Episode 146: The Biggest College Application Mistake You Are About To Make

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As you head into December and draw near to the looming college application deadlines that follow in the first two weeks of January, we are sure you have a lot on your minds, parents.  Almost all of you are worried about how you are going to pay for whatever college your teenager eventually enrolls in. Most of you are worried about whether your teenager is going to get into his or her first choice.  Many of you are worried about whether your teenager will get into any of his or her top several choices.  Some of you are worried about whether your teenager will get into any of the colleges that are your top choices for him or her.  And a few of you, undoubtedly, are worried about whether your teenager will get into any college at all.

But, here is something you already know:  Parents, you have no control over what colleges choose to admit your teenager, so you might as well stop worrying about that.  On the other hand, here is something else you already know, but rarely think as hard about as that first thing:  Parents, you have plenty of control over the number of applications your teenager submits.  And that is the subject of this episode on the biggest college application mistake you are about to make.

1. What Is the Mistake?

This mistake that you and your teenager are about to make could be the biggest mistake of the whole college application process that has been going on in your family perhaps for the past six months–or longer.  And the mistake couldn’t be simpler to recognize or easier to correct.

Quite simply, make sure that your teenager applies to enough colleges.  If there are a few colleges that you aren’t quite sure about even at this point in December, our advice would be to go ahead and have your teenager apply to them.  One might be a reach school that your teenager hasn’t quite gotten out of his or her system.  Another might be a target school that you thought your teenager didn’t need because he or she had enough of those on the list.  Another might be a safety school that was an interesting idea, but a bit outside your comfort zone.  Frankly, it doesn’t matter what those additional colleges might be.  Just go ahead and have your teenager apply.  Why?  Because having colleges to choose from next April is priceless, as they say.

2. Looking at the Numbers

When we took up this topic about 18 months ago (way back in Episode 77), we quoted from an article by Mike McPhate in The New York Times on April 11, 2016, which explained that students were applying to more colleges than they used to:

In 1990, just 9 percent of students applied to seven or more schools, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.  By 2013, that group had grown to 32 percent. (quoted from the article)

And, if I had to guess, based on all the articles we read and chatter we hear, I would say that the 32 percent is likely still higher now in the 2017-2018 round of applications.

You already know all of the reasons for that rise in the number of applications–from the fact that The Common Application now makes it so easy to apply to additional colleges with just the click of a button–at least when those additional colleges don’t have supplementary application questions and essays to complete–to lots of talk about how certain colleges are receiving record numbers of applications and, therefore, lowering their acceptance rates.  According to a U.S. News & World Report article by Delece Smith-Barrow last September, California placed eight public institutions on the list of the 10 U.S. colleges that received the most applications for fall, 2016.  Great for public California higher education institutions, maybe not so great for California kids!  As we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, UCLA had over 102,000 freshman applicants for this past fall, up another approximately 5,000 applications from the 2016 number in this news article.  Joining UCLA on the list are five other University of California campuses (including the flagship UC Berkeley campus, with about 82,000 applications), two California State University campuses, and two private universities whose names make them sound public:  New York University and Boston University.  Each of these institutions received more than 57,000 applications almost two years ago now.

Of course, as more students apply to more colleges for fear they won’t get into any, more applications are received by each college, and the whole thing becomes a vicious cycle.  You might recall that we have talked recently about the fact that high school graduates are shrinking in number and, consequently, that college enrollment is also shrinking.  Experts say that the worst of the admissions crunch might be over for high school seniors and their parents.  Nonetheless, we have also noted that the great colleges and the most selective colleges (which might or might not always be the same thing) are not really hurting for applicants.  And, I don’t think ever will be in my lifetime.  So, getting into top colleges and getting into popular colleges (again, which might or might not be the same thing) will still be a concern for lots of you out there, for sure.

By the way, according to The Common Application website, the “total number of applications submitted through November 1[of this year] was 1,518,131 (+20% over 2016) from 510,912 unique applicants (+13.3% over 2016).”  By November 15, that number was up to almost 2 million applications and another 100,000 unique applicants.  So, it’s not just that more applications are being made; it’s that more are being made under Early Decision and Early Action plans.  And we have said that before, too.

