college students

When speaking to various groups about the college admissions process, I often make analogies to dating— a topic that most teenagers can identify with. Ideally, the perfect match for college is like finding the perfect boy or girlfriend: you are interested in them and they are equally interested in you.

One of the most common mistakes I see families make in the college admissions process is chasing after big-name schools that will not share the same interest. Follow me on this analogy for a minute.

Filling your college list with some of the most unattainable schools is the equivalent of trying to get a date for homecoming by only asking the most popular and well-recognized students on your campus. Even if you would be an ideal choice, there are only a handful of these “desirable dates” and each can only except one invitation to the dance, so the odds are working against you – particularly if all of the other students are trying the same date-getting approach. Finally, even if you were lucky enough to get one of the “ideal dates” to say yes, you may have a better homecoming experience had you gone with someone more your style.

The College Problem. 

Each year I see students fill their college lists with what some counselors used to refer to as “reach” or “long shot” schools. (Nothing against the schools or even having a couple of them on your college list.) The problem comes when these schools are the focus or are seen as the only desirable options.

We are NOT just talking about Ivy League here. The exact names of the schools may change depending on where you live and who you are, but one thing remains the same – the schools are going to be hard, if not impossible, to gain admission to.

Some people believe they are avoiding this problem by adding well-known schools that aren’t in the Ivy League or the top 10 on the US News annual ranking. Just because you’ve taken Stanford, MIT, and Duke off your list, doesn’t mean you’ve improved your odds of admission. It is still going to be extremely difficult to gain acceptance to Rice, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Cornell, Notre Dame, etc.

Sometimes these “highly selective” schools are in your own backyard. Here in Texas the University of Texas at Austin has become so difficult to get into that many students who fall outside the class rank for guaranteed admissions may be denied even if they are in the top 10-20% of their graduating classes.

A lot of students are intrigued by the prestige of these colleges and universities. They have heard and read so many good things, that they want to be a part of the schools. (All good things.) The downside comes when the schools become the primary focus of the college search process.

This is where I find many students chasing the hard-to-get-into school and focusing all of their time and effort on this “dream”. Suddenly everything is about trying to be good enough– improving standardized test scores, writing the perfect essays, making campus visits and trying to impress. I can’t count the number of times I have heard “we will do whatever we have to in order to get in” from families.

I don’t want to discourage dreaming or taking steps to achieve a goal. I know that many students get into the “impossible” schools each year. What I do want is to encourage realism, research, and balance.

Realism

Know what you are up against. A friend told me that her daughter is interested in Columbia. I pulled up the entering class profile from Columbia’s website and showed her that only 6.9% of applicants were admitted last year and more than 90% of them were in the top 10% of their graduating classes. My friend had no idea it was that hard to get into Columbia.

Yes, you should know the reality of admissions to each and every university on your list – the good, the bad, and the ugly of getting into each school. Understand that any university that admits fewer than 25% of its applicants will be very difficult to get into no matter who you are. These are the types of schools that turn down valedictorians every year. Also understand that simply by applying to more hard-to-get-into schools, you are not improving your average. (Applying to 20 schools each with an admit rate of 5% does not mean you will get in somewhere – statistics doesn’t work like that.)

Research

Start by learning more about each of the schools already on your list. You can begin with statistics: admission rate, average test scores, student to teacher ratio, and percentage of admitted students in the top of their class. Then move onto learning the truly meaningful things about each school. What are classes like? What do students do for fun? Do professors teach most classes or are many undergraduate classes taught by TAs and adjuncts? Will you be able to take classes in your major freshman year? Is this the type of place where you can see yourself happy and successful?

The harder, but more meaningful, side of research is finding the schools you may not have heard of before. These may be seen as the equivalent of the ideal date who just isn’t known as “the popular one” at your high school. These “unknown” colleges and universities are everywhere. They are well regarded in academic circles and by employers. They have satisfied students and alumni who will brag about their experiences. They offer incredible teaching, research, internships, campus life, extracurriculars, and everything you would want in a college. Unfortunately for us, these incredible schools don’t have the same name recognition as Harvard and Duke.

I would encourage everyone to branch out beyond the schools you’ve heard of and learn a little bit more about 3 to 5 other schools. Getting beyond the household names may have the added bonus of helping you find greater scholarship opportunities.

Balance

Hopefully your realism and research will naturally lead you into a more balanced approach to your college search. You will have added schools that seem to be a great match socially and academically. You will have found some hidden gems to add to your list. And you will understand the sometimes brutal reality of admission to some of the highly selective schools. If you have done this, congratulations; you have achieved a successful balance and will likely see great success in the admissions process.

(Unfortunately, I have no tips on finding the perfect date for homecoming!)