Episode 93: Narrowing Down Your Teenager’s College List–Step 1

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We have put off narrowing down your teenager’s long summer list of college options as long as we can. I hate to start the narrowing because it always seems to me as though the colleges taken off your list might be opportunities missed. But we all have to remember that there is not just one college that is a good choice for your teenager. There are likely quite a few colleges that would be not just good, but excellent, choices for your teenager. So, in that spirit, let’s see where we stand here at the end of September.

First, let us remind you that October 1 marks the opening up of the online avenue for filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, lovingly known as the FAFSA. There is no earthly reason not to fill it out and file it ASAP. We are not FAFSA experts, but there are many people who are. If you are unsure about FAFSA, look at available websites or seek help from your teenager’s high school. But, whatever it takes, get the form filed, even if you are not sure you will need it and even if you are not expecting a financial windfall in financial aid.

Second, let us remind you, as we have been doing for the past couple of weeks, that the first deadlines are approaching for Early Decision and Early Action admissions–mostly around November 1. If your teenager is interested enough in a college to apply under an Early Decision plan or interested enough in one or more colleges to apply under an Early Action plan, then you have already narrowed your teenager’s list of college options. However, your teenager will need to keep a few extra colleges on the list in case the Early Decision choice or the Early Action choices don’t work out. In that spirit, let’s look at Step 1 in narrowing down the list.

Let’s review your 10 summer assignments because, if you didn’t do them, there might not be much of a list to narrow down:

We are hoping that you still have at least 20 or so on your list right now.

As we look back at the 10 assignments, we notice that some have to do with college location, some with size, some with selectivity, some with the student body, some with academics, and some with logistics, like housing and safety. We did not talk much this summer about the cost of attending each college because it is hard to figure out cost without knowing what kind of financial aid package your teenager might get from any given college, based on your family’s income, your state of residence, and the academic or other qualifications of your teenager. Everybody else seems to want to talk only about cost, so we would like to start somewhere else.

We found it difficult to choose which filter to look at first, knowing that it would knock some colleges off your list right away and being sorry about not giving those colleges a chance to stay on your list based on their other really great qualities. But something has to go first. So, let’s look at selectivity of the colleges on your list.

1. Step 1: College Selectivity Filter

As we said in our book How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students (on sale at amazon.com through 2016), this question is the one most high school guidance counselors bring up first. You have probably heard people say that a student should apply to a “safety” school that he or she is sure to be admitted to; a couple of “reach” schools that would be great, but might be beyond or just beyond what the student’s high school record warrants; and then some others in the middle that the student has a reasonable chance of being admitted to, though not guaranteed. Of course, that is really nothing more than common sense.

As for a safety school, we like to say that you should consider public four-year colleges (especially branch campuses of your state flagship public university, rather than the main campus, or a second-tier state system of public colleges that is not as prestigious as the state flagship university system). Some states have more public options than others, thus providing an array of safety school choices. We continue to focus only on four-year colleges in our search, believing that you can add the local public community college as an option at any point without too much difficulty.

As we find we still have to say to parents of teenagers, it is our opinion that not-very-selective private colleges that could reasonably serve as safety schools for most high school students are not likely to be academically better or more respected than whatever well-regarded public colleges are available in a student’s home state. Why would you pay more money to have your teenager go to a college that is not better? And, as we said many times during our nationwide virtual tour of colleges in Episodes 27 through 53, there is no prestige in going to a private college that is not as good as a great public college.

As for “reach” schools, keep in mind that applying to colleges is time consuming and not free (unless you have application-fee waivers, which are sometimes based on family income and sometimes based on a student’s excellent high school record). Applying to reach schools that enroll a majority of students with significantly higher high school GPAs (that is, the grade point average of high school courses) and/or or with significantly higher SAT or ACT scores than your teenager has might turn out to be a waste of time. So, should your teenager rule out applying to the most selective schools, given the chances that being admitted are slim, even if he or she is a good student? No, but perhaps consider applying to just two or three–and only if your teenager is truly interested in going to them. Applying to too many will likely make a disappointing acceptance season for your teenager.

What should you be looking for in terms of selectivity? I would say that you should feel okay about colleges where your teenager’s high school grades and SAT or ACT scores are average or just above average for that college. But, further, you should feel good about colleges where your teenager’s grades and test scores are above the 75th percentile of admitted and/or enrolled freshmen. This is part of the information–along with class rank–that we asked you to research and record back in Episode 82 in Assignment #2.