According to a Common Application spokeswoman about 18 months ago, about 4 or 5 applications is what the typical student submitted for admission in fall, 2017.  Of course, in addition, this typical student could have submitted applications to colleges that do not use The Common App, but my guess is that would perhaps just add one or two colleges to the list.

3. What Is the Magic Number?

So, what is the magic number of applications to submit?  The first thing to say is that, according to The College Board’s website, there is no magic number.  I am sorry to hear that because I was hoping there was a magic number that we could just tell all of you and you could quit worrying about it!  But The College Board’s website goes on to say that 5 to 8 applications are usually sufficient to get a good match for a student.

In a more recent July article also by Delece Smith-Barrow at U.S. News & World Report, Ms. Smith-Barrow quotes Matthew Proto, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at Colby College, a lovely liberal arts college in Waterville, Maine, as saying, “I don’t know if there is an actual best number.” But she goes on to note:

While there may not be a specific number applicants should aim for, experts say, there is a specific range. Prospective students should have between four and eight schools on their list, experts say. (quoted from the article)

Interesting, because I don’t think that we actually agree with this advice, generally speaking.  The article also says this:

Applicants should carefully weigh the number of schools where they’ll submit applications to maximize their chances of being a strong candidate, and to avoid the drawbacks that can come with applying to too many or too few schools, admissions experts say.

Applying takes work, experts say, and submitting applications to a large number of schools may ruin the quality of the prospective student’s applications. (quoted from the article)

Really?  A drawback to applying to too many colleges is that you will have to work hard on each application so that each one is of high quality?  I would say this to students: “Get over it.  If you can’t work hard enough to do a bunch of applications over perhaps four months (when most of them are maybe 80 percent the same), then I am worried about your chances of succeeding in any college.  Really.”

While we have talked in plenty of other episodes about the variety of colleges we think your teenager should have on the list of colleges he or she will actually apply to (different sizes, different locations, both public and private institutions), we are not going to go into that here.  Today is just a numbers game.

So, what is the right number?  Every expert (you just heard from a couple of them) and every college counselor has a number.  Some of these numbers–like the 4 to 8 or the 5 to 8 we just heard–seem low to me, but maybe that’s because I like teenagers to have plenty of good options available to them next April.

In our first book (How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students, still available through Amazon), Marie and I offered a recommendation of applying to 8 to 12 colleges.  We do know that most–though not all–applications cost money.  We also know that, if you are eligible, you can get fee waivers for many of them.  And, since those of you who listen often already know that I am not very cost sensitive about a decision this important to your teenager’s future, I am going to suggest that several hundred dollars (to even $1,000) spent now on application fees might save your family a lot of heartache next spring.

Now, I am going to say, like the late great Jerry Orbach said in Dirty Dancing, “When I’m wrong, I say I’m wrong.”  When Marie and I did our most recent book How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students (also available at Amazon), we said that 15 college applications is probably a sensible average, plus or minus 5.  So, that’s a bit more than our earlier advice.  We are pretty sure that we are right this time, and we trust that you can keep your teenager working through this month to produce high-quality applications until the very last one is submitted.  Good luck!

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Episode 130: Opening Your Eyes About College Options

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We are in the second week of our new series, Researching College Options. Now that it’s August and high school students in some parts of the country will actually be returning to school this month for their senior year, it’s time to get to work. So, for this new series, we are going to be talking directly to you, parents of high school seniors. Hang on because it can be a bumpy ride.

In this episode, we are going to read you some excerpts from what we call Step 1 in our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students. Step 1 of what you might ask? Well, it’s Step 1 of making a good decision about where to apply to college. Like all first steps, it is important–maybe the most important–and a little scary. But like all first steps, if your senior skips it, things are not likely to go as smoothly as you and he or she might have hoped. If you need more help, more examples, or more fun stories, go get the book at amazon.com.

1. Just Expand the College List

So, the second chapter of our book opens in a very unpleasant way. Here is what we wrote to your senior:

This chapter focuses on something that you are just about to do totally wrong. Really, totally wrong. In fact, our advice in this chapter is probably the opposite of what many school counselors and college consultants are telling you as you start a serious consideration of where to apply . . . . We bet they are telling you to start by narrowing your list of colleges, but we would like you to start by expanding your list of colleges.

There is plenty of time later to narrow down your options–once you get to . . . October or November . . . . While expanding your list might seem unnecessary, time consuming, or even wasteful, we believe that expanding your options now could mean the difference between an okay college choice and a great college choice for you later.

