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 144: Supplemental College Application Essays–Oh, My!

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I really was not going to do this episode.  I resisted doing our last two–one episode about The Common Application main essay (that 650-word statement that all seniors’ parents and teachers have come to loathe at this time of year) and one episode about the sad fact that our high school seniors in the U.S. cannot write.  I was glad when last week was over, and I thought that I could move on to other topics of importance in the college applications season.  And yet, I am drawn back into the quagmire of college application essays.

It gets worse.  When I started putting this episode together–this episode that I did not want to do–I figured that I could keep it short and sweet.  When I hit nine pages of text, I realized that it was not short (nor was it sweet, actually).  And so, I have done something else that I didn’t want to do.  I have planned for two episodes on this topic of supplemental essays.

Of course, I thought you might go back and re-listen to Episode 106, where we talk about supplemental essays.  But I fear you won’t, and so I am going to reprise it here and add some new, updated thoughts.  Why?  Because I have just spent a fair number of days working on college application supplemental essays for a few teenagers I work with individually–and they have confirmed my worst nightmare.  Our high school seniors cannot write these supplemental essays any better than they can write anything else.  I base this bold statement not just on the teenagers I am working with now (who are, by the way, bright students with excellent grades and admission test scores), but also on the teenagers I have worked with over the past several years.  I have read–and edited–hundreds of these supplemental essays.  And I still have more to read and edit ahead of me this season.  If I keep working with more and more teenagers every year, soon I will have 10 episodes on this topic.

Anyway, the last time we chatted about this topic was last January.  Let’s see what, if anything, you remember–in case you were listening then.

1. How Many and the Choice, If You Have One

As you probably know, supplemental essays are required by lots of colleges, especially by the highly selective ones.  Some colleges require one, some require two, and some require as many as four. If you include short-answer open-ended questions that require just a sentence or two or a list of things–for example, cultural events you have attended recently–that number of supplemental “essays” for some colleges could go up to seven.  Yikes!

Let’s look at the University of California system–a public university system with a zillion applicants (okay, zillion might be a slight exaggeration).  But not much of one.  UCLA, one of nine University of California campuses, had over 102,000 freshman applicants for this past fall.  So, how UCLA, for example, can process four essays from each applicant is, frankly, beyond me.  But the University of California has some great universities–including the University of California, Berkeley, and UCLA–and some very smart people.  Here are the directions for University of California applicants for what are called the “personal insight questions” (quoted from the University of California website):

Directions

  • You will have 8 questions to choose from. You must respond to only 4 of the 8 questions.
  • Each response is limited to a maximum of 350 words.
  • Which questions you choose to answer is entirely up to you: But you should select questions that are most relevant to your experience and that best reflect your individual circumstances.

Keep in mind

  • All questions are equal: All are given equal consideration in the application review process, which means there is no advantage or disadvantage to choosing certain questions over others.
  • There is no right or wrong way to answer these questions: It’s about getting to know your personality, background, interests and achievements in your own unique voice.

Questions & guidance

Remember, the personal questions are just that–personal. Which means you should use our guidance for each question just as a suggestion in case you need help. The important thing is expressing who you are, what matters to you and what you want to share with UC.

  1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time.

Things to consider: A leadership role can mean more than just a title. It can mean being a mentor to others, acting as the person in charge of a specific task, or taking the lead role in organizing an event or project. Think about what you accomplished and what you learned from the experience. What were your responsibilities?

Did you lead a team? How did your experience change your perspective on leading others? Did you help to resolve an important dispute at your school, church, in your community or an organization? And your leadership role doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to school activities. For example, do you help out or take care of your family?

  1. Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.

Things to consider: What does creativity mean to you? Do you have a creative skill that is important to you? What have you been able to do with that skill? If you used creativity to solve a problem, what was your solution? What are the steps you took to solve the problem?

How does your creativity influence your decisions inside or outside the classroom? Does your creativity relate to your major or a future career?

  1. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?

Things to consider: If there’s a talent or skill that you’re proud of, this is the time to share it. You don’t necessarily have to be recognized or have received awards for your talent (although if you did and you want to talk about it, feel free to do so). Why is this talent or skill meaningful to you?

Does the talent come naturally or have you worked hard to develop this skill or talent? Does your talent or skill allow you opportunities in or outside the classroom? If so, what are they and how do they fit into your schedule?

  1. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

Things to consider: An educational opportunity can be anything that has added value to your educational experience and better prepared you for college. For example, participation in an honors or academic enrichment program, or enrollment in an academy that’s geared toward an occupation or a major, or taking advanced courses that interest you–just to name a few.

If you choose to write about educational barriers you’ve faced, how did you overcome or strive to overcome them? What personal characteristics or skills did you call on to overcome this challenge? How did overcoming this barrier help shape who are you today?