As we have said before, the two obvious academic problems for applicants are that their GPA is not as high as it might be or that their SAT and/or ACT scores are not as high as they might be. Either of these problems makes choosing to put too many truly selective colleges on your teenager’s list a risky move. However, as we have said before, having mediocre or low test scores is likely an easier problem to solve than having mediocre or low high school grades.

While students’ test scores are important to most top-ranked colleges, there are some colleges–including some really good colleges–that do not put so high a priority, or indeed almost any priority at all, on these test scores. Check out our book or earlier episodes of USACollegeChat for more information about and a long list of what are referred to as “test-optional” colleges and “test-flexible” colleges, which might be a help for your teenager if those scores are not what you had hoped for. You can also search for and find all kinds of lists of “test-optional” and “test-flexible” colleges online, including at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing website.

Remember that admissions policies change, and you should check on a college’s website to tell just exactly how the college does or does not require or use SAT or ACT scores. For example, some colleges require standardized test scores for some applicants, like homeschooled students and international students, but not for others, like students who are U.S. citizens and went to high school in the U.S. So do your homework–again.

The next part of the college selectivity filter is something less obvious, and that is to double check the number of credits or courses required or recommended for admission to the college or to the college or school that you are interested in within the university, along with any specific courses required (e.g., Algebra II). We asked you to research and record this information for each college on your list back in Episode 83 in Assignment #3. Keep in mind that a college does not usually penalize a student whose high school does not offer a course that the college requires for admission–like the third year of a foreign language. However, the closer your teenager can get to meeting all of the required courses and all of the recommended courses, the better chance he or she has for admission–obviously.

2. Do You Have Enough Left on the List?

So, what I would do if I were you, is look back at the data my teenager recorded for Assignment #2 and compare each college’s figures to my own teenager’s high school GPA, SAT or ACT scores (that is, whatever scores you currently have, even if he or she will retake the test this fall), and class rank (if he or she has one). I might divide the colleges into three piles: (1) those that look out of reach or almost out of reach, given the grades and scores of admitted or enrolled freshmen; (2) those that post average grades and scores about like my own teenager’s; and (3) those where my teenager’s grades and scores look well above average.

With that done, I would keep all of the colleges in the second pile on the list for now, especially if my teenager had taken or will take this year the required and recommended high school courses.

Next, I would talk with my teenager about the colleges in the first pile–that is, those that seem like a real long shot academically. I would look particularly favorably on those where my teenager had taken or will take this year the required and recommended high school courses. I might keep my teenager’s two or three favorites from that pile on the list for now, but I would try to help my teenager let the others in the first pile go.

Finally, I would talk with my teenager about the colleges in the third pile, where my teenager’s grades and scores are well above average, to see whether my teenager is holding on to too many “safety” schools, especially ones that are not truly appealing to him or her. I often find myself saying something like this to kids: “Why is that on your list? You are going to get into a better private college than that and you are also going to get into a better public flagship university than that. You don’t need it on your list, and you shouldn’t go there even if you get in.”

So, Step 1 is to narrow down your teenager’s list of college options by being brutal in reviewing the first pile (those that are too academically demanding of their applicants) and equally brutal in reviewing the third pile (those that are not academically demanding enough). We would like you to have at least 15 still on the list as we move forward.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $0.99 through 2016! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

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Episode 83: Assignment #3—Looking at One More College Admission Standard

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

So, parents of juniors (and parents of freshmen and sophomores who are thinking ahead) you have had your first two assignments in the college search process. We hope we are keeping you busy, butmore importantlyinterested in what can be a fascinating and actually enjoyable process.

Looking at One More College Admission Standard on USACollegeChat Podcast

So far, we have had you expanding your teenager’s long summer list of college options so that you are truly ready to narrow it in the fall. And we have had you check out key admission standards for the colleges on that listnamely, average high school GPA, high school class rank, and SAT or ACT scores of admitted and/or enrolled freshmen.

1. Your Assignment #3

Download the Assignment #3 Worksheet

In this episode, we will examine a fourth admission standard that you and your teenager should be looking at carefully. I think it is the one that is less often considered and more often taken for grantedand that is the courses that applicants are expected to have taken in high school, usually listed in terms of credits in each subject area, but also sometimes including specifically named courses, especially in math and science.