In other words, taking off from what we talked about last week, having your senior expand his or her options now could mean the difference eventually between just an okay college “fit” and a great college “fit.” And that could be the difference between graduating on time and not graduating on time–or even graduating at all. (Regular listeners: You know what we think about graduating from college on time–that is, in the traditional four years. It’s one of the best ways around to save money, and it might just let your kid go to his or her first choice, even if the annual sticker price on that choice is a bit higher than you all had hoped.)

2. That Dreaded Geographic Comfort Zone

So, what stands between your senior and that great college fit? It might well be the dreaded geographic comfort zone. As we said to your senior in our book, there is nothing we dislike more than your “geographic comfort zone.” Here is what we wrote:

The great majority of high school graduates who go to college choose a college in their home state?perhaps as many as 70 percent of them. Undoubtedly, you have one or more colleges in your home state on your list of college options right now. That’s okay with us. However, what’s NOT okay is to have nothing BUT colleges in your home state on your list.

Here’s why: It’s a big world out there. There are so many intriguing colleges in it that we hate for you to limit yourself to those nearby. We hate for you to limit yourself to those that are likely to have a majority of students a lot like you from the same part of the country as you. Your first step in making a list of college options should NOT be to narrow down the choices and to close off opportunities. You should NOT be settling either for colleges that are nearby or for colleges that you and your parents and your school counselor already know a lot about.

We know that there are some good reasons for kids to stay close to home for college. We understand that some families want to keep their kids close to home for cultural reasons, perhaps in order to participate in family events or religious activities. We understand that some families need to have their kids stay at home in order to help with family responsibilities. Those reasons are hard to argue against.

We know that staying close to home might make going to college more affordable for some families, especially if living at home saves on housing expenses. But we also know that it is hard to know in advance how generous a financial aid package might be from an out-of-state college. [Just look back at Episode 127 if you don’t believe us on that one!] Did you know that some states offer an attractive discount at their public colleges to students who come from nearby states? We bet you didn’t. Check out, for example, the Midwest Student Exchange Program or the Western Undergraduate Exchange or the New England Regional Student Program, if you live in those regions of the country, [or the University of Maine’s new tuition program for nonresidents].

We also know that you can sometimes get into a better college when it is far from home. Why? Because almost every college likes the idea of geographic diversity in its student body. Colleges like to claim that they draw students “from all 50 states and from 100 foreign countries.” You will see this kind of statement on many college websites. Pay attention, because you might be far more attractive to a college halfway across the country than to one in your own back yard. That’s because you will give that faraway college bragging rights. This is especially true for private colleges that do not have the same mission to serve students in their own state as public colleges do.

We also know that some parents just can’t imagine sending their kids away from home for the first time. In fact, you might not be able to imagine leaving home for the first time. But, we encourage you and your parents to think hard about that. Isn’t college the perfect time to make that break–a time when you can live somewhere else under the supervision of college staff in relatively secure surroundings, a time when you can learn to function as an adult in a safe environment (that is, learn to manage your money, do your work, plan your time, and make new friends)?

We urge you (and your parents) to get outside your family’s geographic comfort zone. You have nothing to lose at this stage in the process. Researching colleges outside your hometown, outside your state, and outside your region doesn’t mean you have to attend one of them–or even apply to one of them. But it does mean that you will have the information that you need to make a better decision when the time comes.

I really can’t make any better case for getting outside your geographic comfort zone than that. Here is what we wrote to your senior about how to do it:

Conveniently, the Bureau of Economic Analysis has divided the U.S. into eight regions:

  • Far West–California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Hawai?i, Alaska
  • Rocky Mountains–Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Utah
  • Southwest–Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas
  • Plains–Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota
  • Southeast–Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia
  • Great Lakes–Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio
  • Mideast–Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, District of Columbia
  • New England–Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine

However, we thought that the Bureau stuffed too many states into the Southeast; so, we divided the Southeast into two regions (southern and northern), and you should, too. That will give you nine regions to investigate.

We used these nine regions when we did our virtual college tour [at USACollegeChat]. You should listen to the tour in Episodes 27 through 53 of our podcast or simply read the show notes at usacollegechat.org. . . .