  1. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?

Things to consider: A challenge could be personal, or something you have faced in your community or school. Why was the challenge significant to you? This is a good opportunity to talk about any obstacles you’ve faced and what you’ve learned from the experience. Did you have support from someone else or did you handle it alone?

If you’re currently working your way through a challenge, what are you doing now, and does that affect different aspects of your life? For example, ask yourself, “How has my life changed at home, at my school, with my friends or with my family?”

  1. Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.

Things to consider: Many students have a passion for one specific academic subject area, something that they just can’t get enough of. If that applies to you, what have you done to further that interest? Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had inside and outside the classroom–such as volunteer work, internships, employment, summer programs, participation in student organizations and/or clubs–and what you have gained from your involvement.

Has your interest in the subject influenced you in choosing a major and/or future career? Have you been able to pursue coursework at a higher level in this subject (honors, AP, IB, college or university work)? Are you inspired to pursue this subject further at UC, and how might you do that?

  1. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?

Things to consider: Think of community as a term that can encompass a group, team or a place–like your high school, hometown or home. You can define community as you see fit, just make sure you talk about your role in that community. Was there a problem that you wanted to fix in your community?

Why were you inspired to act? What did you learn from your effort? How did your actions benefit others, the wider community or both? Did you work alone or with others to initiate change in your community?

  1. Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?

Things to consider: If there’s anything you want us to know about you, but didn’t find a question or place in the application to tell us, now’s your chance. What have you not shared with us that will highlight a skill, talent, challenge or opportunity that you think will help us know you better?

From your point of view, what do you feel makes you an excellent choice for UC? Don’t be afraid to brag a little.

I think that these eight topics are sensible and fair, if not especially creative.  On balance, I think that is a good thing.  I believe that teenagers can actually write answers to these, and sometimes that is the biggest hurdle.  (To tell you the truth, I have read some quirky or overly philosophical prompts that I could not respond to at all.)  And yet, four essay questions of 350 words each is a lot of writing–especially if an applicant might have used up the answer to one of the prompts in the main Common App essay, which seems quite possible to me.

Sometimes, the topics for the supplemental essays, especially short ones, can be a bit odd, chosen perhaps to allow an applicant to show a creative or funny or witty side.  If given a choice among essay topics, I rarely recommend that a teenager choose one of the odder ones–unless that teenager is particularly creative or perhaps naturally funny or witty.

For some examples of essay topics that can be a bit odd, let’s look at the University of Chicago.  If you don’t know the University of Chicago (one of those private universities whose name makes it sound like a public university), it is an outstanding, highly selective private university in, obviously, Chicago.  Here are the directions for University of Chicago applicants (quoted from the University of Chicago website):

The University of Chicago has long been renowned for its provocative essay questions. We think of them as an opportunity for students to tell us about themselves, their tastes, and their ambitions. They can be approached with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between.

Each year we email newly admitted and current College students and ask them for essay topics. We receive several hundred responses, many of which are eloquent, intriguing, or downright wacky.

As you can see from the attributions, the questions below were inspired by submissions from UChicago students and alumni. . . .

Required Question:

How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.

Extended Essay Questions:

(Required; Choose one)

Essay Option 1.

“The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.” ? Joseph Joubert

Sometimes, people talk a lot about popular subjects to assure ‘victory’ in conversation or understanding, and leave behind topics of less popularity, but great personal or intellectual importance. What do you think is important but under-discussed?

Anonymous Suggestion

Essay Option 2.

Due to a series of clerical errors, there is exactly one typo (an extra letter, a removed letter, or an altered letter) in the name of every department at the University of Chicago. Oops! Describe your new intended major. Why are you interested in it and what courses or areas of focus within it might you want to explore? Potential options include Commuter Science, Bromance Languages and Literatures, Pundamentals: Issues and Texts, Ant History… a full list of unmodified majors ready for your editor’s eye is available here.

-Inspired by Josh Kaufman, Class of 2018

Essay Option 3.

Earth. Fire. Wind. Water. Heart! Captain Planet supposes that the world is made up of these five elements. We’re familiar with the previously-noted set and with actual elements like hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, but select and explain another small group of things (say, under five) that you believe compose our world.

-Inspired by Dani Plung, Class of 2017

Essay Option 4.

The late New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham once said “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you could do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization.” Tell us about your “armor.”

-Inspired by Adam Berger, Class of 2020

Essay Option 5.

Fans of the movie Sharknado say that they enjoy it because “it’s so bad, it’s good.” Certain automobile owners prefer classic cars because they “have more character.” And recently, vinyl record sales have skyrocketed because it is perceived that they have a warmer, fuller sound. Discuss something that you love not in spite of but rather due to its quirks or imperfections.

