Things you should understood about getting into college

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As an independent college counselor, I get questions every day about the college admissions process and what it takes to get in. Questions range from “Will donating a large sum of money help get my child admitted?” to “Does study abroad look good on an application? What about volunteering overseas?” Once a family even asked if we personally make calls to admissions offices in order to advocate for students. (No, we don’t.)

The admissions process is seen as a system shrouded in mystery, with colleges colluding to make it harder for students to get into the country’s top schools. The stress for some students is palpable, leading some families to believe they need to take extreme measures in order to help their students stand out.

It’s a misconception to assume the higher education system is working against those it values the most. The truth is, applying to college doesn’t have to be as anxiety-provoking as most assume it will be, and there are many things families can do to take control of and enjoy the process. Here’s what I wish people understood about the complicated admissions landscape.

1) Princeton isn’t the “best” college
Princeton and other top-tier colleges may seem like the holy grail of higher education institutions — and they are fantastic schools — but they’re not for everyone. In the frenzy to get into the “best colleges,” what many forget is that the best college for one student isn’t necessarily going to be the best college for someone else, or even the top college on a list. That’s what’s so great about higher education in the US: there are a variety of institutions to match just about any student’s needs, whether academically, financially, or socially. From large public universities with sprawling campuses to small liberal arts colleges with fewer than 1,000 students, there is a best-fit school for every applicant.

The idea that an Ivy League college (or a similar institution like Stanford) is the only path to success for students is very misguided and is evidence that families haven’t really done their homework on all the options out there. To that same point, colleges are looking at fit, too, and if it’s very apparent a student isn’t going to thrive at a college, he or she isn’t going to get in. This is why doing research and creating a balanced list of colleges is so crucial to success in the college admissions process.

2) Not every deserving applicant is going to get into an Ivy League university
Yes, it sounds harsh, but it’s the truth. Not because your high school valedictorian isn’t a qualified candidate (which he or she very may well be), but because the schools just don’t have enough room. Last year, Ivy League schools admitted 22,593 students out of 253,472 applicants. Each top-tier college could fill a second and even third class of equally qualified applicants from their rejection piles.

Is it fair that a highly qualified candidate (outstanding test scores, grades, classes, activities, etc.) is rejected one year but could have could have been admitted just a year before? Of course not, but it’s the nature of the process. Colleges have institutional needs, so they’re not just looking at whether a student is a good candidate for admission.

They’re also looking at gaps in the student body they need to fill and which qualified applicants can meet those needs. If there’s an influx of engineering majors that year and the department is already saturated, then it’s going to be really difficult for engineering applicants to get in that year. On the flip side, if the sociology department has had low enrollment the past few years, it’s going to be a little easier for those applicants to gain admission. There are many factors at play — not just the qualifications of a particular applicant.

3) Perfect grades and test scores aren’t your ticket into the college of your dreams
Straight-A students with perfect SAT scores get rejected from highly selective colleges all the time. It’s the biggest grievance in admissions — if this student with perfect grades and test scores can’t get into an Ivy League college, then who can? The answer: plenty of other qualified students. Yes, applicants need to have grades and test scores within the range the college considers admissible, but that’s not sufficient in and of itself to merit admission.

Most colleges use a holistic review process, meaning they look at the whole applicant, not just the numbers. A student with glowing recommendations, specialized activities, and an outstanding essay can edge out an applicant who may have a higher GPA but dull recommendations and a lackluster personal statement.

A poorly constructed application can come across as an indicator that the student isn’t really that interested in attending the institution, which can work against him or her. Colleges want to admit students who really want to attend their institution. Yes, colleges do this somewhat selfishly so that they can manage their yield rates, but also because they want to build a class filled with students who are going to excel and thrive at that particular institution. By looking at applicants holistically and considering students’ qualifications, interests, motivations, potential, and more, in conjunction with the university’s needs, schools can build classes of students who are going to be successful and graduate in four years.

4) Everything is about quality — not quantity
The college admissions process is often seen as a numbers game: how do these GPAs, test scores, and grades compare? So it’s no surprise that many assume the same evaluative process applies to everything else colleges consider. Things like extracurricular actives, community service, and advanced courses aren’t just counted up and used to compare one student with another. Admissions officer are going to look at the quality of those elements, not the number.

For example, if a college sees an applicant that took 20 AP classes and was involved in 15 different student organizations, the first thought is going to be: “With so much going on, did he or she really make a meaningful impact in those areas?” Students should pick just a few activities or interests that really appeal to them and devote a significant amount of time to them over the course of high school. Colleges aren’t looking to admit “serial joiners” or “well-rounded” students — they’re looking for specialists so they can build a well-rounded class.

