November 2009 Newsletter
There are ways to gain an edge in the college admissions process. What many students don’t know is what it takes to be considered a “special” applicant, one that gets flagged for more attention than the other thousands of applicants.
Each year a fairly large percentage of applicants to highly selective colleges are deemed “special” cases. These students could be talented in one area. They could be the athlete, the professional actor, the published writer, or the blue ribbon winner for the best apple plum pie at the state fair. They could also be an under represented minority, a first generation, a student from a low-socioeconomic background, a legacy, a student from a specific geographic area, a celebrity or the son or daughter of a celebrity, or a development case. By using the early decision “card”, an applicant can also have a huge edge as demonstrating interest can be a significant factor in the college admissions process.
As applicants search for the colleges that are most appropriate for them, they also need to use their “card” to their advantage. Many savvy students and parents today are very well aware of some of the “cards” that are used in the admissions process, but they may not be aware of others. While the applicant pool of a particular college changes each year, for some of these cases, (and in particular the ethnicity, gender, major, and geographic “cards”), applicants can examine the Common Data Set for each college. At the very least this can help prospective students to get specific information about the applicants who had been accepted in a previous year.
The question on the Common Application reads:
Are you Hispanic or Latino?
- Yes, Hispanic or Latino (including Spain)
Regardless of your answer to the prior question, please check one or more of the following groups in which you consider yourself to be a member:
- American Indian or Alaska Native (including all Original Peoples of the Americas)
- Asian (including Indian subcontinent and Philippines)
- Black or African American (including Africa and Caribbean)
- Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander (Original Peoples)
- White (including Middle Eastern)
What if an applicant’s grandparents were born in Russia, and then moved to Bolivia where her mom was born. The family then immigrated to the US when her mom was a child. Until the applicant began to work on her college applications she never really thought about this question. She was born in the US, grew up in an upper-middle class neighborhood, went to school where 96% of the student population was white, and 4% were Asian, and the only thing she knows about being Hispanic is that she likes paella.
Should an admissions committee consider this applicant to be Hispanic? How does the student answer this question? If she says she’s Hispanic, will it help her, or will an admissions committee think that she’s just playing the “Hispanic card”? If they suspect the latter to be true, it could very well back fire.
What about the student whose parents and grandparents were all born in South Africa, does that student belong to the “African American” group even thought he’s white?
What other “cards” are there in the college admissions process?
Early Decision Card
An applicant has only one chance at early decision, and signs an agreement that if accepted, he/she will attend.
The percentage of students who are admitted through early decision is typically higher than the percentage of students who are admitted through the regular decision round, so using this “card” can be a significant advantage, but only if the college is the student’s first choice.
For the Class of 2013, for example, the University of Pennsylvania admitted 31.5% of their applicants through the early decision round, but only 14.4% of their applicants were admitted through the regular decision process. Similarly, Cornell University admitted 36.7% of applicants through early decision, but only 15.5% were admitted through regular decision.
Those who are considered legacies are applicants who have a parent who has earned an undergraduate degree from that institution. Alumni are important to colleges because it is the alumni through their donations, who are responsible for the college’s endowment. In returning the favor, the college admits the sons and daughters of those generous alumni. Amherst College, for example, typically admits between 14 -15% of their applicants, and in one year has admitted as much as 65% of the sons and daughters of Amherst’s alumni.
If a family builds a new library or creates a new scholarship fund so that the college can create more diversity, then an acceptance of the son or daughter of this family is often part of the package.
The VIP, a person in the hierarchy of the university, makes a phone call or writes a personal letter on behalf of the applicant, and as a result, the application is flagged for special consideration.
If the son or daughter of a president of a country applies to a college, then by accepting the applicant, the college hopes to gain access to political figures and to have some significant positive publicity.
A talented lacrosse goalie who is recruited by a coach is only competing with other talented lacrosse goalies with similar grades and similar standardized test scores.
In their quest to form a well-rounded class of uniquely talented students, highly selective colleges will flag these applications. A professional actor who has appeared on Broadway, a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, a published author, a president of the student body, an Olympic figure skater, or a chess grandmaster would all be using the talent “card”.
First Generation Card
A first generation applicant (the first in his/her family to attend college) adds to the diversity of a particular institution, and has an advantage in the admissions process. College admissions counselors view these students as not having had the opportunities as other applicants whose parents have graduated from college.
When a college is 70% male and 30% female, in an effort to better balance the incoming freshman class, it is easier for a female to be admitted than a male. The reverse scenario is of course equally as valid.
When 60% of the applicants of a New England college reside in the northeast, and a student from South Dakota applies, that student’s chances of admission are much greater because of geographic diversity.
While a student who declares a particular “not-so-hot” major at a college could certainly have an advantage, that student needs to show either through coursework, extracurricular activities, or essay answers that the intended major is a valid one. Without this as backup, this strategy can all too easily backfire.
Is the applicant who plays a “card” gaming the system? Perhaps, but if the applicant is truthful in his/her responses, then who is to say that this is wrong?