-Inspired by Alex Serbanescu, Class of 2021

Essay Option 6.

In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose your own question or choose one of our past prompts. Be original, creative, thought provoking. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun.

And, by the way, some of the past prompts are truly wacky.  Choosing the right prompt in this kind of situation can make all the difference.  When I work with teenagers on this, we always talk through several options before settling on the one that seems the most appropriate and the most likely to yield a convincing, insightful essay.  And, yes, sometimes we get one written and realize that it just doesn’t work, and we have to switch prompts and start again!

So, the University of California and the University of Chicago are at the extremes, in terms of number of essays required and provocativeness of essay topics, respectively.  Parents, you might be thankful now if the colleges on your teenager’s list have just one or two slightly boring supplemental essays to complete!

2. The Word Count

Typically, supplemental essays are not as long as the main personal statement, fortunately (though I just saw one from Tulane University, where the upper limit was 800 words!).  We all know that higher word counts allow us to be a bit sloppy and that it is sometimes easier to write more rambling words than to write fewer better-chosen words.  Many supplemental essays seem to call for about 350 to 400 words, or about four meaty paragraphs, which is not really too long when you think about it.  Many of them seem to run quite a bit shorter, at about 150 to 250 words, which can be downright restricting if you actually have something to say.  Some of them–which are not really essays at all, but more like short-answer questions–ask for just 200 characters (or about 35 words), as one Ivy League school put it.

Here is the point:  Lower word limits imply a different style of writing.  While an applicant might relax into a narrative personal story in The Common App main 650-word essay, using lots of descriptive detail and many examples to elaborate the main idea, the shorter essays do not really permit that.  They need a much more focused, straightforward, get-to-the-point style if the question is to be answered effectively in far fewer words.

Now, I am sure that there are some creative writers among our current crop of college applicants who could write a brilliant poetic response to one of these shorter essay prompts.  But, I am going to state, for the record, that I have not found too many of them.

So, if you are a parent who is reading supplemental essays in the next few weeks, look for essays that make sense and that are clearly written.  They need to make a point (or two or maybe three), both effectively and efficiently.  Help your teenager edit out the extra sentences and superfluous words–including all of those that don’t contribute to the point.

One final note on word limits:  As you might already have guessed, one college’s 350-word essay topic is another college’s 150-word essay topic.  As we will talk about in our next episode, there are some topics that come up over and over again across many, many colleges.  You will quickly learn that it is truly helpful for your teenager to have a drafted long response to these topics and–just as important–a drafted short response for the same topics.  That takes some thoughtful and careful editing. Having a long version and a short version of popular essay topics–like an extracurricular activity that is particularly meaningful to you–can save a lot of time.

3.  No Thanksgiving Break:  New Episode Next Week

Next week is Thanksgiving, and we were going to take a holiday break.  However, we realized that the long Thanksgiving weekend might be just the time that some of you will use to work on supplemental essays for applications that will be due just weeks later.  So, we will have a new episode next week, which will cover the rest of the advice we have on supplemental essays.   We will bring it out on Tuesday, instead of our usual Thursday–just in time for the Thanksgiving celebration!

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Episode 128: College Enrollment in Decline?

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Today’s episode is going to be the final one of our Colleges in the Spotlight series because next week we are really getting down to the serious work of getting our rising high school seniors ready to apply to colleges. So, as we leave Colleges in the Spotlight, we want to take a look at a news story that might just be bringing good news to some of you. The story, which ran in The Hechinger Report and in The Washington Post at the end of June, was entitled “Universities and colleges struggle to stem big drops in enrollment.” Really, I said to myself. That could be great news for kids applying to colleges this fall.

Today’s episode will look at the national facts and figures of this new trend. Plus we will look at Ohio Wesleyan University–in today’s spotlight–a good small liberal arts college in Delaware, Ohio. Ohio Wesleyan enrolls about 1,700 undergraduate students and boasts an attractive 10-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio. In the interest of full disclosure, my sister-in-law graduated from Ohio Wesleyan “some years ago” (that means more than 40 years ago) and, by all accounts, thoroughly enjoyed her time there.

And one final reminder: Don’t forget to get a copy of our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students–available at amazon.com. Quick and cheap! Your teenager is going to need it this summer when he or she might have some time to kill. We will tell you more when we get serious next week, so stay tuned.