The same even applies to grades and courses. An aspiring STEM student with a 3.9 GPA carrying AP courses like chemistry, physics, and calculus is going to be much more compelling than one with a 4.0 who took standard science and math classes with some “easy” electives thrown in.

5) Admissions officers are people, too
Around the time decisions are released, I think there’s a collective mental picture of admissions officers huddled around a desk laughing maniacally as they stamp “REJECTED” on thousands of applications. The truth is, they’re just as human as you and I are. I’ve experienced it firsthand and heard former admissions officers recount similar experiences. They wrestle over difficult admissions decisions. They advocate for students they think can really contribute to the college. It’s a very human process. It’s a mistake to think admissions officials don’t care about applicants or that they are trying to work against them.

A single admissions officer can read thousands of applications each year — not an easy task. Because of this, decisions early in the process are often swift and can seem merciless to those on the outside. With just a small amount of time to read through an application and decide if it should move forward in the process, things like grades, test scores, and similar elements can greatly impact the outcome. Some decisions follow hard-and-fast criteria, and others, once the pool starts to narrow, are more nuanced. Decisions at the advanced stages of review are never easy. The reality is there just isn’t enough room for everyone the admissions committee wants to admit.

6) Rankings are (mostly) useless
There are so many lists of college rankings out there it’s hard to keep track of them all. Each list has different criteria for evaluation, and the number-one school on one list can be toward the middle or bottom of another. Even within the same list, a college can jump or fall an unbelievable number of spots in the span of just a few years. For example Duke University was ranked No. 104 in Forbes’ 2009 rankings list. By 2013 it had jumped 89 spots to No. 15. A college that didn’t even crack the top 100 four years earlier was now in the top 15. Did it really change that much in just a few years? Doubtful.

The rankings themselves actually do very little to tell families about the quality of a college or whether a student will be successful there. What families should look at, instead, is the data used to calculate the rankings and how that factors into a student’s goals. For example, some lists incorporate graduation rates, percentage of graduates employed six months after graduation, average amount of student loan debt, and other data points that can help students decide if a college is a good match for their needs. Look at the different pieces of the puzzle, not the final number on a list.

7) Massive student loan debt is avoidable
The most prevalent criticism of higher education today is the cost. Colleges are constantly raising tuition, and with the national student loan debt topping $1 trillion, it’s hard to ignore the crippling effects of student loan debt on millennials. But significant loan debt is avoidable if students are smart about where they apply. I mentioned before that a college should be a good fit for a student’s needs and goals — and that applies to finances, too. Determining whether a college is a financial fit requires research. The listed tuition price isn’t necessarily what you’re going to pay, so don’t immediately write off a college without digging deeper.

All colleges have net price calculators on their websites that help families estimate what they might be expected to contribute. Use these and resources like College Navigator to get a good idea of what you might pay, and inquire about merit scholarships and aid when researching colleges. You might be surprised — a private college that at first seems financially out of reach might turn out to be more feasible than a local public university. If a school seems out of reach financially after doing your homework, it’s probably not a good fit. As with any other product or service, there are a variety of colleges out there with various price points. If you do diligent research, you can find great schools that won’t require you take out large loans.

8) Pulling strings won’t do much to help you get you in
Everyone has a friend of a friend who knows someone on a university board that can “pull some strings” to get their kid into the college of his or dreams. It’s a tall tale that gets played out mostly in fiction (i.e., in House of Cards when Frank gets Linda’s son accepted to Stanford), and that’s what it is: fiction. Connections, no matter who they are, really do little to sway admission decisions. The admissions office decides who gets in and who doesn’t.

The same applies to legacy applicants or development cases — those who donate large amounts of money to a college. While applying as a legacy can give applicants a small boost, it really depends on the school. Every college treats legacy applicants differently, and just because you’re a third-generation student applying to your family’s alma mater doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be accepted. Legacy status and development potential really only help students who are already within the school’s range of admission standards but who may be on the cusp for their demographic group. If your grades or test scores are well below that range, applying as a legacy or donating a large sum of money won’t make up for it.

9) It’s not where you go to college but what you do with your experience
Frank Bruni recently did a great piece on this for the New York Times. Whether a student goes to an Ivy League or other “top-ranked” college does not determine his or her success in life. You can lead students to Harvard, but if they’re not motivated or serious about their futures then they won’t be successful. The name of a school or the type of institution a student attends can only carry him or her so far.

This is why it’s so important for parents and students to focus on academic, social, and financial fit when choosing where to apply and enroll. If a college is a good fit, whether it’s a small liberal arts college or a large public university, students will be more likely to thrive, gain valuable experience, and graduate on time.

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