February 2007 Newsletter
I’m writing a story for our upcoming College Guide on the latest news and trends in the college admissions world. I’ve talked to a fair number of admissions deans, but I’d also like to hear from counselors about how the process looks from high school.
Specifically, I’m interested in talking about mixed messages. It’s to be expected in a college system as diverse as ours, I suppose, but students often have trouble wading through the sometimes contradictory messages colleges send out: Some schools say specialize in one activity and become a star; others say they want involvement across the spectrum; some seem to be looking at class rank; still others seem to emphasize grades in test prep courses and a good counselor recommendation–and, of course, there are plenty that just want it all.
Have any of your students gone through this?
In responding to your question I want to add that I don’t believe there are mixed messages out there. Admissions counselors from the highly selective colleges are in general all saying the same thing and they have been saying that for years, it’s just that the majority of kids haven’t heard it or, more likely, don’t believe it, and are not listening.
Students who are applying to highly selective colleges know that these colleges want applicants with A’s in all honors and advanced placement courses, SAT’s 2150 and above, and scores on the Subject Tests each in the 700 range. For most students, these are all very basic “prerequisites,” but from the college’s perspective, a student who has only the “numbers,” just doesn’t have enough. “Why?” Because having the numbers alone, doesn’t say all that much about the applicant. Every year thousands of students who are ranked #1 in their class and have perfect SAT scores are rejected from the college of their choice. What’s even more interesting, though, is that these students have no idea how many others have those same statistics. Couple this with the fact that these highly selective colleges receive approximately 20,000 applications for a class of 1000 to 2000 students.
We’ve heard stories where some of these colleges could fill their freshman class several times with students with perfect stats. From a highly selective college’s perspective that would indeed be boring and the reason why admissions counselors are forced to look beyond grades, courses and test scores. What applicants are failing to hear, however, is that college admissions counselors are attempting to form well-rounded classes of talented students with diverse specialties. Therefore, the student’s involvement in extra-curricular pursuits becomes the next most meaningful part of the process. Yet, for a student to be involved in activities “across the spectrum” or to be “well-rounded” is not going to help all that much, since being well-rounded is also very common in that pool of 20,000 or so applicants. What is not so common is for a student to specialize in one activity and become a super-star. When a student has a particular talent combined with decent grades, respectable SAT scores, fine letters of recommendations and excellent essays, these “talented” or “angular” kids get accepted at the highly selective college of their choice. Colleges have been using these factors for admission for at least the last decade, and as long as each year there are more students applying to colleges, I envision that this will not change.
The trick is in getting these students as well as their parents to believe this from an early age. Students need to develop an extracurricular pursuit about which they are passionate. All too often students wonder about which activities they should pursue. My answer is always the same: Students need to find their passion, and develop it. They need to involve themselves in extracurricular pursuits that are right for them, not for someone they are trying to be.
Of course all students cannot be talented and angular, and when it becomes obvious that this is not going to happen, there is still major work that can be done in the application process to make students look the best that they can be.
Please feel free to contact me, if you have any additional questions. Good luck with your article.