Getting Into College

Karen DeMasters

March 4, 2007

Published: March 4, 2007
Bergen Record by Karen DeMasters

While high school students are competing with each other to get accepted to good colleges, colleges and universities are competing among themselves to win the hearts of the best students.

High school students and their parents can use this to their advantage in the race to land a slot in a freshman class at a school of their choosing.

A sampling of a few selective colleges and universities close to northern New Jersey, as well as counselors who help families navigate the intricacies of college applications, reveals a number of ways students can use the process to their advantage. The following are intended as examples and ideas for high school students and their parents to pursue with college admissions officers. Not all of the avenues of acceptance are utilized at all schools.

The acceptance rate for schools with excellent reputations — and there are many near New Jersey — are all over the map, from the 10 percent to 11 percent of applicants accepted at the Ivy League schools, to the 40 percent to 60 percent accepted at some of the Big Ten schools. Academically demanding schools, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also have acceptance rates with wide variations.

Some of this is likely due to self-selection by students and parents. A school may seem to have a high acceptance rate, but many students who have little chance of acceptance do not spend their time and energy applying. Elizabeth Wissner-Gross, a college coach and author of two books on how to get into the college of your choice, puts it bluntly.

“Why would someone who is having trouble getting straight A’s in high school want to go to one of the most competitive colleges? They would be miserable. Eighty-five percent of the students who apply to Harvard University have high-A averages, and the majority of them get turned down.”

At the same time, there are thousands of well-rounded students with decent grades who may get shut out of the top three or four colleges of their choice just because there are so many straight-A students with athletic accomplishments and community service who get the first offers. But those same students should consider a number of alternatives, college admissions officers advise. These can range from starting at a satellite college, to taking a few months off or going to a community college or small school close to home for two years.

Trying for a top-tier school is worth the effort, if that is the student’s first choice, Wissner-Gross said.

“The most competitive schools usually offer the students the most opportunities. The more competitive colleges enable you to get into more competitive grad schools. You get better offers for internships and you get offers of jobs from better companies,” she explained. “While you are in school, the more competitive schools have more money available, so all the programs and activities are better funded.”

Try a satellite campus
Pennsylvania State University, a Big Ten Conference school and one of the larger universities on the East Coast, actively promotes this path to acceptance.

“University Park is our most competitive campus, but we have 19 other campuses throughout Pennsylvania and there is a place for almost everyone at Penn State,” said Dr. Randall Deike, associate vice president for enrollment management and executive director of undergraduate admissions. “We are unique, I think, in that we admit students to the university, not to a particular academic program or campus. After two years at one of our other campuses, you are automatically eligible to come to University Park; there is no transfer process.”

Penn State had 16,000 freshmen start in the fall of 2006, half of them at the University Park campus.

“In terms of the Penn State degree, it is the same degree, no matter which campus you graduate from,” Deike said.

Penn State ranks highly in most national ratings, including the annual U.S. News & World Report survey, but not everyone is enthusiastic about attending a satellite campus.

“I would not recommend it, because the other campuses are commuter campuses. Everyone else is going to be from Pennsylvania and is living at home,” said Robin Abramowitz, a college coach from Montclair. “I would recommend the student go to Montclair State University or some other school close to home for two years. They will get a great education and save money and can then transfer to a big school.”

Wait until spring
The University of Maryland at College Park is one school that offers students whom they want to admit but do not have room for in September a spot starting in the spring semester. The University of Maryland is rated 13th for best value when rated on out-of-state tuition fees, according to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine’s top 50 values in public colleges and ranks 18th in the U.S. News & World Report ranking of top 50 public national universities.

“If there is someone we would love to have come to the university, but we have no room in the fall, we will offer them admission in the spring. In 2006 we started the Freshman Connection program. Students took some extended studies — classes at non-peak times between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. — in the fall and then were admitted directly in the spring semester,” said Laura Cosgrove, associate director of undergraduate admissions.

“This is the first year we did this. It was offered to 371 students and all but two started when the spring semester began. We will offer it again in the fall of 2007,” she said.

Some schools offer a few months’ study abroad for the fall of the freshman year and then admit the student for the spring semester.

Abramowitz worked with a student who studied in London through a program at Skidmore College in Saratoga, N.Y., before starting at the college in the spring semester.

“A group of freshmen went to London and then started college together, so they had a chance to bond, and they had a great time,” she said. “Another boy I worked with was interested in politics so he got an internship with a local politician for the fall and then started school in the spring at Brandies University in Waltham, Mass., and it worked out great for him, but it is not for everyone.

“If you graduated with all your friends and they are leaving for college, some students have trouble finding something to do with themselves for those months,” she said.

Waiting list
“Predicting how many students will accept your offer of admission is very difficult, so we have waiting lists and we offer students on the list positions after the May 1 cut-off, which is the deadline most schools adhere to,” said Louis Hirsh, director of admissions at the University of Delaware in Newark, Del.

“Some schools, and we are among them, offer first admissions to a smaller number than we can accept, and then we finish shaping the class from the waiting list.”

Hirsh and the college coaches emphasized that students on wait lists should make sure the college knows he or she is seriously interested and will accept an offer of admission if it is given.

“You have to let a college know you really care,” advised Bev Taylor, director of Ivy Coach, who coaches students trying to get into Ivy League and other schools. “While you are on the wait list, be proactive; put some work into telling them why you think you will be a good addition to the school.

Hirsh added, “The process is very uncertain because students are applying to more schools these days. If we are competing with two or three other colleges, it is one thing, but now students are applying to nine or 10 schools. Some years we admit 200 or 300 from the wait list, sometimes none.”

Community college
The University of Delaware, which is ranked 26th in the U.S. News & World Report ranking of top 50 public national universities, usually accepts more than 40 percent of the out-of-state students who apply and the largest share are from New Jersey. This past fall 785 of the 3,259 out-of-state freshmen were from New Jersey. Many of the transfer students also are from New Jersey and neighboring states.

“We have about 450 transfer students who come to us each fall and a good portion of them come from community colleges. Some of our programs have specific requirements for grade point averages they need to meet, but this is an option that works well for many students,” Hirsh added.
Weigh all alternatives

If you can’t get into the first choice, take a nearby second choice.

Abramowitz advises her clients they can be happy in many different schools.

“If a student wants a big research school and they cannot get into the University of Michigan, they can consider the University of Wisconsin, another Big Ten school. If they can’t get into Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, maybe they should consider Colgate University in New York. The schools that are considered hot change over time,” she said.

Wissner-Gross, the author of “What Colleges Don’t Tell You and Other Parents Don’t Want You to Know,” agreed school status fluctuates.

“People are discovering lesser known colleges. Washington University is soaring in status and New York University has gone way up. Emory University has gone way up. Schools that might not have been considered really good a few years ago are filling up with high level kids and that is a wonderful thing.”

Consider a related major if your academic program is full.

The popularity of different academic interests shifts with changing public sentiment and if one program is full, a related one may have openings.

“If a student is admitted but the first area of interest is full, we might encourage them to go into the Division of Letters and Sciences, which is where people who are undecided on a major start,” said the University of Maryland’s Cosgrove.

“They can then get into their first choice program later, although there may be require-ments for them to perform at a certain level to be admitted. Or they may want to explore other majors. Part of the college experience is to explore new things.”