1. The Facts and Figures on Enrollment Decline

Here are some of the facts and figures presented by Jon Marcus in The Hechinger Report article:

  • According to the National Student Clearinghouse, college enrollment has declined for five years in a row.
  • This year, there are 81,000 fewer U.S. high school graduates going off to college, which is a direct result of a decline in birth rate (particularly in the Northeast and Midwest).
  • Just over 18 million students were enrolled in colleges nationwide last spring–2.4 million fewer students than were enrolled in the fall of 2011, which was the most recent high point for college enrollment. I am going to say that over 2 million students is a lot of students to lose.
  • According to a survey by the National Association of College and University Business Officers, 58 percent of chief business officers said their institutions had seen a drop in undergraduate enrollment since 2013. (Although 58 percent is certainly the majority of colleges, it doesn’t mean that the statement is true for the most selective colleges–where it is likely not true, just to keep things in perspective.)
  • According to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, over 400 colleges still had fall semester spots for freshmen and transfer students as of May 1. (Again, that doesn’t mean those 400 included the most selective colleges, but 400 is still a lot of colleges and every U.S. high school graduate does not, of course, attend a most selective college.)

What does the future hold? When will it all change? Not until 2023, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE). Here is what The Hechinger Report article says about what will then be a “slow recovery”:

When it comes, [the recovery] will be [composed] largely of low-income, first-generation-in-college racial and ethnic minorities. These are the kinds of students institutions have generally proven poor at enrolling, and who will arrive with a far greater need for financial aid and expensive support. (quoted from the website)

So, colleges might not have an easy time of it as they work to stem the decline and turn enrollment around–not that many high school seniors and their families are going to be overly sympathetic about that.

Can this information work in favor of kids applying to colleges in the next few years? Before we consider what it all means, let’s look at the Ohio Wesleyan case study, presented in The Hechinger Report article.

2. The Story of Ohio Wesleyan

Hit with a decline in Ohio high school graduates, a prime recruiting ground for Ohio Wesleyan, the University took and is taking a number of steps to boost its enrollment, based on data that it looked at both from admitted students who decided to enroll and admitted students who decided not to enroll. Here are some of those steps:

  • Because the drop in male students was greater than the drop in female students, Ohio Wesleyan is adding two sports (and a marching band) to try to attract more male students.
  • Because students said they wanted more internship and more study abroad opportunities, both internships and short-term study abroad programs are being expanded.
  • Because new sources of students needed to be found, Ohio Wesleyan admissions staff members have been recruiting locally (in Cleveland), regionally (in Chicago), and much farther afield (in China, India, and Pakistan). In addition, the transfer process has been simplified so that students wanting to transfer into Ohio Wesleyan can do so more easily.
  • Because some undergraduates are concerned about where they will be going next for graduate study (Ohio Wesleyan enrolls undergrads only), articulation agreements with Carnegie-Mellon University and with a medical school have just been drawn up to make the transition from undergraduate to graduate study more straightforward–in at least those cases.
  • Because money is always an issue for students and their families, Ohio Wesleyan has budgeted more money for financial aid. In addition, “the University is considering freezing, lowering or slowing the rate of increase of its tuition and fees, which are now $44,690” (quoted from the article).
  • Because students are concerned about their futures, Ohio Wesleyan has been studying labor data and creating new majors in fields of high demand, including majors in data analytics and computational neuroscience. Ohio Wesleyan president Rock Jones was quoted in The Hechinger Report article as saying this: “We live in a really consumer-driven society, and to be honest a college is an investment. Families are much more discerning, and they approach it as consumers. That’s a cultural shift to which the campus has to respond.”

One of my favorite anecdotes from The Hechinger Report article is this one (and I think this will be particularly enjoyable for anyone who has friends who teach in colleges and who hear about the politics of higher education from those friends):

One of the greatest challenges, as at other places, has been to get buy-in from the faculty, who have to approve new academic offerings. Ohio Wesleyan invited faculty on the curriculum committee to meet with the financial-aid committee, giving them a sense of how serious the problems were and asking them for help in coming up with majors that might attract more students.

This doesn’t always work. One faculty member suggested a new major in sacred music, for example. “Some faculty have a very clear understanding of the issues,” [President] Jones said wryly. “Others, less so.” (quoted from the article)

3. More About Money

For those of you particularly concerned about financing a college education for your teenager (and who isn’t), consider this new statistic:

Small private, nonprofit colleges and universities this year gave back, in the form of financial aid, an average of 51 cents of every dollar they collected from tuition. That’s up from an average of 38 cents a decade ago. . . . (quoted from the article)

I guess that is good news for students and their families, but perhaps bad news for colleges that continue to try to make ends meet. Of course, there also has to be a point here when most colleges cannot give back almost everything they take in and still remain viable.

And while we could tell you stories of small private colleges cutting their tuition and, as a result, gaining additional students, here is one public flagship university story that could also prove valuable to some of you:

The University of Maine, in a state whose number of high school grads has fallen 9 percent since 2011, offered admission to students from elsewhere at the same in-state price they would have paid to attend their home flagships; that has attracted more than 1,000 new students for the semester that begins this fall, from all of the other New England states plus California, Illinois, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. (quoted from the article)

We have talked about these kinds of arrangements with public universities in previous USACollegeChat episodes and in our most recent book, where we mention that some public universities provide generous discounts to students from contiguous states or to students in the region. The University of Maine seems to have found a way to expand that idea nationwide and win more students as a result.

