Episode 176: Why the College’s Admissions Practices Matter–Obviously

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Well, this is where it gets serious. Researching Step 13 will give you and your son or daughter an idea about how likely it is that he or she will be accepted by a college. Of course, no one can say for sure whether your kid’s grades or admission test scores or extracurricular and community service activities or letters of recommendation will be appealing enough to get him or her admitted to a particular college. But several academic hurdles might turn out to be what stands between your kid and one or more colleges on his or her LLCO (that famous Long List of College Options). Your kid will need to use both each college’s website and College Navigator to research this crucial topic and to answer Questions 40 through 49 on admission practices.   Just to remind you, these steps are based on our workbook How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students (for further information, get one at Amazon).

While we could talk for days about admissions practices and while many consultants and their websites do only that, we will keep it brief for now. Let’s start with one complication in researching this topic, as we explained to students in the workbook:

You need to figure out whether the data you are examining are for “admitted” students or for “enrolled freshmen.” These two groups are obviously not the same because many students who are admitted to a college do not actually enroll. Since you are trying to figure out whether you will be admitted, using “admitted” student data, when available, is probably the better choice; however, either set of data will give you an idea of the caliber of the applicants a college accepts.

Start by looking up the colleges on your LLCO on College Navigator and going to the Admissions section of the college profile. These data will be for “enrolled first-time students.” Helpful data are presented clearly in this section.

Then check each college’s website. Some colleges do a great job of presenting data on admitted students or enrolled freshmen, and others simply do not. Some colleges make it easy by providing a page of facts and figures about the new freshman class–sometimes called a Class Profile (of students who enrolled) or an Admitted Student Profile (of students who were admitted, but did not necessarily enroll). However, it is not always easy to locate this page (though it is often in the Admission section of the website). If you can find the common data set on the website, you will want to look under the third part: C. First-Time, First-Year (Freshman) Admission.

Question 40 asks students to check off whether the data they will be using are for admitted students or for enrolled freshmen. In a few cases, it might be both. Remember to try to use comparable data when comparing colleges. For a more detailed discussion about where to find each piece of data we are going to discuss now, check out the workbook.

1. Acceptance Rate

Let’s start with a college’s acceptance rate. Here is what we said in the workbook:

One way to judge the selectivity of a college is by looking at the number of students it accepts compared to the number of students who applied. Let’s call this “acceptance rate.” You should understand that, generally speaking, colleges like to boast that they have a low acceptance rate; that makes them feel more exclusive. There are many ways for a college to manipulate its acceptance rate, such as by encouraging applicants who are really not qualified and who will be rejected when they apply–a practice that is just as mean-spirited as it sounds. There have even been some news stories, opinion columns, and general criticism lately of colleges that seem overly impressed with their own super-low acceptance rates–say, below 10 percent.

Without looking too closely at small differences in acceptance rates (like the difference in selectivity of a college with a 15 percent acceptance rate and a college with an 18 percent acceptance rate), you should know that the higher that acceptance rate is, the better chance you probably have of being admitted. While some well-known top-ranked private colleges have acceptance rates below 20 percent, some well-respected high-ranked private colleges and great public flagship universities have acceptance rates closer to 30 percent. And other excellent public flagship universities have acceptance rates closer to 50 percent. . . . Keep in mind that you will want to have some colleges on your LLCO with acceptance rates around 40 percent or better–just to be safe.

Question 41 asks students simply to jot down the percent of applicants admitted to the college.

2. High School Grade Point Average (GPA)

And this next topic, high school GPA, comes as no surprise. We wrote:

For many, but not all, colleges, you will be able to find the full distribution of high school GPAs and the average high school GPA of the students enrolled in the freshman class by looking [at] the common data set on the college’s website. You also might find it on a Class Profile sheet on the website. . . .

This average high school GPA will be on a 4-point scale. For example, a great college might show an average high school GPA of 3.8, meaning that its enrolled freshmen did extremely well in their high school courses.

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), there has been a rise in high school GPAs. . . .

One effect of all of this weighting of high school course grades appears to be that average high school GPAs of incoming freshmen are on the rise. We can tell this anecdotally by the fact that many colleges we profiled in our virtual college tour, including some not super-selective ones, post surprisingly high average GPAs well over a 3.5 for the incoming freshman class.

Question 42 asks students to jot down the average high school GPA of enrolled freshmen.

3. High School Class Rank

Question 43 asks students to jot down whatever information they can find on the distribution of students by class rank. As you may know, class rank is an issue in today’s high schools. Here is an explanation, written for students:

For many, but not all, colleges, you will be able to find the full distribution of high school class ranks of the students enrolled in the freshman class by looking [at] the common data set on a college’s website; there you will also find the percent of students who actually submitted a class rank. . . .

You also might find class rank information on a Class Profile sheet on the website, where one college we profiled actually publicized the number of enrolled students who were named valedictorian (a #1 class rank) of their graduating class. . . .

