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 131: College Admission Testing, One More Time

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We are in the third week of our new series, Researching College Options, and we are going to talk today about a topic that is unavoidable. It is a topic that we have talked about on several episodes of USACollegeChat and one that we have written about in both of our books for high school students and their parents. The topic is college admission testing–that is, the SAT and the ACT.

Parents, if you have a smart kid who is applying to top-tier colleges, then this episode is especially important for you. But, as it turns out, this episode is also important if you have a great kid with just average high school grades or even not-quite-average high school grades, who might end up in a college that requires some sort of remedial English or math courses for students with borderline or sub-par academic records. Why? Because satisfactory college admission test scores can be the way around those remedial courses, which have a generally bad reputation in higher education. And the statistics show that skipping past those remedial courses could ultimately mean the difference between a student’s graduating and not graduating ever.

In this episode, we are going to read you some excerpts from what we call Step 13 in our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students. Step 13 of what again? Well, it’s Step 13 of getting the information that your kid needs in order to make good choices about where to apply to college. If your kid needs more help, go get the book at amazon.com.

1. Is It Time To Register?

So, why are we skipping all the way to Step 13 when we are just beginning this new series? That’s quite simple. It’s because Step 13 is about a college’s admission practices. And it’s because registration deadlines for the SAT and ACT are looming on the horizon, and we didn’t want you all to run out of time. According to our information, the registration deadline for the October 7 SAT test administration is September 8 (with late registration until September 27), and the deadline for the September 9 ACT test administration is already past, but late registration goes until August 18 (so you might need to hurry).

The chances are good that many of you have brand new high school seniors who have already taken the SAT or ACT at least once, probably last spring. Should your kid take one or both tests again? We would say “yes,” if your kid has done anything at all since the last test that might improve his or her scores–like take practice tests, take a test preparation course, pay more attention in classes in school, or something else. It is unlikely that your kid will do significantly better on the tests if he or she has not done anything to get better prepared since the last testing time.

If your kid has not taken either test yet, it is a good idea to take the SAT on October 7 and/or the ACT on September 9. Why? Because that still gives your kid a chance to take either or both tests a second time this fall, before regular decision applications are due around the first week of January of 2018. The SAT will be administered again on November 4 and the ACT on October 28. To repeat, however, if your kid does nothing to prepare in the intervening weeks between the two SAT or ACT testings this fall, then it is not likely that his or her scores will be much better the second time around.

Another reason that it is a good idea to have your kid take the SAT on October 7 or the ACT on September 9 is to get those scores back in time to submit Early Decision and/or Early Action applications around November 1. Early Decision and Early Action were the focus of Episode 108 and 109, and we would strongly encourage you to go back and listen or re-listen to them now. Understanding these two college admission programs–as annoying and as complicated as they are–could truly make the difference between acceptance and rejection for your kid and between enormous anxiety and mild anxiety from January through March. We can’t stress that enough. While there is some serious calculation that goes into an Early Decision application, as we discuss, there is no downside at all to submitting as many Early Action applications as possible. Really, none.

So, it is time for you to have a serious discussion with your kid about whether he or she should be taking or retaking the SAT and/or ACT on that first fall testing date: again, October 7 for the SAT and September 9 for the ACT. Every kid’s situation is different—how good any earlier scores are, how selective the colleges being considered are, how diligently test preparations are being undertaken, how confident and/or willing your kid is to sit through the test. For kids who are not confident and/or not willing and who have not yet taken either test, there is still November 4 for the SAT and October 28 for the ACT.

2. But Who Needs Test Scores These Days?

You might be thinking about now, “Who needs test scores these days? I thought they were becoming less and less necessary as more and more colleges stopped asking for them.” Well, we address this topic in both of our books and in other episodes of USACollegeChat, but the bottom line is this: Having good test scores to submit is always preferable to not having them. That’s just common sense, and you didn’t need us to tell you that.

