By Hector Cuevas, College Choice Founder
August usually signals that around the corner college admissions season awaits high school seniors. An annual ritual with high school students excited about the prospect of moving on to college, new found independence and a host of new ventures, yet, it is also a period that students and parents alike often find stressful and confusing. On or about August/September, students will be able to begin filing their on-line college admission applications. There is additional pressure to prepare and submit ones admissions application as a complete portfolio for students applying Early Action or Early Decision, these deadlines tend to be as early as November 1st.
The one thing that has been constant and driving up angst, among parents and students alike, is that college admissions continues to become more competitive at public and private colleges as witnessed by last year’s statistics on freshmen class admissions. More students than ever are applying for a shrinking number of slots, this alone, should be enough to add stress to this year’s applicants. Not only are the most highly selective colleges admitting fewer students (Stanford lead the pack by admitting only 5% with Harvard admitting 5.9%, Yale 6.2% and Princeton 7.2%, N.Y. Times, April 9, 2014) in relation to the number of applicants, but selective liberal arts as well as public universities and colleges are also following this trend.
The University of California System’s flagship schools, regarded as the public ivies, (UC Berkeley admitted 17 %, and UCLA 18% of their 74,000 and 86,000 applicants respectively, UC Fall 2017 Admissions Rates, Table 2) dropped below 20% for the first time.
Another indicator of increased competition for college admissions is that colleges once thought to be safeties by many high school students have become reach schools for students with seemingly outstanding academic portfolios. Also, I have heard parents confide that they don’t understand what “eligibility in the local context” means for UC applicants. And they are more befuddled by how the mysterious behind the scenes process, employed by the UC Office of the President’s Office of Admissions, to qualify high schools students for this prestigious guaranteed admission status works.
The other UC admissions standard that parents have found confusing is how do they insure that their student is in up the “top 9%” of graduating seniors that would qualify them for admissions into a UC, however, not necessarily the campus of their choice.
With private colleges and universities, one must also be aware of the phenomenon of legacies, development donors and VIPs. When colleges give extra weight to an applicant who has a legacy, such as a sibling, parent, or grandparent who is alum of that institution, which of course that increases the competition among non-legacy applicants. One must also keep in mind that these colleges and universities also give special consideration to athletes, underrepresented students, applicants whose parent(s) are potential significantly wealthy donors as well as children of VIP’s.
In addition, Early Admit applicants can make up to a third of overall admissions for many private schools (Stanford accepted one third of their early admits out of it 2138 admissions offers for 2107). In brief, regular applicants are competing among themselves for the remainder of slots.
As colleges continue to become more selective, parents should not think that stellar GPA’s and SAT scores alone would get their student admitted into the college of their choice. Mere statistics, no longer guarantee admissions into college. Harvard and other colleges, both private and public, turn down applicants with perfect (1600) SAT scores and 4.0 plus GPA’s and yet, still admit some students with perhaps slightly lower scores and grades.
Why? Today, most private and now many public colleges and universities conduct a comprehensive review of an applicant’s background and are looking at an entire admissions portfolio of a prospective student’s background. This is not to say that academic performance doesn’t play a critical role in the admission’s process. On the contrary, most college admission officers advise high school students to challenge themselves academically, pursue a balanced but the most rigorous curriculum offered and strive for an academic record that reflects their true potential.
Students admitted into highly competitive colleges have generally taken a large number of AP courses and to gain a more competitive edge, will have taken courses at nearby colleges.
Colleges today, look well beyond competitive academic backgrounds to build a well-rounded freshmen class. It is common to find two to three admission readers reviewing each college application. Each reader assesses how an applicant will contribute not only academically, but what values, unique talents and personal attributes will bring to his or her respective campus. In essence, Admissions Officers are looking at a prospective student’s entire admissions portfolio.
Each student should know that their admissions portfolio encompasses areas that are evaluated in respect to the candidate’s values, maturity and a variety of achievements. Co-curricular as well as extra curricular accomplishments and experiences can be rated on a variety of scales along with personal attributes such as leadership, initiative, creativity, resilience, teamwork, and independence. An accomplished athlete, budding scientist, notable humanitarian, or accomplished artist maybe rated on their noted level (local, state, national, international) of experience and accomplishment.
Co-Curricular Activities are those that blend academic interests and passions with initiatives that lead to experiences beyond the classroom. Extra-Curricular Experiences do as well but are generally defined by interest or passions outside of academic pursuits. Today, both types of experiences are desirable to have in one’s application portfolio, especially for highly selective and selective colleges and universities.
It is through well-written personal essays, answers to specific questions, and personal interviews where colleges and universities can get behind accomplishments and scores to gain an insight to someone’s traits and what matters to them most and why. An essay should provide a personal perspective that cannot be found only in transcripts, test scores or list of activities. It should be an engaging in-depth personal story about something that might incorporate interests, abilities, contributions, achievements as well as a reflection of ones values.
Thus, it is the dreaded college application essay that can be critical to capturing in a thousand words or sometimes less the total essence of one’s admissions portfolio. A well-written essay, no matter what the topic or theme, is reflective of an individual’s core. And this is what the college admissions reader is hoping to find, an essay with a compelling and authentic story that no matter how late in the day or night, the applicant comes to life, as does admissions officer’s energy with the joy of reviewing one more application of the hundreds she or he has read that day
With increased competition, varying requirements and timelines, it is no wonder that the process of selecting, applying and gaining admission to college can be stressful, anxiety producing and confusing to both high school students and parents.
Fortunately there are a number of resources to help students and families approach the college admission’s process in a clear, organized, and strategic manner. There are high school counselors who can help but whose large student loads may limit the time devoted to each student. However, there are numerous web sites such as www.collegeboard.com as well as private college admissions counselors offering assistance.
It is also important to note that college admissions counseling, particularly for selective colleges, should start much earlier that a student’s senior year. Starting as early as ninth grade provides a student and their family the opportunity to carefully plan and build a comprehensive and competitive admissions portfolio. An admissions portfolio that includes a rigorous academic curriculum, good test scores, compelling personal essay(s), excellent recommendation letters and in-depth co-curricular and extra-curricular activities, projects or internships that are unique to a student’s interests, values, attributes and innate talents.
You will get the best help from individuals who take the time to understand the personal, family and educational needs of a student and who have carefully assessed the student’s academic background, abilities, interests and goals. Good college counseling assist students with finalizing a list of appropriate colleges, standardized testing, college visits, applications, personal essays, supporting documents, financial aid, college interviews/resumes and final selection.
H. C. Cuevas is Founder of College Choice and a Private College Admission and Career Consultant. His has over 20 years experience in higher education with the University of California and Stanford University. He has also served as an instructor with UC Berkeley’s College Admission and Career Planning Certificate Program and as a local and national speaker on College Recruitment and Admissions. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org