane for the blind that emits a tone when it encounters nearby obstacles. With no money, and in the bleakest poverty, they showed their creativity by solving a problem with what was on hand.
Many students rush to make the deadlines for early action and early decision for some colleges, which is usually in the fall of their senior year. But the real question is should you take advantage of these? Early action and early decision were actually discussed in some professional literature about colleges that I read this year, and it may be no surprise that these concepts were created for one reason: To help colleges increase their enrollment numbers. Keep in mind that here in the U.S. many students leave or even fail out after their first year, so the entire higher education system has become front-loaded to the incoming freshman class. These “early” processes are meant to help colleges to shop around for the best students early, then lock them in to a commitment to be part of their incoming freshman class. When using processes like early decision, many colleges will actually make you withdraw your application from the other schools you applied to. You’re essentially entering a contract with a college to go there, regardless of what you may later decide. Always consider carefully whether early decision this is the right move for you.
When it comes to being admitted to your “dream school” there is more to it than what you might have been lead to believe during high school. During that educational phase, most knowledge about college admissions gets entangled with myths, ones that seem to be self-perpetuation over the years. Even for the best students, those with a high GPA and SAT scores, there is no guarantee of admission to a specific school. There are simply too many variables that can come in to play, and there is no magic or secret knowledge that will get you in to a particular college. As the admissions Deans have pointed out in the past, not even they know what will allow a student entry. The best thing you can do for yourself is to apply to more than one school, earn good grades, update your extracurricular activities beyond the old standbys, and keep an open mind. If you do well on these factors, there definitely will be some excellent college out there that will want you.
Jeffrey Ludovici, M.A., is a national-level higher education consultant based in Pittsburgh. He has worked with students, families, colleges, and other professionals for more than 10 years. He specializes in understanding why students can end up doing poorly in college, as well as what can be done to address the issues.