Now with that said, are there very-selective and not-very-selective colleges that do not require the submission of SAT or ACT scores? Yes, absolutely, but we hesitate to publish a list because those colleges change every year. Here is what we wrote about that in our new workbook for high school seniors:

The college website is usually quite clear about whether a college is a test-optional college (meaning that students do not have to submit college admission test scores) or a test-flexible college (meaning that students are given a choice of 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, it is evident 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. Here is our advice: 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 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.

And, yes, it is true that many colleges, according to their websites, downplay the role of test scores in the admission process, even when those scores are required. You can believe those disclaimers if you wish. However, I will tell you that we continue to see very good candidates with great grades and great activities and great service to others and only-okay test scores get rejected from colleges that made those claims. So, be sure to have your kid prepare for the tests and get the best SAT and/or ACT scores he or she can.

3. How Good Do the Scores Need To Be?

Once you and your kid have chosen colleges to apply to, you need to get information about the test scores of students who have been admitted to those colleges or who actually have enrolled there. Here is how to get that information for each college on your list, as we explained to students in our new workbook:

To get started, 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 [Long List of College Options] on College Navigator [the online service provided by the National Center for Education Statistics] 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.

We have talked about and written about the common data set before. And, to repeat, it is not always easy to find on a college website; in fact, there are some colleges that I could never find it for. Nonetheless, it is an excellent source of all kinds of useful (and not-so-useful) data about any college you can name. Here are some specifics on this topic of test scores:

In part C9, the common data set does a good job of providing the following testing 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

College Navigator also provides most of this information, if that is easier for you to get to than the common data set.   Some college websites also provide the actual average, or “mean,” admission test score, and that can be handy, too.

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

Remember, even if the college you are researching has declared itself to be a test-optional college, it might provide SAT and ACT information for those students who chose to submit test scores, and that information will be helpful to you.

4. And What About Those SAT Subject Tests?

Just when you thought the testing discussion was done, we have one more topic: the SAT Subject Tests (these are the tests that are in specific high school subjects and are generally thought to be harder than the SAT or ACT). To be clear, many colleges do not require any Subject Tests, but many highly selective colleges still do. So, don’t be surprised! You will need to go to a college’s website to find out how many Subject Tests are required and/or what specific Subject Tests (if any) are required for each college your kid is applying to.

If you are the parent of a high school senior right now, the Subject Test issue is particularly troublesome. Why? Because your kid might need to submit scores from–let’s say–two Subject Tests, your kid was great at biology when she took it two years ago, and now it seems like a long shot for her to go back and take a Subject Test in biology without a lot of studying and review of information learned quite a while ago. The opposite situation is not great, either–that is, your kid took biology as a freshman and took the Subject Test then, when she was in competition with older, more mature, more experienced kids taking the test. Of course, your kid might have taken an AP Biology or Advanced Biology course more recently and, if so, that would be helpful indeed. But let’s remember that every high school kid doesn’t have access to these upper-level courses taken in their later high school years and, for those kids, Subject Tests might prove to be a more difficult problem to solve.

Our point is this: Parents of all high school students, you need to do some advance thinking about Subject Tests during the high school years in order to give your kid the best chance at having a couple of good scores on his or her record. Taking Subject Tests in the spring of the junior year or in the fall of the senior year might be optimal in terms of a student’s maturity and school experience, but that might be too late for some subjects that were right up your kid’s alley. Whatever the case, thinking about Subject Tests for the first time in September of your kid’s senior year is too late.

5. Testing Nationwide

Now, let’s get a bit of a national perspective, because SAT and ACT testing is a much bigger issue than your kid’s personal testing choices. It might be useful, as a concerned resident of the U.S., to understand that issue these days. In The New York Times in July, University of Michigan professor Susan Dynarski wrote this in a thought-provoking and comprehensive article:

In Connecticut, Illinois and more than 20 other states, the ACT or SAT is given, without charge, during school hours. As of 2017, 25 states require that students take the ACT or SAT. In some districts, including New York City, the test is given free during school hours but is not required.

