#College Essays and Applications

‘The Most Competitive Admissions Cycle Ever’ – Again

If you have read any articles on admissions statistics this month, you have probably read some variation on that sentence many times over. And it’s true – college admissions are getting tougher and tougher every year.

And this is not just happening at the Ivies like Penn or Columbia – or even other highly selective universities like Duke or Vanderbilt. It’s happening at the large public universities (Virginia has released, and schools like California, Michigan and Penn State should be releasing their numbers in the near future), popular city schools (see USC and NYU and Tulane), and the small colleges (see Tufts and Bowdoin).

What is really important everywhere… (see the attached screenshot)

The attached table is from the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s (NACAC) very own State of College Admission. It is an essential reminder of two realities:

  • Grades and Academic Rigor matter more than any other single factor.
  • Despite the ever-growing list of “Test-Optional” Colleges, the SAT and ACT are still significant forces in college admissions.

We have said for years that grades, rigor (how much you have challenged yourself in the classroom with college prep courses, such as AP and IB classes), and SAT/ACT scores are the factors that will really get your application read seriously – ideally above the 50th percentile from an admissions perspective, and above the 75th percentile at least if you want academic merit money along with an acceptance.

We have also reminded families for years that while “Test-Optional” seems exciting, it really only benefits students who have outstanding grades and rigor but truly struggle with the SAT and ACT. Students who are at or below the average GPA for accepted students at a given university will not benefit by also going “Test-Optional.”

…and what is also important at selective universities

NACAC’s report also highlights what factors are important for “selective universities” – schools where the acceptance rate is 20% or below:

  • When evaluating applications from each student group, institutions that were more selective placed more emphasis on the essay, interview, and extracurricular activities.
  • For both domestic and international first-time freshmen applicants, more selective colleges rated strength of curriculum and recommendations from counselors and teachers more highly.
  • When evaluating applications from each student group, institutions that were more selective placed more emphasis on race/ethnicity, gender, first generation status, state/county/country of residence, and high school attended.

When we do College Prep Seminars, we frequently talk about what factors are in your control in the college prep process – and the many factors that are beyond your control.

Bear all of this in mind as you navigate this journey with your child. Instead of begrudging or worrying about the factors beyond your control (many of which are intended to promote access, equity, and diversity), take note of what is in their control and how recognizing these factors can lead to enriching experiences and personal growth – fostering a better person, not just a better applicant.

As students pursue extracurricular activities, encourage them to focus more on depth over breadth, looking to take their curiosities and interests to the ‘next level’ by finding ways to engage in them more meaningfully. When students are thinking about recommendation letters, remind them that it is up to them to develop those relationships with their teachers and counselors. And for the application essays, seize this moment to teach your child how to convey their values, experiences, and goals through the written word – an invaluable skill not only for college applications, but for applications to graduate school, internships, and jobs throughout life.

Admissions officers are people. People accept other people. And at selective universities, admissions officers are evaluating applicants holistically – they want the whole person, not just outstanding grades and test scores.

For underclassmen in high school

In light of the Varsity Blues scandal, many parents of 9th and 10th graders may be dreading the college preparation and application process as toxic and flawed. There are questions and frustrations – and all of those emotions and reactions are justified.

Parents have the power, however, to reframe conversations at home. Instead of making everything ‘about’ and ‘for’ college, and instead of focusing on the stresses and scandals, highlight how high school is an amazing time for personal exploration and growth.

When parents of 9th and 10th graders call us and ask what they can be doing to jumpstart their students’ college prep, and when we meet with families, there are two main focal points of our conversation: keep your grades as high as possible to maximize GPA and academic rigor…and start building a purposeful and personal resume.

Students will (rightfully) resent the idea that all their free time should be dedicated to “building a resume.” So instead emphasize the mantra Better Person, Better Applicant. What does this mean? Simply put, the students who follow and embrace their intellectual and personal passions – who show initiative, demonstrate leadership, and engage in their activities in enriching ways – are also the students whose resumes jump out the most to college admissions officers.

And use your summers wisely. Be creative. Find jobs, internships, service opportunities, and research positions that align with students’ intellectual interests. Considering that the most popular supplemental essay question on college applications is ‘Why have you selected your intended major?’, students will have plenty to write about if they have already engaged in their intellectual curiosities.

Honest and Upfront Conversations about “Deferrals” and “Waitlists”

In last year’s State of Admissions, we looked the increases in Deferrals and Waitlists from a more analytical perspective. We bemoaned how a student could be accepted to Penn but waitlisted at Tulane, and we shined a light on how selective institutions are more aggressively manipulating their “yield” to look at competitive and prestigious as possible.

Statistics on “deferrals” and “waitlists” will not be available until the summer, but it is essential that families start having proactive (as opposed to reactive) conversations about the possibility of these decisions.

“Deferrals” and “waitlists” take a tremendous emotional toll on students. There is a general disappointment, along with feelings of self-doubt and questioning, but there is also the frustration and stress that comes with the wait for a more concrete decision being extended several more months.

Nobody likes to wait, and many colleges do not make the waiting any easier. Take the University of Michigan, which notoriously defers huge numbers of Early Action students. Michigan releases decisions over the course of several more dates between December and the end of March, and they never release in advance when a new batch of decisions will come out. This leads many students and parents to check the online decision portal regularly, almost daily, which induces even more anxiety around the process.

Why the secrecy? The question is beside the point, as there is no straightforward answer available. Simply put, students and parents need to be mentally prepared so they can plan healthy approaches to enduring a longer wait.

The Cases of Northeastern and Miami

On the point of deferrals, let’s talk about Northeastern and University of Miami (Florida) – extremely popular colleges in vibrant cities with outstanding academic programs and extracurricular resources – both of which have boosted their application numbers in significant ways by virtue of having no supplement essays. Northeastern and Miami, in addition to having Early Action (non-binding) also have Early Decision I and Early Decision II (both binding) application options – on top of Regular Decision.

Having two rounds of Early Decision means that Northeastern and Miami are able to lock in students – simultaneously lowering yields and limiting merit scholarship money offered. (No need to financially incentivize students accepted Early Decision I or II if they are already legally bound to go.)

So imagine then how many spots are left for Early Action and Regular Decision applicants. It’s no wonder that so many Early Action students are deferred – colleges need to leave spots open for Regular Decision applicants, and they want to evaluate their options in full.

When you hear stories about straight A students with high academic rigor and ACT scores above a 32 being deferred Early Action from colleges like Northeastern and Miami, this may not provide comfort, but at least it can provide insight, perspective, and a deeper level of understanding.