You should have your teenager go to the website for each college on your teenager’s long summer list of college options and find the high school courses that an applicant should have completed or the number of credits of each subject that an applicant should have earned. This information can virtually always be found by starting with the Admissions home page. You will find that the high school course or credit expectations of colleges do, in fact, differ, usually according to how selective the college is. But there are always a few surprises (like colleges that require students to have earned career and technical education credits in high school, for example).

Have your teenager write down the required and the recommended courses or credits. Then you can compare them from college to college, and you can see how well they match up with what your teenager has taken so far and will be taking as he or she finishes up high school.

As we have said in earlier episodes of USACollegeChat, the courses that kids take in high school matter, including the courses that kids take in their senior year. Colleges will tell you that slacking off in the senior year is never a good move. So, ideally, your teenager’s program next year would still include the next real step in core subjects, like math and science, rather than a bunch of random electives. In other words, a fourth year of math and a fourth year of science would be the best ticket, for most kidsand might be a mandatory ticket for entrance to some college programs, like engineering, for example. If your teenager doesn’t have a rigorous senior year planned, changes can still likely be made when school starts next fall. It is worth thinking abouthard.

2. Just a Word About Foreign Languages

And let me say one word (or maybe two) about one of my favorite, and often overlooked and underappreciated, subjects, and that is foreign languagessometimes called “world languages” or “languages other than English” these days.

As I said in my ParentChat with Regina blog some months ago, you might want to read up on the value of foreign language study in two thought-provoking articles in Education Week, written by Global Learning blog curator Heather Singmaster, assistant director of education at Asia Society?”Bilingualism: Valuable for the Brain and Society” and “Foreign Language Policies: Is Everyone Else Really Speaking English?“:

She talks about economic, socioeconomic, cultural, cognitive, and national defense arguments in favor of increased attention to language study in U.S. schools. She talks about reasons that are important to our country and reasons that are important to individual students. She talks about language learning requirements in other countries and how we stack upor actually don’t.

Some of it is common sense, and some isn’t. For example, here is something I didn’t know, and it should be especially interesting to you if you still have any elementary school children at home. Ms. Singmaster writes about Jared Diamond’s book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies:

An entire chapter is devoted to the importance of bilingualism and multilingualism, and the development and spread of languages. In traditional societies [like those in New Guinea and the Amazon Basin], multilingualism was (and is, for the very few that remain) widespread. While many in the West fear that our children will be confused if they are exposed to more than one language at a time, kids in traditional societies begin learning additional languages from birthand not just one or two. Diamond can’t think of a single person he has met in New Guinea that speaks fewer than five languages (and yes, they are all “mutually unintelligible languages,” not dialects). (quoted from the article)

We have been told that the early years are the best for learning another language; it is one argument that has been used in favor of elementary school foreign language programs for a long time. But Diamond’s work in New Guinea takes that argument to a whole new level.

And, by the way, there is also research available that shows that bilingual children can communicate better with others and have better social skills than children who speak just one language. Some benefits even accrue to children who are exposed to multiple languages, even if they are not bilingual themselves. (Thank you, Katherine Kinzler, in her article in The New York Times entitled “The Superior Social Skills of Bilinguals,” March 11, 2016). Of course, we cannot claim that taking even four years of a foreign language in high school would make a student bilingual, but it would certainly “expose” them to another language.

Last fall, I visited a school district in a Far Western state. The state awards scholarships for college study to its high school graduating seniors. Among the requirements are two years of foreign language study and three years of math and three years of science in high school or no foreign language study and four years of math and four years of science. How does that make sense? In what world are two years of foreign language study equivalent to a fourth year of math and science, regardless of which you believe to be more important? If those were college distribution requirements, no college in the country would agree to that swap.

While I am not arguing against the value of a fourth year of math and science (indeed, I just argued in favor of that), I am arguing that studying a foreign language (or more than one) provides students with a completely different kind of intellectual and cultural experienceone that students shouldn’t miss out on in high school. It goes without saying that being able to communicate in a second languageeven at the most basic level, which is all a student is likely to get out of two or even three or four years of high school studycould be a help to students as they enter the working world, especially if they live in or move to a location that has a large population of workers who speak other languages, as many urban and rural areas do.