Michigan began requiring public school juniors to take the ACT in 2007, and the share of high school graduates taking a college entrance exam rose immediately to nearly 99 percent from 54 percent. That growth was even sharper among low-income students; only 35 percent had been taking the test.

Joshua M. Hyman, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut, studied the effects of this initiative while he was my student at the University of Michigan. Professor Hyman analyzed the test scores and college attendance of all public high school students in Michigan, before and after the ACT requirement.

The results were surprising. It was not just low-achieving students who had been skipping the ACT (or the SAT, which Professor Hyman also tracked). For every 1,000 students who took a college exam when it was optional, and scored high enough to attend a selective college, another 230 high scorers appeared once the test was mandatory. For low-income students, the effect was larger: For every 1,000 students who scored well on the optional test, an additional 480 did so on the mandatory test. . . .

Universal exams cannot, by themselves, close gaps between poor and rich students in college attendance. But in Michigan, it has produced small increases, especially at four-year colleges and particularly among disadvantaged students. The story is similar in Maine, Illinois and Connecticut.

Professor Hyman calculates that at a cost of less than $50 per student, a universal testing program is one of the least expensive ways to increase college attendance. Further, if the SAT or ACT replaces the standardized test that states require in public schools, it need not take up any additional instructional time, a key concern of testing opponents.

Many people worry that college admissions tests are biased against low-income and nonwhite students. But disadvantaged students who do not take the tests are out of the running for selective colleges. While we may wish for a better approach, these tests are a gateway to selective schools. (quoted from the article)

So, whether your kid is socioeconomically advantaged in every possible way or the first generation in your family to go to college, the SAT or ACT should be in your kid’s future–just as it should be for so many kids in the U.S. Let’s all admit it and figure out the best ways to help all kids get access to the tests and to that pathway into college.

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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.

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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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Episode 38: Colleges in the Southwest Region—Part II

In last week’s episode, we continued our virtual tour of colleges by looking at the four states of the Southwest region: Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. We talked about public universities—both the flagship state public universities and other public universities in those states. Today, we will continue our tour of the Southwest states by focusing on private higher education institutions.

Virtual audio tour of private colleges and universities in the Southwest Region on the NYCollegeChat podcast. Episode and show notes available at http://usacollegechat.org/38We are going to check out several national universities, which really draw students internationally, as well as a few small liberal arts institutions. Almost all of them happen to be located in Texas. We feel that these are the private institutions in the Southwest that are most likely to attract out-of-state students.

As we say in every one of these episodes, we want to make it clear that no college has asked us or paid us anything to name it. These are entirely our own choices.

1. Private Universities

Let’s start with a relatively small, academically prestigious university—that is, Rice University, located in Houston, our nation’s fourth-largest city, but situated on a beautiful tree-lined campus in a residential neighborhood that makes you feel like you could not possibly be just minutes from downtown. Established by businessman William Marsh Rice in 1891, the William Marsh Rice Institute for the Advancement of Literature, Science, and Art first held classes in 1912. According to the charter, students went to Rice tuition free (until 1966).

Today, Rice enrolls about 4,000 undergraduates and just over 2,500 graduate and professional students, for a total of just about 6,500 students. Rice is on everyone’s list of top 20 or so U.S. universities and has an acceptance rate of about 15 percent. Incoming freshmen have average SAT scores well over 700 on each subtest. In 2014, about half of the freshmen from the U.S. were from Texas and half were not.

Rice is serious about its academics and boasts a student-to-faculty ratio of 6:1—a shockingly low ratio and the lowest we have seen in our tour or are likely to see anywhere. This means, of course, that students have incredible access to faculty in class and a real chance of having meaningful interactions with faculty members. Undergraduate students study in 50 majors across six schools: music, architecture, social sciences, humanities, engineering, and natural sciences. Rice also has a graduate school of business, among other graduate programs.

