Decision Point Planning: If you believe the hype, families these days have their kids applying to 10 or more schools, and acceptance rates are at record lows. What’s going on? Lynn O’Shaughnessy explains what a sensible college application process can look like for 2019.
Step 1: Relax! Most schools accept the majority of applicants.
Every year we have media stories declaring, “Oh my gosh, the acceptance rate at Harvard has dropped. The acceptance rates of Stanford and Yale are down.” What these dispatches fail to tell you is that this is just a teeny tiny part of college admissions. What I wish the media would add when they shout about Harvard accepting less than 5% of applicants is, “You know, most kids get into their first-choice school.”
Every year UCLA does a survey of hundreds of thousands of college freshman, and every year the survey results show that about 75% of kids get into their first-choice school. When you think about it, there are 2.2 million traditional students who start in college every year. The number of kids who apply to schools like Yale, for instance, is something like 36,000. This is a teeny tiny percentage of college admissions and yet the media is focused on these few schools, and that just makes everybody panicky.
Most kids aren’t applying to 17 schools, no matter what the newspapers are saying. Roughly a third of students apply to seven or more schools. That means most kids aren’t even doing that many.
The number of colleges a student applies to should be based on what kind of schools are on a college list. If you are looking for schools that want you, that’s one thing, but if all seven are Duke, Rice, Harvard, Stanford, and other Ivies, then it is crazy to apply to that few. At these elite schools there is no admission guarantee unless you have a hook—you’re the child of a billionaire who can donate millions of dollars to a school, you’re a legacy, or you’re a recruited athlete. Then you have a better shot. No one should be applying strictly to elite schools.
This fixation with the most highly ranked schools is more of a problem for high-income students and their parents. These schools are status symbols. And beyond the bragging rights, families don’t know about the different types of schools out there. They recognize only the names of their own state schools and brand-name research universities.
Low- and middle-income families are generally not even thinking about private schools, elite or not. They tend to go to community colleges or nearby state schools.
Part of the reason we see so much more craziness now is that more kids are going to college. When I went to college, maybe 15%-18% of the teenagers my age were going to college.
And there is a perception that there are only a few schools worth going to. Some people feel, “We want our kids to have the best,” and they have to go to these so-called golden ticket schools. Parents feel more desperate as they see headlines every year that say it’s harder and harder to gain admission. So they feel they have to apply to more and more of them. It just feeds on itself.
Step 2: Find colleges with academic profiles that fit your student
Parents can help their kids put together a good college list that considers how they would fit in at a school and where they are likely to be accepted. You can look at test scores, GPAs, and the typical freshman class of each specific school. These kinds of statistics are readily available on College Board, CollegeData, the federal College Navigator, and other places.
And definitely look at the school’s acceptance rate. You could have a perfect test score and grade point average aiming for Princeton, but there’s still almost no chance you’re going to get in.
But that’s just an outlier. Most schools, as I said, accept the majority of their applicants. You can look at a school’s acceptance rate and where a child fits in terms of her GPA and test scores.
You can also look at what other criteria a particular school is interested in by going to Collegedata.com. You type in the name of any school and then click on the “Admissions” tab. You will see a box that has 19 admission factors listed and an “x” that indicates whether the school considers each one “very important,” “important,” “considered,” or “not considered.” Pay attention to that.
Oftentimes schools will say they consider “demonstrated interest” which means they want to know that the student is really interested in their school in particular—and not just applying for the sake of applying to a bunch of schools.
The rise in numbers of applications has made more schools consider demonstrated interest. One reason for the growing applications is the Common Application, which roughly 600 schools now use. With the Common Application, you fill out the online document once and you can send it to as many schools as you want. Each school can ask for answers to a few supplemental questions like, “Why are you interested in this school?” Or they may have a specific essay question. But once you’ve filled out the main application, it’s easy for kids to just shoot it off to a lot of colleges.
Make sure to figure out the cost.
One of the most important things is to use net price calculators. Every school, by federal mandate, has to have a net price calculator on its site. Using the tool, you’ll be able to see what a college says you will have to pay after any merit scholarships are deducted. That’s why it’s called a “net” price calculator. That’s super important.
Step 3: Consider early decision
If a child is focused on one particular school and the parents are prepared to pay the cost of going there, applying “early decision” or “early action” is an option. This growing trend in the college application space favors wealthy students, and it really does give you an advantage in the application process. Not every school has early decision, but a lot of private schools do.
When students get into a college via early decision, they agree to attend no matter what. (With early action, you’re not required to go to the school even if you are accepted.) The school could stiff a student and offer no money (scholarships and grants), but the teenager is still supposed to attend. That’s why it’s considered a benefit to high-income students whose parents can pay no matter what the school costs. Other families can’t take that risk.
Because of the promise to attend, whether to apply early decision can depend on whether or not the school has good financial aid. If you have demonstrated need, most elite schools have excellent financial aid. If you apply early decision and get in, you’re likely to get some aid. If you don’t need it, and you apply and get in, you are obligated to pay full price.
Of course, it is kind of based on the honor system that you will definitely go to this school if you get in. That’s what schools are counting on. They like to lock in a good portion of their freshman class early decision because then they don’t have to worry about all those kids applying to 20 schools and leaving the school up in the air as to where they stand.
See what kind of edge it gives you.
If you want statistics on acceptance rates for early decision/early action versus regular decision, go to College Transitions.com. There are many admissions statistics on the site. You can see how much of a crazy advantage you get with early decision. For instance, for students who applied early decision to American University, the acceptance rate is 84.5%, and for students who applied regular decision the acceptance rate was 26.6%. That is biggest advantage that I’ve seen.
Keep in mind, however, that American University doesn’t have great aid. So you would be really risking it if you applied early decision to this school. You’d probably have to pay the full price.
Here’s another example: Dartmouth College’s early decision acceptance rate now is 28% versus 8.5% for regular decision. If you apply there and you need aid, they give really good aid. To me that’s not as much of a risk if you’re looking for financial aid, since the school is on record as giving a lot of aid to students who demonstrate need.
As I mentioned, with early action, you’re not required to go to the school even if you are accepted. Yet amazingly the early action acceptance rate is still often higher than regular decision even though you’re not required to attend that school.
I’m looking at Fordham University, which by the way has horrible financial aid, and I see that its regular decision rate is 42.5%, but early action is 50%. So it’s a little boost even though you’re not taking any kind of risk.
Step 4: Choose a good mix of schools
Families who are building a college list need to choose a good mix of schools. A list could contain public universities (both in-state and out-of-state) and private colleges of various selectivity.
Parents should compare their teenager’s academic profile to that of the latest freshmen class at a college and figure out whether they would qualify for need-based aid or merit scholarships. Again, keep in mind that most schools accept the majority of the students who apply. It’s not that hard to get into college, unless you have restricted yourself to a list of only the elite schools that reject almost everyone, which is just setting yourself up for disaster.