Furthermore, there are still many colleges, including most of our best colleges, that are expecting to see foreign language study on your teenager’s high school transcripts. Two years of foreign language study would be the minimum that they would be looking for. Some great colleges are requiring, or at least strongly recommending, three or even four years?ideally of the same language. While it might be too late for you to fix your teenager’s foreign language study if he or she is entering the senior year, it is not too late for you parents of younger high schoolers to solve this problem.

In winding up today’s episode, let me turn to the case of Florida. A bill passed in the Florida Senate in March to allow computer coding classes to substitute for foreign language requirements and to require public higher education institutions in Florida to accept two computer coding credits in lieu of two currently required foreign language credits. The bill was later defeated in the Florida House, but other states are considering similar measures.

The sources of opposition to the Florida bill were interesting to see. According to Madison Iszler in an article in USA Today (March 1, 2016, “Florida Senate approves making coding a foreign language“), the NAACP’s Florida Conference and Miami-Dade branch, the Florida chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the Spanish American League Against Discrimination offered the following statement:

Our children need skills in both technology and in foreign languages to compete in today’s global economy. . . . However, to define coding and computer science as a foreign language is a misleading and mischievous misnomer that deceives our students, jeopardizes their eligibility to admission to universities, and will result in many losing out on the foreign language skills they desperately need even for entry-level jobs in South Florida. (quoted from the article)

So, parents, beware of such a bill that might be coming to your state. Until we know for sure that colleges will accept computer coding credits as a substitute for foreign language credits, this seems like a risky swap to me. Further, what about the more selective colleges that either require or strongly recommend those three or even four years of a foreign language? Will there be three or four years of computer coding available in high school as a substitute?

The bottom line here is this: Parents, look over your teenager’s course selection carefullyfor the senior year and, indeed, for every other year. Check out what good colleges expect his or her four-year program of courses to look like. Notice the differences in the course requirements among the colleges on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. Note that some colleges require an explanation on the application if a student does not have all of the required high school credits. Keep in mind that foreign languages could be a stumbling block for your teenager if you are not careful.

P.S. I know that Marie is surprised that I got through this entire discussion of foreign languages and never once mentioned that Latin is the most important language to study (ideally, followed by a modern foreign language, in addition). Well, Marie, I almost made it. But that’s a different episode.

Download the Assignment #3 Worksheet

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $1.99 all summer long! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
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Episode 82: Assignment #2–Looking at College Admission Standards

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

So, parents of juniors (and parents of freshmen and sophomores who are thinking ahead) you had your first assignment in the college search process last week. It was a pretty big assignment and one that parents of freshmen and sophomores could easily start now so that they can do it at a calmer pace.

Looking At College Admission Standards on USACollegeChat podcast

The point of the assignment was to do the exact opposite of what many experts might be telling you this summer. Our advice was to start expanding your teenager’s list of college options so that you are truly ready to narrow it in the fall. While that might seem counterintuitive as the summer days begin, we gave you a lot of great reasons to do it. If you forget them, listen to last week’s episode (Episode 81). Or just trust us.

We challenged you and your teenager to choose at least one college in every state to put on what we called “your teenager’s long summer list of college options.” And, for those of you who were too wimpy to do that, we offered these options:

  • Choose at least one college in each of 25 states of your choice to put on your teenager’s long summer list of college options.
  • Choose at least two colleges in every geographic region of the U.S. to put on your teenager’s long summer list of college options–plus, let’s say, two additional colleges in your home state.
  • Choose five public flagship universities to put on your teenager’s long summer list of college options.
  • Choose at least one college not in the U.S. to put on your teenager’s long summer list of college options.

Then we challenged your teenager to read about each college on the list on the college’s website before talking with you and recommending whether it should be kept on the list. I can’t say often enough how much you can learn from reading a college website–and, more importantly, from reading 20 or 30 college websites. And, last week, we gave you a list of facts and figures for your teenager to look up on each website and write down.

So, now we come to Assignment #2. Remember that the more you can get your teenager to do, the easier it will be for you and the more your teenager will likely learn; however, you will still need to provide some life experience and adult judgment.

1. Your Assignment #2

Download the Assignment #2 Worksheet

So, let’s return to the colleges on your teenager’s long summer list of college options, however many you have. Even if you did a lackluster job of Assignment #1, there are hopefully at least 20 colleges on that list and, even more hopefully, they are not all in your home state.