4. What’s It All Mean for You?

So, what does all this mean for you and your own teenager? Well, let’s start with what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that your kid’s chances of getting into an Ivy League school or any other top-tier college are any better now than they were before you listened to this episode. Whatever happens to the number of high school students in the U.S. and no matter what the decline is in the number of high school graduates statewide in your state or nationwide, our nation’s most selective colleges are not going to feel the pinch. That is just our opinion, but it is probably right.

It is also likely true that the top public flagship universities are not going to feel the pinch, either–like the University of Virginia, the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of California, Berkeley, and another five or 10 more. Why? Because those top flagships attract students from across the nation, and there will always be enough students with good enough grades to fill the best public universities.

But here is the good news. Your teenager might have a better chance now of getting into a good small private college–and there are plenty of those. If you have a super-smart kid, such a college could serve as a great safety school. If you have a kid with good, but not outstanding, grades and test scores, such a college could become a likely match rather than a reach school.

We have said for some time at USACollegeChat that our public flagship universities are the hidden jewels of our higher education system. And we are not taking that back. But now maybe we should add that good small private colleges might be the hidden jewels of our higher education system precisely because they will give you a better bang for your buck than you originally thought. Let’s keep that in mind next week as we move to the serious search for colleges for your teenager.

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Episode 118: It’s the Colleges’ Turn To Beg!

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Since Decision Day is almost upon us, we are going to refrain from giving any more general advice. If you want specific advice for your teenager, call us. That’s free advice available to parents with seniors until April 30 at 11:59 p.m. New York City time

So, we are in our new series, which we are calling Colleges in the Spotlight. Last week, we shone our spotlight on Spelman College and its fellow HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities). Today, we are headed to the West Coast to take a look at the University of California, Los Angeles, which we talked at length about way back in Episode 39 of our virtual nationwide college tour.

As we said then, UCLA was started in 1919 as the University of California’s Southern Branch and its star has been rising ever since. By many accounts, it now ranks academically with well-known and highly regarded UC Berkeley, the university that UCLA was the Southern Branch of. When we recorded Episode 39, UCLA’s incoming freshman class average GPA was 4.25, with comparably high SAT scores. UCLA serves about 28,000 undergraduates and a total of about 42,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. About one-third of its undergraduates are Asian, and about one-quarter are white. About 80 percent are California residents. UCLA’s undergraduates study in 125 majors across five schools and colleges: College of Letters and Science and the Schools of the Arts and Architecture; Engineering and Applied Science; Theater, Film and Television; and Nursing. And the Bruins play some great basketball, have won more NCAA titles than any other university, and have produced 250 Olympic medalists. It looks as though any candidate would need to be exceptional to get into UCLA these days.

Given those remarkable statistics, it is even more intriguing to listen to today’s episode in which the tables have now been turned: The college is trying to convince the students to come (rather than having the students try to convince the college to accept them). You might have noticed your friends who have seniors of their own travelling the country in this last week or two to take their kids to “admitted students’ days” so that everyone can get one last look before making the big decision. Well, I believe that a lot of those visits include a hard sell by college administrators, who have crafted the perfect sales pitch to convert admitted students into enrolled students. Why? Because, as we have said before, colleges are looking for a high “yield rate”–that is, the percentage of students who actually enroll from those who have been admitted. This yield rate affects the way some people judge a college and its attractiveness and its prestige–and it undoubtedly affects some of the many independent college-ranking systems as well.

1. “UCLA Works To Seal the Deal”

So, let us take you to an article written recently by Teresa Watanabe in the Los Angeles Times, entitled “UCLA works to seal the deal with thousands of freshmen admitted for fall 2017.” You should read it, if only for its great human interest angle and the personal stories of real seniors faced with real decisions. We will give you just some highlights here.

Let us start by saying that the article focuses on the work being done by UCLA’s vice provost of enrollment management, Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, to convert admitted students into enrolled students. The article tells the story of Ms. Copeland-Morgan’s hard sell to a group of 11 Los Angeles high school seniors. Really? The vice provost of enrollment management is meeting with 11 students? At some colleges, 11 might be almost a noticeable number of a small freshman class, but the UCLA freshman class is bigger than a lot of colleges’ total enrollment. That sounds like a lot of meetings for Ms. Copeland-Morgan.

The article notes these statistics:

[UCLA] sent out letters of acceptance to about 16,000 high school seniors last month and is now working to seal the deal with enough students to fill 4,350 freshman seats.

Last year, 37% of those offered admission accepted, a yield rate topped only by UC Berkeley among the University of California’s nine undergraduate campuses.