Undergraduates at Rice are randomly assigned to one of 11 residential colleges—each with its own dining hall, public rooms, dorm rooms, and competitive website. About 75 percent of undergraduates live in their residential college throughout their time at the University. Each residential college has a faculty master, who lives in an adjacent house and encourages a rich intellectual and cultural life and a plan for self-governance at the residential college. Rice offers its students over 200 student organizations and seven men’s and seven women’s Rice Owls sports teams (as well as club sports and intramurals). The baseball team has earned 19 consecutive conference titles, and the football team has gone to bowl games in four of the last eight years.

At $42,000 in tuition and fees annually, Rice is certainly not cheap—but neither is any other world-class private university.

Moving north from Houston, we come to Baylor University in Waco. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas and first opened in Independence, Texas, Baylor is an “unambiguously Christian” institution—and, specifically, a Baptist institution—though it welcomes students of all faiths (including students with no faith at all) from more than 85 countries. The mean SAT score (for the Math and Critical Reading subtests) of entering freshman in 2014 was 1231, so a pair of scores in, let’s say, the mid-600s might get a student into Baylor, especially a student from a faraway state.

Baylor offers its almost 14,000 undergraduate students about 140 bachelor’s degree programs, housed in eight colleges and schools—arts and sciences, social work, engineering and computer science, business, nursing, health and human sciences, education, and music. The University, which enrolls another approximately 2,500 graduate and professional students, also has a graduate theological seminary and a law school, among other graduate programs.

Students can participate in 260 student organizations, including a slew of fraternities and sororities, and Baylor is the home of the first college chapter of Habitat for Humanity. The University fields 19 varsity sports teams and has won 50 Big 12 Conference titles. You will get an idea of the level of school spirit (believe me, it is high) by watching the virtual campus tours on the Baylor website—and you will also see how really lovely the campus is.

At $41,000 in tuition and fees annually, Baylor’s costs are about like Rice’s—again, not cheap. Even so, I feel as though Baylor might be one of those universities that bears a close look from good students in other parts of the country. While Baylor does have intriguing programs for top-notch students—like its combined eight-year bachelor’s degree/M.D. in cooperation with highly respected Baylor College of Medicine—the University also seems to be in reach for good, if not perfect, students.

Let’s move about 100 miles north of Waco to Dallas to take a look at Southern Methodist University (SMU), located in the residential neighborhood of University Park, minutes from downtown Dallas. Technically an urban university, SMU’s campus seems more suburban in style, and it is one of the prettiest campuses ever—gorgeous red brick buildings with white trim, some placed around a huge quadrangle, anchored at one end by the Meadows Museum, which houses one of the most impressive collections of Spanish art outside of Spain and which has an interesting partnership with Madrid’s famous Museo del Prado. Founded in 1911 by what is now The United Methodist Church and opened in 1915, SMU does not operate as a faith-based institution today.

SMU enrolls about 6,500 undergraduate students and almost 5,000 graduate and professional students. About half of its students come from outside the State of Texas, including from almost 100 foreign countries, and about 25 percent are minority students. The average SAT score (for the Math and Critical Reading subtests) of entering freshman in 2014 was 1308, and that score has increased significantly over the past decade.

SMU offers 104 bachelor’s degree programs across five colleges and schools: humanities and sciences, business, engineering, education and human development, and the excellent Meadows School of the Arts, with especially good music, dance, and theater programs. Along with many other graduate programs, SMU also has a school of theology and a law school, where pro bono legal work is a graduation requirement.

SMU fields 17 Mustang varsity teams and offers 180 student organizations, along with fraternities and sororities that count about one-third of undergraduates as members. I think it is fair to say that the social life at SMU is a real plus for students.

Interestingly, SMU has a site in another of our Southwest states, New Mexico. SMU-in-Taos offers summer credit courses in 28 buildings in a variety of subject fields, including an annual archeology field school. The site of the campus holds a pre-Civil War fort and the remains of a 13th century Native American pueblo.