Have your teenager now look at the admission standards for incoming freshmen at each college. These can be found under various headings on college websites. Sometimes they are part of the narrative on the Admissions home page. Sometimes they are in something called a Class Profile (of students who enrolled) or an Admitted Student Profile (of students who were admitted, but did not necessarily enroll). Some of the information can be found if you search for “common data set” on the college’s website. The common data set data are both comprehensive and excellent. Some of the information can always be found if you do a Google search for College Navigator (sponsored by the National Center for Education Statistics) and then search there by college.

What we are talking about now are admission standards, not admission requirements. In other words, we are not talking about things you have to do in order to apply, like filling out the application, getting recommendations, completing supplemental essays, and the rest. We are talking about what the students are like who get accepted by the college and/or about the students who actually choose to enroll in the college. There are at least four pieces of information worth considering when judging your own teenager’s chances of being admitted.

Assignment #2 is to have your teenager find out three of these four pieces of information for each college on that long summer list. (Piece #4 will be coming up next week, so stay tuned.) Here’s why: Because these pieces of information looked at as a whole for a college might make you think twice about some of the colleges on the list. Again, make sure your teenager writes down or records in some more electronic fashion the information that he or she finds. It will be impossible to remember it all.

2. High School Grade Point Average (GPA)

For most, but not all, colleges, your teenager will be able to find the average (typically, the mean) high school GPA of the students admitted to the freshman class the previous year or of the students who actually enrolled in the freshman class the previous year. This number will look like it is on a 4-point scale. For example, a great college might show an average high school GPA of 3.8, meaning that its admitted or enrolled students did really well in their high school courses.

But here is something that has changed a bit in the past decade or two. As Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses have become increasingly popular and as more high schools have started to weight students’ grades in those courses (and sometimes in their own honors courses as well), we have seen a rise in high school GPAs. In other words, when a student in a high school with weighted grades gets an A in a regular course, that A is worth a 4.0. But if a student in a high school with weighted grades gets an A in an Advanced Placement course, that A is worth a 5.0. The grade has more “weight.”

If a student in a high school with weighted grades takes a handful of Advanced Placement courses and gets an A in every one (worth a 5.0 every time) and an A in every other course (worth a 4.0 every time), that student’s GPA will be higher than a 4.0, for obvious mathematical reasons. Now, of course, that is unlikely to happen; but, when a student in a high school with weighted grades gets a B in an Advanced Placement course, for example, it is worth a 4.0, which will help his or her GPA more than a B in a regular course, which is worth only a 3.0.

Whether your high school does or does not weight course grades is something that should be part of the high school narrative profile that your high school’s counselor will send off to colleges with students’ high school transcripts. So that is helpful to colleges in judging your teenager’s GPA.

Nonetheless, one effect of all of this weighting of high school course grades appears to be that average high school GPAs of incoming freshmen seem to be on the rise. We can tell this anecdotally by the fact that many colleges we profiled in our virtual nationwide tour of colleges (Episodes 27 through 53), including some not super-selective ones, post surprisingly high average GPAs for the incoming freshmen class–over a 3.5, for example. Perhaps college-bound high school kids as a whole group have gotten much, much brighter, but I am not convinced of that.

So, look carefully at the average high school GPAs that colleges are putting out there and prepare to be surprised. And, keep in mind, that some colleges will not provide one.

3. High School Class Rank

There have been a number of stories in the education media lately about school districts that do not want to name valedictorians any longer. Why? Because they have found that the competition for that spot sometimes comes down to a thousandth of a point in that GPA we just discussed and, further, because they have found that kids are so focused on getting that extra-high GPA that they will actually not take high school courses they would otherwise take to broaden their studies–or should take to prepare for college–for fear of hurting their GPAs. Wow. Forty years ago, we didn’t see that coming.

Of course, for many years, some high schools have simply not provided class ranks for a variety of reasons, and it is not a requirement from any governmental entity or governing body that high schools must provide class ranks. Similarly, some colleges will simply say they are not available for admitted or enrolled freshmen.

When they are available, class ranks will often be given as the percentage of admitted or enrolled freshmen who ranked in the top 5 percent or 10 percent or 25 percent or in the top tenth or in the top half or in the bottom half and so on of their high school class. Great colleges, for example, will show a very high percentage of admitted or enrolled freshmen in the top 5 percent or top tenth of their high school classes. Figures like these will give your teenager one way to judge how he or she stacks up against admitted or enrolled freshmen at a college, if your teenager has a class rank. And, by the way, some colleges will actually boast about the number of high school valedictorians they have in the freshmen class.