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. Furthermore, they have found that students are so focused on getting that extra-high GPA that they will actually NOT take high school courses they would otherwise have taken in order to broaden their studies–or should take in order to prepare for college–for fear of hurting their GPAs. That is a crying shame.

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 government office or governing body that high schools must provide class ranks. Similarly, some colleges will simply say that class ranks are not available for admitted or enrolled freshmen.

So, if your kid’s high school provides class ranks, we hope your kid has a high one. But if it does not, maybe that’s just as well these days.

4. Test-Optional or Test-Flexible Colleges

Every so often, it seems that we end up talking about test-optional and test-flexible colleges in an episode. There is always something to say because the list of such colleges keeps growing and because increasingly prestigious colleges are being added to it each year. As you probably know by now, a test-optional college means that students do not have to submit SAT or ACT test scores; a test-flexible college means that students are given a choice among various types of test scores to submit.

However, we have noticed that many colleges that do not require the submission of SAT or ACT scores receive them, nonetheless, from many applicants. Because those scores are usually quite good, according to the data provided by the college, it is evident that students with good scores do, in fact, supply them even to test-optional colleges. How those scores figure into admissions decisions is anybody’s guess. Here is our advice: If your kid has good SAT or ACT scores, he or she should probably submit them to test-optional colleges, even though they are not required.

There are perhaps only a handful of colleges that say that they absolutely do NOT want any test scores sent to them and that they will NOT use them at all for any reason, including well-regarded Hampshire College, which makes a crystal clear statement on its website about this subject.

So, Question 44 asks students to check off whether the college is a test-optional or test-flexible college. This information can turn out to be very important for students who do not have good SAT or ACT scores, but it likely won’t matter at all for students who have good ones.

5. SAT and ACT Scores

And speaking of those SAT and ACT scores, Question 45 asks students to jot down SAT and ACT scores, by subtest, as provided by a college in a variety of ways. For example, the common data set on college websites provides the following test data:

  • The percent of students who submitted SAT and ACT scores
  • The SAT and ACT scores, by subtest, 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 at or above the score at the 75th percentile)
  • The full distribution of SAT and ACT scores, by subtest

If your kid’s scores fall above the 75th percentile of scores for a college’s students, that is good. If your kid’s scores fall right in the middle between the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile, that would be just about average for that college’s students. But if your kid’s scores fall close to or below the 25th percentile, that would not be nearly so promising in terms of his or her chances of being admitted.

Until further notice, let us assert that SAT and ACT scores do matter. Sometimes all of us wish they didn’t. And while it’s true that, for some colleges, the scores don’t matter nearly so much, it’s also true that having good test scores is always a plus when applying to most colleges. That’s just the way it is.

And for some, mostly elite colleges, SAT Subject Tests are still required or are, at least, recommended for admission–sometimes one, sometimes two, sometimes three, and sometimes certain ones. I imagine that a tough policy on requiring SAT Subject Test scores could mean that a student would not apply to a particular college. On the other hand, if your kid is applying to top-tier colleges, double checking on SAT Subject Test requirements EARLY is critical. Question 47 asks students whether any SAT Subject Tests are either required or recommended for admission and, if so, the specifics about those tests.

6. High School Courses

Finally, let’s look at one last admission standard–one that is less often considered and more often taken for granted–and that is the courses that applicants are expected to have taken in high school, usually listed in terms of credits (or Carnegie units) in each subject area, but also sometimes including specific courses, especially in math and science.

On a college’s website, this information can virtually always be found by starting with the Admission home page. Students will find that the high school course or credit expectations of colleges do, in fact, differ, usually according to how selective the college is. This is a favorite topic of ours here at USACollegeChat, so I am going to refer you to Episode 162 on this topic, which we did quite recently. It says it all! But just to remind you: The courses that your kid takes in high school matter, including the courses that he or she takes as a senior.

Questions 48 and 49 ask students to jot down the number of high school credits/courses that are required by a college and, separately, that are recommended by a college in each subject and, then, to jot down any specific courses that are required or recommended.

Well, that’s 10 questions on college admission practices. I think that’s enough. Stay tuned for next week’s finale.

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Episode 13: Focus on Students with Academic Issues

This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by talking about student with academic challenges.

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This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by talking about how options for students with academic issues.

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Focus on Students with Academic Issues on  NYCollegeChat podcast

Every student’s high school record is not as perfect as his or her parents might wish. The two most common problems are that the GPA (that is, the grade point average of high school courses) is not as high as it could be or should be or that the SAT or ACT scores (that is, the scores on the standardized college entrance examinations) are not as high as they could be or should be. Either of these problems makes choosing colleges to apply to a tense discussion.

Who is in the more difficult situation? Is it a student whose high school GPA is lower than ideal for whatever reason—sports teams, time-consuming hobbies or other outside activities, interest in the opposite sex, laziness, mediocre teachers, or family issues? Or is it a student whose SAT or ACT scores are lower than ideal for whatever reason—unfamiliarity with the test, refusal to study for the test or take practice tests, unavailability or unaffordability of a prep course to get ready for the test, test anxiety, or just a lackadaisical attitude toward standardized tests or college preparation generally? Let’s look at these two scenarios.

