Who Gets in and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions

Guidance for counselors, students, parents, and anyone looking at possibly going to college.  As a first-generation college student myself, I would have benefitted from more information like this on college admissions!

This week I interviewed a parent, a school counselor, and read Jeffrey Selingo’s “Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions.”  Here is the summary of what I learned for those that are counselors in training (like myself), a parent (like myself), a teacher, or interested in students’ futures.  As the first person in my family to go to college, I include information that I wish I had known.

Section 1:   Is college just another luxury good?  This is an interesting question for us to ponder.  We should consider the tension between two things:  emotions and practicality.

This concept also resonated in a seminar that I attended.  The realization of how much college costs.  When most kids are only used to paying for gas and maybe car insurance, it is difficult to really fathom what $80,000 per year actually looks like.

Section 2:  How different universities evaluate students.

Emory University uses 4 categories:  high school curriculum, recommendations, extra-curricular, and intellectual curiosity.  They score students from 1 to 5  scale in these categories.

The University of Washington uses 3 categories:  academics, personal and overall (mirrors one of the other two).  They score students on a 1 to 9 scale in these categories.

Harvard University uses 4 categories:  academics, extracurricular, personal qualities, and athletic ability.

Remember: colleges are creating a student body.  If they need a tuba player, then they will admit a tuba player.

Legacy status:  From 2005-2015 Harvard accepted 34% of its legacy applications.  Compare this to 6% of the general population.

Section 3:  Application Contents

On average, admissions spend 8 minutes on each application.

Selective Colleges:  take the most rigorous courses you can take; better a B in hard class

Senior year rigor must be emphasized.  If colleges see you are taking all easy classes because you cannot handle senior-level work, then that will reflect on their reviewing the application.

Overall, colleges weigh the SAT/ACT score lower than the GPA.  This makes sense as the colleges want to base the future achievement of a student based on the prior 4 years, not 4 hours.  I have read that it does not matter which test you take.  I have read in Selingo’s book that you should take both the ACT and SAT to see which score is better.  Although, a parent recently told me the ACT is still accepted more widely in the Midwest and the SAT is accepted on the coasts.  Of course, the universities that are swinging between no test and test will affect that as well.

Essay Tips:  Do not write about mental health UNLESS it explains grades or the struggle that made you stronger.  It is more important HOW you write and not WHAT you write about.  Nobody can compile 17 years into 650 words.   Essays are there to help admission get the depth and consistency of your story.
-these lift the student that is on the edge of being or not being admitted

Recommendation Letter Tips:  Ask teachers during junior year (maybe the end of junior year?)

-include detailed information that other parts of the application don’t cover
-include specific examples and stories of how you worked hard for a grade, how you faced adversity, how you engaged in learning
-ask teachers that are outside your major area; for example, if you are majoring in biology, ask an English teacher for a recommendation letter
-detail your potential
-the best letters elaborate on the course content while illustrating a unique student narrative
-mention specific activities that align with the application
-the worst letters go on about procedures, have content that can be found elsewhere on the application, including extracurriculars, elaborate on the course taking (obviously you took the course because it is on the transcript)