4. Admission Test Scores

Well, we feel as though we have talked about this topic often, including discussions of the colleges that do not require any admission test scores and the colleges that are “test-optional”–that is, when students may provide them or not. Feel free to re-listen to early episodes on this topic.

But, in terms of judging a college’s admission standards, I will say that College Navigator does a good job of providing the percentage of students who submitted SAT and ACT scores as well as the SAT and ACT scores at the 25th percentile of students and at the 75th percentile of students. In other words, 25 percent of students scored at or below the score at the 25th percentile, and 25 percent of students scored above the 75th percentile, according to College Navigator. So, if your teenager’s scores fall above the 75th percentile, that is good. If your teenager’s scores fall right in the middle between the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile, that would be just about average for the college’s admitted or enrolled students. And if your teenager’s scores fall below the 25th percentile, that would not be nearly so promising in terms of being admitted.

Some college websites do provide the actual average, or mean, admission test score, and I find that helpful, too.

One last point, as we have said before. Many colleges that do not require the submission of SAT or ACT scores seem, nonetheless, to receive them from many applicants. Because those scores are usually quite good, it seems obvious that students with good scores do, in fact, supply them to test-optional colleges. How those scores figure into admissions decisions is anybody’s guess. But, I think that the point is this: If you have good SAT or ACT scores, you should probably submit them to test-optional colleges, even though they are not required. There are only perhaps a handful of colleges that say–flat out–that they do not want any test scores sent to them and that they will not use them for any reason, including Hampshire College, one of my favorites.

These three pieces of information–average high school GPA, high school class rank, and SAT or ACT scores–will give you one reasonable indication of whether a college your teenager is interested in should be kept on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. But don’t go throwing any colleges off just yet. There is plenty of time to do that later on.

Download the Assignment #2 Worksheet

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $1.99 all summer long! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

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Episode 72: A Different Look at College Acceptance Rates

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.

A Different Look at #College Acceptance Rates on USACollegeChat #podcast

As some families and kids are struggling with the results of college acceptance time (and, by the way, those families might include ones with great students who got into great colleges, but just not into the great college they had hoped for), we thought that the episode today might lighten the mood around your homes. Please listen to our episode to hear excerpts from two intelligent and provocative articles, published in the past month — €”one by The New York Times and one by The Baltimore Sun.

First, sit back and enjoy some excerpts from Frank Bruni’€™s op-ed piece, entitled “College Admissions Shocker!”€ It is a tongue-in-cheek look at the super-low college acceptance rates that
some elite colleges are boasting about right now. We guarantee you some smiles and probably some laughs.

Then, think with us about Ron Wolk’€™s innovative — €”and perhaps truly intriguing — notion about college admissions at elite colleges, as spelled out in his article, entitled “€œA lottery for elite institutions.”€ We guarantee you that you will have a thought you never had before.

Enjoy this episode. We will be back next week with a look at how to pay for college.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

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Episode 62: New Admissions Report Focuses on Student Service—Part Two

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This is our eighth episode focusing on news stories about higher education—some that might immediately change your thoughts about colleges for your teenager and others that might take a bit longer to consider.  Today’s story continues our look at a new report that grew out of a meeting a year ago hosted by a Harvard Graduate School of Education project called Making Caring Common.  As we said in our last episode, the meeting brought together college admissions deans, high school folks, and others to discuss the state of college admissions.  The report is entitled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions.

In our last episode, we also quoted project co-director Richard Weissbourd from a recent Education Week commentary he wrote (“College Admission 2.0: Service Over Self,” January 19, 2016),:

For perhaps the first time in history, a broad range of colleges have come together to send a powerful collective message that what’s important in admissions is not high numbers of impressive accomplishments or long ‘brag sheets.’  Yes, academic engagement matters, but so does meaningful ethical engagement, especially as shown in concern for others and the common good.  The report also redefines ethical and intellectual contributions to more fairly capture the strengths of students across race, culture, and class.  (quoted from the article)

Again, I hope this is true, but the jury is still out, as they say.  To repeat, the report was endorsed by an impressive list of higher education administrators from impressive institutions—that is, every Ivy League school plus about 50 more higher education institutions, including some of our nation’s best small liberal arts colleges, best public flagship universities, and best private universities, including Amherst College, Boston College, Boston University, Bowdoin College, Brandeis University, College of the Holy Cross, Emory University, Kenyon College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Michigan State University, Oberlin College, Purdue University, Reed College, Rice University, Smith College, Swarthmore College, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia, the University of Washington, Wabash College, and Wake Forest University.  Incidentally, we talked about every one of these institutions during our virtual tour of colleges nationwide.  We said it then:  They are great schools.