Copeland-Morgan told the [11 students she was talking to that] they were elite scholars who were selected from a record 102,000 applications from all 50 states and 80 countries. (quoted from the article)

Let’s look at these brand new numbers. First, UCLA was clearly quite selective in choosing to admit just about 15 percent of its applicants. It is a public university, after all. Second, as I do the math, UCLA needs only about a 27 percent yield rate to fill those 4,350 freshman seats. Last year, it got a 37 percent yield rate. Consequently, it looks to me as though UCLA is probably in fine shape–maybe too fine, if it gets the same yield rate and has to find room for an extra 1,500 freshmen!

The article continues as Ms. Copeland-Morgan talks to the 11 high school students:

She told them they deserved to attend UCLA, [which] she described as one of the world’s top 15 universities. She also tried to ease their worries that they might not fit in and feel comfortable. The campus is richly diverse, she told them and their parents, with more than a third of its students low-income, underrepresented minorities and the first in their families to attend college. (quoted from the article)

While those words might have been encouraging, especially since Ms. Copeland-Morgan was herself an alumna of the very high school some of the 11 kids were attending, she also noted that “UCLA’s top-notch faculty and staff included people who would help them find classmates to connect with–and keep them on the right path. ‘If we see any of them acting crazy, we’re going to talk to them like our own children,’ Copeland-Morgan said, prompting one dad in the audience to give her a smile and thumbs up” (quoted from the article).

By the way, it wasn’t just Ms. Copeland-Morgan at the sales pitch on behalf of UCLA. According to the article, “[o]ther staff members talked up UCLA’s food, three years of guaranteed student housing, 1,000-plus student organizations and elite athletics, with its teams boasting 113 NCAA championships.” I have to admit that I am surprised that UCLA would send more than one staff member to do this recruiting?or, in fact, that UCLA would send even one. But the article explains that this personal touch has improved UCLA’s yield rate, “especially among minority, low-income and first-generation college students” (quoted from the article). The article quotes one of the newly accepted students attending the sales pitch as saying this:

“I was nervous about UCLA because it’s so prestigious and because of my status as a minority,” he said. “But the staff seemed so friendly and caring. I can see myself walking onto the campus as a Bruin.”

And so the face-to-face hard sells seem to be working. And according to the article, Ms. Copeland-Morgan “said she jumps at the chance to make a personal pitch to students who can help UCLA fulfill its mission to reflect the diversity of Californians.” To that we say, good for her, good for the kids, and good for UCLA.

The article continues on this theme:

[Ms. Copeland-Morgan] and her staff also have . . . enlisted faculty members to help with what she called “culturally relevant” programs to give admitted students and their families a chance to get a feel for the campus. Recently, they sponsored an event, “Your Future is Bruin,” for Latino students, offering Spanish for monolingual parents and play spaces for siblings.

“UCLA has an obligation as an anchor institution in the city to give back in different ways to the community,” Copeland-Morgan said. “This is my passion. This is my ministry.” (quoted from the article)

So, what are the results of this considerable personal investment by UCLA staff, which has to come at a substantial price? According to the statistics quoted in the article, the results are impressive, especially when it comes to underrepresented minority students:

The yield rate for African American freshmen rose to 50% last fall from 44% in 2014, by far the highest among UC campuses.

At UC Berkeley, by comparison, the rate fell to 37% last year from 47% in 2014. UC Santa Barbara’s rate was 23%; UC Santa Cruz, 17%.

UCLA also increased its Latino yield rate to 52% last year from 49% in 2014 and its first-generation rate to 54% from 49% over that same period. (quoted from the article)

Enough said.

2. So What?

So what does this have to do with your senior? First, you should think about whether any administrators and faculty members showed up to make the big sales pitch at any meetings for admitted students you have attended recently. If they did, I believe that means that the college actually cares a lot about whether its admitted students come–and probably for more reasons than just to improve its yield rate. It likely bodes well for the attention that those professionals will give your kid in the future. Furthermore, if the college is reaching out to your teenager because he or she is African American or Latino or the first generation in your family to go to college, then you should be pleased and relieved that the college cares enough to make that effort.

Second, I hope that your teenager got a kick out of being on the other side of the bargaining table–especially if he or she had a grueling applications season and a difficult round of acceptances.

For those of you who have freshmen, sophomores, or juniors at home, you should think hard about going to any admitted students’ days when the time comes, especially if your teenager is trying to choose among several good options. You both should sit back at the sale pitches and let the colleges work hard to get your business. Ask important questions. Demand good answers. Enjoy your time in the spotlight.

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Episode 114: It’s College Decision Time!

