Last spring, we published our list of the top college admission myths. We offered one of the more common myths, “Your perfect GPA and SAT score will get you into an Ivy League school,” as well as one of the not so obvious, “There is one school out there that fits you perfectly.”
Of course, what makes the admissions process so difficult to understand is that the selection criteria being used are not entirely objective. In fact, to get a sense of just how subjective the process can be, one only need to take a peek at Kathleen Kingsbury’s Dirty Secrets of College Admissions over at The Daily Beast.
If you failed to get into your school of choice, reading her review of the process just might make your hair stand on end.
Key Objective Criteria
It is clear that there are several key components to the process that every student must be cognizant of. It certainly does matter what your GPA is though there is no magic number that guarantees you anything. And it does matter if you have been active in your school and community, but that activity is considered better when intensely focused on a couple of specific interests. In many cases, your SAT scores are critical, though again, you will not find hard and fast rules that dictate whether your score will get you in to a certain school or keep you out. Finally, there is the all-important essay, one of the best chances for you to distinguish yourself from other applicants.
GPA, Class Rank, Test Scores
The higher your Grade Point Average, Class Rank, and SAT or ACT scores, the better your chance of gaining acceptance to a respective school.
In regards to GPA, the key consideration is actually twofold. If you have good grades in challenging classes, then it will be clear to colleges that you can handle the workload associated at the post-secondary level. But the level of difficulty is actually more important than the grade itself.
Class rank is used by a large number of schools as it helps determine the validity of the grade received by a student. If you are one of many students in your school taking honors classes, your class rank is a way of determining your achievement levels versus your peer group.
However, because some high schools liberally provide students with A’s and B’s, most schools also examine standardized test scores such as those from the SAT or ACT to clarify a student’s overall ability. These exams, given under the same conditions all across America are a way of helping colleges understand whether or not a student has the ability to handle the rigors of higher education.
According to experts, involvement in sports or outside activities is not as important as most students are readily led to believe. The site Guide to College Life indicates that about 50% of all colleges surveyed report co-curricular activities as not having much effect on successful college admissions.
While being involved may not be as important, that involvement can prove critical if you have significant accomplishments in one or more activities or if you have secured a leadership role within one or more of them. Therefore, when it comes to activities, being involved in fewer clubs can provide a student the opportunity for greater impact on those that they are involved with.
Perhaps most importantly, those outside activities will provide you to access to other adults who can speak on your behalf. Being able to provide a strong letter of recommendation from a coach, a club adviser, or an employer can certainly help round out your application packet in a positive manner.
Without a doubt, many schools place great emphasis on the application essay. First and foremost, to be successful in college, you will need to be able to write and express yourself well. The essay gives recruiters a good sense of your ability to work with the written word.
Second, the essay is a chance to distinguish yourself from other applicants. Though it is essential to stick to the expectations set forth by the school, be sure to let your personality shine through – you want that admission’s officer to take notice of your skills with the written word.
If you are a good writer and distinguish yourself with your essay, you can climb several notches on the admissions acceptance ladder. For very selective schools it will not trump lousy grades, but it can elevate someone with strong grades to a position where his or her application can challenge that of someone with a higher GPA or SAT scores.
Surprisingly, one of the areas that tends to be overrated is teacher recommendations. The reason for that is quite simple, if you got an A in a teacher’s class, clearly you met his or her expectations. Adding a letter or recommendation from that teacher to your packet does little more than to reinforce your performance in the class, something the admissions officer is already able to determine by virtue of your grade.
At the same time, letters from other sources can certainly help distinguish your strengths. Getting three to four letters from various sources, including one or two from outside the classroom certainly can round out your packet. In those cases where a student is on the edge of being in or out, those letters certainly cannot hurt.
Stephen Friedfeld, private college admissions consultant in Princeton, New Jersey, tells Kingsbury that students should limit the number of letters to three or four. “A big mistake is sending too many letters of recommendation,” indicates Friedfield. He goes on to state that if you send too many, those admission officers “get the feeling you’re trying to justify something that’s bad or missing.”
Lower on the list is the college interview. In fact, today most schools do not require an interview and those that do insist that the interview will neither make or break your chances.
That said, we would have to assume that the latter aspect might not be as straightforward as it sounds. It is hard to imagine that a student that interviews poorly or comes across as arrogant or indifferent is not somehow impacting his or her chances for admission.
To be safe, if your school requires or suggests an interview, take the time to prepare yourself by rehearsing with others. You do not want to have happen to you what happened in recent months to the likes of Sarah Palin or Caroline Kennedy, even if it is in private.
Key Subjective Criteria
While there are some real key determinants to the process, there are some that are far from being truly objective. In fact, in her piece, Kingsbury points to such issues as like-ability as holding key weight for some admission counselors.
Still, amidst the basic criteria set forth for admission, there are some situations where a student has a better chance of getting accepted using what some would still call objective criteria. It just doesn’t seem that way.
Kingsbury reports on at least one school seeking greater numbers of students from families where neither parent has attended college. She also points to a school looking to broaden its student body by accepting greater numbers of students from outside the Northeast (where the school is located). So a student applying to one of these schools may or may not have an added advantage irrespective of their GPA, SAT scores, etc.
In general, there are a number of ongoing special admission cases: athletes, minorities, low-income, and legacies. For these applicants, the school actually lowers the entrance criteria to ensure they accept students within these special categories.
To get a simple sense, we turn to Duke University, one of the more selective colleges, but compare admissions for non-athletes with athletes. For the Class of 2007, male non-athletes (768 in total) admitted to Duke had an average SAT score of 1,438. This gives the impression that to be considered at Duke, you need to be pushing or exceed 700 on your SAT verbal and math sections.
However, the 42 recruited athletes accepted had an average of 1,172. To make matters worse, the five male athletes accepted that were basketball recruits had an average of 977, or 461 points below the average male score.
Beyond athletics, the concept goes further as other high profile schools look to round out their student body by looking at underrepresented groups. Simply stated, students with the same credentials do not necessarily have the same opportunity to be accepted.
One of the more challenging aspects for schools is to have a sense of the class yield. That term refers to the percentage of accepted students who in turn actually choose to attend the school.
In the case of a school like Harvard, the yield is the 75-80% range, meaning that three out of every four or more students accepted end up choosing to attend the school. For larger universities, the yield can be more towards 25%, meaning only one in four accepted students actually attends.
The yield of course correlates to class size. To ensure a freshman class of 400 students, a school with a typical 50% yield would need to accept 800 applicants. But if for some reason, the yield drops or increases substantially, the school would have either too few or too many students.
Therefore, admission officers have to take into account whether or not they think the applicant is truly likely to attend the school if he or she is accepted. It is for this reason that schools utilize the the Early Action/Early Decision aspect we recently discussed with MIT freshman Ahmed Hussain.
Ability to Pay
Statistically, the folks at Guide to College Life indicate that “82 percent of schools say that the ability to make tuition payments made no difference in whether or not a student would get in to that said school.”
But it is important to realize that most schools cannot fund all of the students who attend if all are in need of financial aid. The folks at Kaplan state, “In an ideal world, all colleges would be need-blind, considering a student’s academic and personal qualities and achievements, but not her ability to pay. Although some schools still operate under this credo, more common now is a need-aware, or need-conscious policy; few colleges now have the money to fund all of the students who qualify for need-based aid.”
The bottom line is that your ability to pay may in fact determine whether or not you get accepted to your school of choice.