The question again is simply this:  How much do they mean it?

The Report’s Recommendations

The report makes 11 recommendations.  We talked about the first six in our last episode, so we will pick up where we left off with the final five:

1) “Prioritizing Quality—Not Quantity—of Activities:  Admissions offices should send a clear message that numerous extracurricular activities or long “brag sheets” do not increase students’ chances of admission.  Applications should state plainly that students should feel no pressure to report more than two or three substantive extracurricular activities and should discourage students from reporting activities that have not been meaningful to them.  Applications should provide room to list perhaps no more than four activities or should simply ask students to describe two or three meaningful activities narratively.  Applications should underscore the importance of the quality and not the quantity of students’ extracurricular activities.  Admissions offices should define students’ potential for achievement in terms of the depth of students’ intellectual and ethical engagement and potential.”  (quoted from the report)

All this sounds like an interesting proposition, but one that has not really come to fruition just yet.  So, I don’t think parents can put this advice into practice on their teenager’s college application forms this year.  What parents can do is make sure that their teenagers have two or three activities that are important to them, that they do for a sustained period of time, and ideally that they excel in.  These activities should be highlighted in whatever ways are possible—like in an essay, for example, and listed first in any list of activities that is made on an application.  Of course, it is hard to be the first applicant to list just two or three or four activities; most of us are going to wait until all applicants agree to do that.  My feeling is that colleges could easily limit the number of activities to be listed to four (including sports teams)—the top four, according to the student’s own judgment of what was important to him or her—and that additional activities past four don’t really add much to an admissions officer’s view of that student.  I am not sure how many students can do more than four things after school hours that are truly valuable to them.

2)Awareness of Overloading on AP/IB Courses:  Admissions offices should convey to students that simply taking large numbers of AP or IB courses per year is often not as valuable as sustained achievement in a limited number of areas. While some students can benefit from and handle large numbers of AP/IB courses, many students benefit from taking smaller numbers of advanced courses. Too often there is the perception that these students are penalized in the admissions process.  At the same time, it’s vital to increase access to advanced courses for large numbers of students in schools without access to adequately challenging courses.”  (quoted from the report)

Well, personally I agree with this recommendation wholeheartedly, but I am not sure I could convince any high school guidance counselor or principal or bright student or ambitious parent.  And, I am not sure that even all of the admissions officers in the 60 or so colleges that endorsed this report would agree with this recommendation.  Everybody who knows bright high school kids these days has a horror story of a kid taking two or three AP courses at a time—sometimes as a junior.  I have to admit that, when a student is filling out his or her senior-year courses on a college application, it feels bad never to check off that the course is an AP or honors or college-credit course.  Do we hope that all kids have access to advanced courses, including dual-credit, dual-enrollment, or Early College courses?  We do.  Do we hope that kids get sound advice when choosing which advanced courses to take and how many to take simultaneously?  We absolutely do.

3)Discouraging ‘Overcoaching’:  Admissions offices should warn students and parents that applications that are ‘overcoached’ can jeopardize desired admission outcomes.  Admissions officers, guidance counselors and other stakeholders should remind parents and students that authenticity, confidence, and honesty are best reflected in the student’s original voice. Admission officers should consider inviting students (and families) to reflect on the ethical challenges they faced during the application process.”  (quoted from the report)

I think this is probably old news.  No one wants kids to get so much help with their college applications that everything written in them sounds like a paid adult consultant wrote it.  That would be “overcoaching.”  However, let’s also understand that most kids, including and perhaps especially the very brightest kids, do get some help with their applications—discussions about essay topics, proofreading of essays, discussions about what activities to include, and more.  That’s not really going to change—not while admissions to selective institutions are as competitive as they are.  The most I feel comfortable saying to parents is this:  “Don’t be too aggressive in dealing with your kids.  Don’t substitute your ideas for theirs.  And get help for your teenager from an impartial adult, if your teenager seems overwhelmed by your advice.”