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Well, it is almost April 1, the date by which a lot of colleges will make high school seniors happy or sad. In fact, many colleges have already done that in the past two weeks, with some doing so today and tomorrow. We are sure it is a tense time for lots of families–whether it leads to great joy or considerable disappointment. There is hardly a bigger issue in higher education, of course, than the admissions game, its fairness and unfairness, and its results for thousands and thousands of kids. Whatever the case may be, many of you are now in the position of making a final decision about where your teenager is going to go to college next fall.

Last year in April, we did a series of three episodes on making that college decision–one for above-average students, one for average students, one for below-average students–because we felt that their options and their reasons for choosing one college over another might be very different. You should go back and re-read the show notes or re-listen to Episodes 69, 70, and 71–or, at least, the one that best describes the academic standing of your own teenager. We just can’t do any better now than we did then in pointing out the serious questions you should consider in making that all-important choice with your teenager.

Of course, we know that many of you are too busy, especially right now, to review all three episodes, so we thought we would highlight some of the key points we tried to make in them. We chose points that apply to all seniors, regardless of their academic standing. We will assume for these discussions that seniors have a choice of colleges to attend, though that might mean as few as two colleges or as many as eight or 10 colleges. A small number of options, however, doesn’t necessarily make the choosing process any easier.

1. Rejection by the First-Choice College

Let’s start with what some families will consider the worst-case scenario, even though it likely is not really that: What if your teenager has just been rejected by his or her first choice? In Episode 69, we quoted from some remarkably insightful comments from a young woman named Julia Schemmer, who was rejected by her “dream” school–UCLA. She accepted a spot in the Class of 2019 at the University of California, Riverside. Here are some of the reflections that she offered other teenagers (originally published in High School Insider and re-published by the Los Angeles Times on March 31, 2016, as “Rejected from your dream school? Remember these three things“):

  1. It isn’t your fault. When a college rejection letter comes in the mail, it is easy to immediately invalidate everything you have ever done and view your experiences as a high school student as incomplete or inadequate. It’s not true. Many universities have rigorous application requirements with expectations that are often left unknown to anyone but the admissions board. You could have the perfect SAT, the most extracurricular activities, or the best GPA, but it could be true that the college wasn’t looking for things like that. . . .

  2. It’s not the end of the world. There are so many colleges and universities that would absolutely love to have you walk through their door. Whether it’s expanding your knowledge of other universities that may be better suited to your goals or working hard to transfer to your dream school, there are still opportunities to attend a great learning institution. When I decided to commit to attending a school different from my dream school, of course I was disappointed. However, I currently love the university that I attend and the major I am pursuing. If anything, UCLA will always be an option for my graduate school education. (quoted from the article)

Thank you, again, Julia! These are both excellent and important points. Neither is easy for kids to accept, however. No matter how many times any adult or older teenager says these two things, it is likely that kids will simply need to come to terms with this rejection over time. Parents, it’s not going to happen in a day or two–no matter how good you think the college options still on the table are. So, bear with your teenager while he or she goes through the stages of profound disappointment, whatever they are

2. Selectivity of the College

Let’s look at the selectivity of the college options that your teenager now has. We are going to assume that those colleges are not necessarily equivalent in terms of their selectivity. In other words, your child might have been accepted at a couple of selective private colleges (though not necessarily at a highly selective college), at a couple of less-selective private colleges, at your public flagship university or another public university in your state, and/or at a public flagship university or another public university in another state. You might also have a local community college on that list. But even if your child has just two options of colleges with differing degrees of selectivity, the decision-making process is still quite serious.

Let’s put the financial aspects of this decision aside for a minute and look first at the selectivity of the colleges. Let me start with our conclusion, which remains the same as last year’s conclusion, since no new research has indicated anything that would make us change our minds: Your teenager should go to the most selective school that accepted him or her. Are there any arguments on the other side of that decision? Yes, but they are not persuasive.

Apart from the undeniable prestige of attending a college that is more selective, we have said previously–based on a lot of data from various colleges–that graduation rates are higher at more-selective colleges. In other words, your teenager is more likely to graduate with a degree if he or she attends a more-selective college. Furthermore–and this is almost as important–your teenager is more likely to finish that degree in a reasonable amount of time, ideally four years (rather than the longer timelines many college students now operate on, where six years is not surprising). By the way, in the long run, getting out on time saves you money?sometimes tens of thousands of dollars.

Practically speaking, what does our advice mean? It means that you should talk with your teenager about going to the toughest, most academically prestigious college possible. Not just because of the prestige factor, but because it will affect his or her future–both four years from now as graduation approaches and likely a whole lot longer in terms of the classmates your teenager will have and where they will all end up working many years from now.