SMU’s tuition and fees for an academic year are about $44,000, unfortunately high and in keeping with the cost of attending either Baylor or Rice.

2. Colleges That Change Lives

As we have said in several earlier episodes, Colleges That Change Lives is a nonprofit organization that was founded after the publication of the book Colleges That Change Lives, by Loren Pope, a retired New York Times education editor. There are now 44 colleges and universities profiled in the book and on the organization’s website. Those that are included are not necessarily famous institutions. Most are smaller colleges and universities that have proved to be successful at developing students both personally and academically so that they can succeed in life after their undergraduate college years.

Three of the 44 institutions profiled are located in our Southwest region. You should read about them in the book or on the website to learn more about them. They are Austin College in Sherman, Texas; Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas; and St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Let’s focus on St. John’s for a minute because it is one of the most unique colleges we have looked at in our virtual tour. Though called St. John’s, it is not a faith-based college. To start with, it is one college with two campuses: St. John’s Annapolis in Maryland and St. John’s Santa Fe in New Mexico, both located in picturesque and charming state capitals. St. John’s was founded in Annapolis in 1696 as King William’s School and was chartered in 1784 as St. John’s College. The Santa Fe campus was established almost two centuries later in 1964. While it is not unusual, of course, for a college to have two campuses, it is unusual for a college to have two campuses almost across the entire country from each other and to have two campuses that allow students to transfer back and forth between the two. Many students do spend a year at the campus they did not start at.

But the real unique idea at St. John’s is its liberal arts curriculum, based on collaborative inquiry in small class discussions, with the professor acting as a tutor and mentor—all based on the original texts of great authors in almost every subject field. The Seminar, as St. John’s calls it, is the foundation for the curriculum, and it is described this way:

Students participate in far-reaching and free but disciplined conversations about major works of literature, philosophy, political theory, theology, history, economics, and psychology from Homer and the Greek historians, playwrights, and philosophers in the freshman year, through the Renaissance in the sophomore year and the Enlightenment in the junior year, to the contemporary world in the senior year.

Students are also required to take four years of mathematics, three years of laboratory science, two years of music (including singing in the Freshman Chorus together), and four years of a second language (two years of Ancient Greek and two years of modern French). Clearly, this is one remarkable liberal arts curriculum.

Each campus enrolls between about 450 and 475 undergraduate students (there are also a couple of graduate programs), drawn from all 50 states and about 20 foreign countries—tiny student bodies, to be sure. The student-to-faculty ratio is an enviably low 8:1—much lower than most colleges, but not actually as low as Rice’s 6:1, our all-time winner.

Students at St. John’s Santa Fe can take advantage of the hiking, skiing, and camping options in the nearby mountains and in Santa Fe National Forest, and the school’s Search and Rescue team trains students to serve the community. The campus also has the usual array of student organizations, including intramural sports. Of course, to many people, Santa Fe is a dream location, full of artists and culture and natural beauty and plenty of things to do.

Students interested in St. John’s are expected to have taken a rigorous course of study in high school and must complete a “short set of reflective essays” (quoted from the website) as part of the application procedure. SAT and ACT scores are optional, though students are encouraged to provide them.

Undergraduate tuition is, not surprisingly, quite high at about $48,500 per year. But you can see why. I believe that it is probably worth it, which is not true of some colleges charging that much.

According to the website, St. John’s “is in the top 2 percent of all colleges in the nation for alumni earning PhDs in the humanities, and in the top 4 percent for earning them in science or engineering” (quoted from the website), which seems remarkable for a tiny college with a liberal arts curriculum. You can see why this college changes lives.

Because these Colleges That Change Lives institutions are relatively small and thus are not particularly well known outside of their geographic region (for example, about 90 percent of students at Southwestern University are from Texas), it is my feeling that out-of-state students with a good high school record might have a good chance of being accepted.

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