We thought hard about how you should create what we will call your Long List of College Options?your LLCO, for short. We decided to start with this advice:

Make sure that you have at least two four-year colleges in each of the nine geographic regions of the U.S. on your LLCO.

So, that would give you at least 18 four-year colleges. But, our guess is that your list already had some regions covered with more than two colleges–especially the region you live in. That’s fine. Have as many colleges on your LLCO as you like from each region. But don’t ignore any region! That’s what it means to get outside your geographic comfort zone.

3. How To Find College Options

We hope that we have convinced you. If we have, we don’t ever have to bring it up again. Here is what we wrote to your senior about what to do next:

How should you choose the colleges for your LLCO? Well, you probably know about some colleges already–from family, friends, school counselors, and teachers. You should discover some more from our virtual college tour, in which we talk about several hundred four-year colleges. You might find some more through a variety of online searches and quick looks at those college websites. Remember, you don’t need too much information about each one just to put it on your LLCO.

You will soon see that you can learn a lot from reading a college website. Furthermore, you can learn not only about that one college, but also about colleges in general and about what to look for on the next website you go to. It’s an education in itself. You really need an education ABOUT higher education.

By the way, don’t start looking at two-year colleges, or community colleges, yet. Two-year colleges can easily be added to your LLCO closer to application time, partly because their applications are typically less demanding to complete. We are also assuming that you are most likely to attend a two-year college in or near your hometown and, therefore, you will not need to do much investigating before applying.

We do have some reservations about two-year colleges, especially for students who have just graduated from high school and are moving directly into college full time. We know that two-year colleges are a great choice for saving money and for helping kids who need a bit more maturity or a bit more academic preparation before heading into college. . . . However, we worry because student graduation rates and student transfer rates from two-year colleges to four-year colleges are scandalously low, and we worry about what opportunities end up being closed off for too many kids.

But back to your LLCO. Those of you who have listened to our podcast or read the show notes know that this suggestion is coming:

Make sure that you have at least one college that is not in the U.S. on your LLCO.

This is a favorite topic of ours, and we can’t say enough about it. There are truly great options outside the U.S. We hope that every one of you will take advantage of studying abroad for at least a semester, no matter where you end up in college. Studying abroad is for everyone these days–not just for rich kids, not just for kids studying foreign languages, not just for kids at private liberal arts colleges. But you can actually study outside the U.S. for more than a semester or even for more than one year; you can simply go to a college outside the U.S. full time for four years.

So, you must be up to at least 19 colleges on your LLCO–likely more. But we can’t resist one last piece of advice:

Make sure that you have at least two public flagship universities on your LLCO–probably one from your home state plus one more.

We say this to ensure that you have some great public options to consider. Maybe you already had them when your chose two colleges from every region, but add them if you didn’t. To be clear, we mean public “flagships,” not just any public universities–though you are also free to put other public universities on your LLCO. If you are an excellent student, the public flagship in your home state is likely to be your very best choice for a “safety school” (with some exceptions, like California, which can’t accommodate all of the excellent students in their own state). If you can’t identify the public flagship in your own state or in most other states, you aren’t ready to be choosing colleges yet. Go learn about all 50 of them on our virtual college tour.

As we have said numerous times in our podcast episodes, public flagship universities might be the hidden jewels in the college landscape. They are often the very best place high school kids in those states can imagine going. Why? Because they are relatively inexpensive for state residents (because they are public), academically respectable (even outstanding), well regarded across the state and across the country, competitive in sports arenas, chocked full of student clubs and activities, within driving distance of home, and a social hub for lots of their high school classmates. They are often truly the place to be, if you live in that state.

As with everything, some states have better public flagship universities than others, and some public flagship universities are better funded by their states than others. Nonetheless, we are convinced that you can find at least two that you think might be great for you.

Well, that is a lot of colleges: colleges from nine geographic regions, one or more colleges from outside the U.S., and a couple of public flagships from your state and/or someone else’s. Of course, don’t forget to ask your parents and other important family members and teachers and school counselors for input about colleges to put on your LLCO. For right now, the more, the better–at least within reason. But our “within reason” is probably a lot bigger than your “within reason.” Remember that your senior is not necessarily applying to all of the colleges on his or her LLCO. Your senior is just going to start gathering the information he or she and you would need in order to decide whether it is worth applying. We will start talking about that information gathering next week–that is, what information to gather and how to gather it. So, stay tuned.

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