Now, we know that many advisors would start talking to you about “fit” right now. We have even talked about “fit”?that is, how well your teenager will “fit” into the college community, based on brains or athletic ability or race or religion or socioeconomic status or any number of other things. We, too, want your teenager to fit into the college community that he or she chooses; we are just hoping that it will be an academically strong and well-resourced college community, with great professors and with students who progress through it and graduate on time.

Here are a few questions we asked last year: What if that most selective college is far away from home and you and your teenager wanted a close-to-home option? What if that most selective college is private and you and your teenager wanted a public option? What if that most selective college is located in an urban setting and you and your teenager wanted a rural or suburban option? What if that most selective college is not faith based and you and your teenager wanted a faith-based option?

Well, you are going to have to weigh all of these factors. But we are suggesting here that the selectivity of the college be moved to the top of your list of factors to consider when making this important decision.

By the way, the most selective college your teenager was accepted to might well be a public university?especially if it is your state’s or another state’s flagship university. As we have said many times, there is no prestige in attending a private college that is not as good as a great public college. For a list of great public colleges, go back and listen or re-listen to the nationwide virtual college tour we took you all on in Episodes 27-53. You will see the same names come up over and over again, including these: the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Michigan; the University of Virginia; the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; the College of William and Mary; the University of Iowa; the University of Washington; and the University of Texas at Austin. And there are quite a few more. If your teenager got into one of them, that is worth thinking really hard about.

And let us add one note about community colleges for those of you who did not listen in last week when we devoted Episode 113 to community colleges. If your child is at least an average student in high school, we don’t think that a community college is likely to be his or her best choice, although we understand that there might be financial reasons or family reasons to keep a child close to home and within commuting distance and that a community college might fit those circumstances very nicely.

Nonetheless, the difficulty that many students seem to have in graduating from a community college or in transferring from a community college to a four-year college really worries us. Listen to last week’s episode to find out about the scandalously low graduation and transfer statistics. Last week, we concluded that, unless you think your teenager is smarter, harder working, more motivated, and more goal oriented than the typical community college student, your teenager is likely to have some difficulty graduating from a community college and/or transferring to a four-year college. So, talk with your teenager and think hard about that choice.

3. Your Choice for Your Teenager

What if your teenager has just been accepted by the college that you really want him or her to attend, but that college is not your teenager’s first or second or even third choice? Who wins? That is one of the worst problems we can imagine.

As a parent and as an adult, I would like to say that you should win because you have been around longer and seen more and perhaps you even know more and are likely paying the bill. But I don’t think you can win in this situation without convincing your teenager that you are right. In previous episodes (like Episode 69), we have told many anecdotes that prove this point.

Here is the bottom line for us: College is hard, and it is almost impossible when the student is not reasonably happy there. So, parents, we believe that you will eventually have to give in to what your teenager wants because, in fact, he or she is the one who is going to have to do the work.

By the way, for all of you parents who have younger children coming up through high school and just starting the college process, here is your lesson today: Don’t let your teenager apply to colleges that you don’t want them to attend. It’s as simple as that. If you are satisfied, even if you are not necessarily thrilled, with every college on your teenager’s application list, that ensures that you will be satisfied with whichever one is your teenager’s final choice.

4. What About the Cost?

So, now let’s talk about money. What if your teenager got a great financial aid package–even a full ride–at a college that is not nearly as good as a more selective college that he or she was accepted by? Clearly, that is a hard choice. And I am not going to say to go out and find a bunch of obscure scholarships that go begging every year (though I know that happens). I am going to say that the best possible college education is something worth investing in–even if that means loans that your teenager gets and/or loans that you as parents get. I know that is not a popular position, and I know that many advisors and parents alike believe that having a student graduate with little or no debt is the most important thing. I simply don’t agree. By the way, as we have already said, attending a better college will likely ensure an on-time graduation–which, in the long run, can save you a lot of money on extra years of schooling.

Paying for college is hard–especially paying for private selective colleges. That’s just one more reason we love those great public flagship universities.

5. Next Steps

If your teenager has not already visited all of the colleges that have accepted him or her and that are still under serious consideration, you probably should do that now, if it is logistically and financially feasible. As we have said before at USACollegeChat, this is the best time to visit: when the list of colleges is short enough that the college tour can be reasonably cost-effective and efficient. The visits can be helpful both for your teenager in making his or her decision and for you as a parent in accepting that decision. Speaking as a parent, I think it would be difficult to send a child off to college without ever having seen it; and, yet, my husband and I did that when we sent our middle child off to Richmond, The American International University in London. Well, at least we had been to London, I told myself at the time. And it all worked out. We hope it will all work out for you and your teenager, too.

Here is an offer that we made last year at this time. Call me and tell me what your teenager’s choices are and what your circumstances are. I will be happy to give you some free advice, for what it’s worth. I do this all the time, and I would love to do it for you. Nothing is more important than making the right decision now. The next four years are critical.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

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