1. Students with Mediocre Or Low SAT/ACT Scores

What do we mean by mediocre or low scores? Let’s take the SATs as the example. If a student scores below 600 on any of the SAT subtests (reading, writing, and mathematics), that is a mediocre or low score. Scores in the low 600s are going to be problematic for most selective colleges, too.

Having mediocre or low test scores is likely an easier problem to solve than having mediocre or low high school grades. While students’ SAT or ACT 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 any priority, on these test scores.

If you read the admissions blurbs on college websites, you will quickly see quite a few colleges that declare that SAT or ACT scores are not as important as high school grades and that the real picture of a student comes from the long and hard work the student has—or has not—done in classes over the course of the high school years. Those colleges will state that high school grades will tell them more about a student—about the student’s determination and perseverance and motivation, for example—than his or her performance on one test given on one Saturday morning. Indeed, they will cite research that says that high school grades are a better predictor of college success than standardized test scores—for all of the reasons that common sense would tell you.

For years, a relatively small number of colleges had said that SAT and/or ACT scores were not required in their admissions process. More recently, more colleges have been added to this list—so many, in fact, that this group of colleges now has a name: “test-optional” colleges. One very recent addition to that list is Bryn Mawr College. Professor Marc Schulz, a member of the Bryn Mawr admissions committee was quoted on the Bryn Mawr College website in July, 2014, as saying this: “We looked not just at the national data, but also took a very hard look at our own data over the last several years. It was clear that the standardized tests added very little predictive information after accounting for the strength of applicants’ academic work in high school and the admissions staff’s review of the whole application.”

Here are a few more of the “good” colleges that do not require SAT or ACT scores for admissions (although a student may usually submit the scores if he or she feels they will help the application and “accurately reflect his or her academic ability and potential”): American University, Bard College, Bates College, Bennington College, Bowdoin College, Brandeis University, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Sarah Lawrence College, Smith College, Wake Forest University, and Wesleyan University.

Now, there is also something called “test-flexible” colleges. These are colleges that give students a choice of which standardized test scores to submit during the application process. Some of these policies are more “flexible” than others. Here are a few of the “good” colleges that have some flexibility in choosing test scores to submit: Colby College, Colorado College, Hamilton College, Middlebury College, and New York University.

By the way, you can search for and find all kinds of lists of “test-optional” and “test-flexible” colleges online. But, because admissions policies change from time to time, you really need to 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 home-schooled students and international students, and not for others, like students who are U.S. citizens and went to high school in the U.S.

We will talk more about SATs and ACTs in an upcoming episode in a future series—how to prep for them, when to take them, how many times to take them, what the SAT IIs are, and more.

2. Students with Mediocre Or Low High School Grades

What do we mean by mediocre or low high school grades? If a student has a GPA below 3.0, that is a mediocre or low GPA. GPAs of 3.0 to 3.3 are going to be problematic for most selective colleges, too. If the high school GPA is on a 100-point scale, a GPA in the low 80s or lower is a mediocre or low GPA.

Unfortunately, there are no “high school grades optional” colleges that we know about. Certainly, most colleges will claim to look at the whole picture—a complete profile—of a student during the admissions process; but, that whole picture always includes high school grades. While there can be reasons that high school grades are lower than the student is capable of earning—such as difficult family situations or personal problems or trauma—those reasons would have to be explained compellingly in an essay or an additional letter of some sort to the college. In short, it is very difficult to explain away mediocre or low high school grades.

When a student has mediocre or low high school grades, it is ideal if that student happens to have high SAT or ACT scores. Then, the college can imagine that the student is bright, but perhaps had some reason for not performing as expected in high school classes. None of those reasons would be a great excuse, but some colleges will make an exception for such a student.

However, most students who have mediocre or low high school grades do not have high SAT or ACT scores. For those students, the choice with the highest cost-benefit ratio is probably a public two-year—or maybe public four-year—college. By the way, great public four-year colleges can be just as difficult to get into as private four-year colleges, so many of them are probably out of the running, too.

Instead, look at two-year community college, which gives a student a chance to erase a poor high school record with a better community college record. As we said in our first series, Understanding the World of College, a student who completes an associate’s degree at a two-year college can transfer that entire degree—that is, all the credits that were earned in completing that degree—to a four-year college and be well on the way to earning a four-year bachelor’s degree. When a student has earned that two-year associate’s degree, the spotty high school record is really a thing of the past for most, if not all, four-year colleges.

To be sure, there are four-year public and private colleges that take students with mediocre or low high school grades. The question for parents is whether those colleges have as good a reputation as the kind of four-year public or private college a student might be admitted to after a successful experience at a two-year community college. It might also be a matter of money. Doing the two years at a community college could save money that could then be put into a better four-year college for the final two years.

Of course, for parents of younger students, remind them that there is no easy route to a good college if high school grades are poor.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Using letters of recommendation to good advantage
  • Using the last essay option on the Common Application to good advantage
  • Talking to current seniors who learned the hard way

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