4)Options for Reducing Test Pressure:  Admissions offices should work to relieve undue pressure associated with admission tests (SAT and ACT). Options for reducing this pressure include:  making these tests optional, clearly describing to applicants how much these tests actually “count” and how they are considered in the admissions process, and discouraging students from taking an admissions test more than twice.  Colleges should tell students that taking the test more than twice is very unlikely to meaningfully improve students’ scores.  Colleges should also be asked to justify the use of admissions tests by providing data that indicates how scores are related to academic performance at their particular institution.”  (quoted from the report)

Well, this is a mixture of interesting statements.  We have talked about test-optional and test-flexible colleges in earlier episodes of NYCollegeChat and in our book, How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students (available in print and electronically at Amazon.com).  We have said that some of our finest colleges have become test-optional or test-flexible colleges and that the list of those colleges seems to keep growing.  I do want to point out that, when applying to most of these test-optional colleges, students may still submit SAT or ACT scores if they choose to (meaning, if the scores are good and they think it will help their chances of being accepted).  When we look at the average admission test scores of students who submitted them to some test-optional colleges, we see that many, many students still submitted them and that the scores are usually quite good.  There are very, very few colleges that actually say anything like this:  “Do not send any test scores.  We will not use test scores in any way whatsoever in admission decisions or in course placement decisions once accepted.”  We know of one, for sure.  Listen to what Hampshire College says on its website:

Unlike ‘test-optional’ institutions, we will not consider SAT/ACT scores regardless of the score. Even if it’s a perfect score, it will not weigh into our assessment of an applicant.

Many colleges have adopted test-optional policies to compensate for the gender, class, racial and ethnic biases that have been found with standardized testing.  In this case students can decide whether or not to have them considered as part of their application. We are test-blind because we found through our own internal research that in addition to being biased, these standardized tests are poor predictors of success at Hampshire.  (quoted from the website)

That is an unusually extreme—and very intriguing—position.  It also answers the last part of the report’s recommendation:  “Colleges should also be asked to justify the use of admissions tests by providing data that indicates how scores are related to academic performance at their particular institution.”  When other colleges adopted a test-optional policy, some did provide their own internal research—like Bryn Mawr College, for example.  Nonetheless, I am not convinced that this report has the power to get many more colleges to take this particular step.  And finally, there was this statement:  “Colleges should tell students that taking the test more than twice is very unlikely to meaningfully improve students’ scores.”  As a matter of fact, that depends entirely on what students did between test takings.  For example, a student who took a prep course (especially a commercial one) after a second test taking could likely raise his or her scores before a third test taking.  Furthermore, if a student took the test first as a junior, then for a second time right at the beginning of the senior year, and then for a third time toward the end of the first semester of the senior year, I believe that third set of scores could be better—especially if a student had not been too motivated in the first two attempts.

5)Expanding Students’ Thinking about ‘Good’ Colleges:  Admissions officers and guidance counselors should challenge the misconception that there are only a handful of excellent colleges and that only a handful of colleges create networks that are vital to job success.  It is incumbent upon parents to challenge this misconception as well.  There is a broad range of excellent colleges across the country, and students who attend these colleges are commonly successful later in life in the full array of professions.  There are many paths to professional success, and students and parents should be far more concerned with whether a college is a good fit for a student than how high status it is.  Finally, we are keenly aware that reforming college admissions is only one piece of a far larger challenge.  Ultimately, we cannot bring about a sea change in the messages our culture sends to young people unless educational institutions at every level elevate and embody a healthier set of values.  While this change needs to start or accelerate from multiple points, we view our recommendations as one powerful place to begin.  In the face of deeply troubling trends that only seem to be worsening, it is time to say ‘Enough.’ ”  (quoted from the report)

It is easy to applaud that sentiment.  And it is true—as we have said repeatedly on NYCollegeChat episodes, including during our virtual tour of colleges nationwide—that there are many good colleges and some truly unique colleges that most high school students never even consider.  Nonetheless, if you listened to Episode 59, you will remember that another research report said quite clearly that high-achieving students who go to selective colleges fare better—both in college and after college.  So, what does it all mean?  We think it means what we said in Episode 59:  You should send your teenager to the most selective college that admits him or her, if you can afford it with whatever financial aid you can get.  That doesn’t mean that only selective colleges are “good” colleges.  There are many colleges that are super interesting—some might say “very good”—that are not extremely selective.  And there are many definitions of “selective”—“most selective,” “highly selective,” “very selective,” and so on.  But, with all that said, we still would like to see your teenager in the most selective college that will admit him or her.

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