Tag Archives: Common Application

The Hyper-Competitive World Of College Admissions

For the Fall, 2011 freshman class, Harvard University accepted only 6% of its applicants.  This was the lowest in the Country.  Yale, Princeton and Columbia followed close behind, each admitting only 7% of its applicants.  To emphasize how difficult it is to be admitted to one of these schools, it’s important to note that 95% of Harvard’s incoming class ranked in the top 10% of their high school class, and the middle 50% of admitted Harvard students’ SAT scores was 2080 to 2370.  That means that a student in the 25th percentile of the admitted Harvard class (the bottom quarter) scored in the top 6% of the 1.6 million students who took the SAT last year.  Those in the middle, an “average” Harvard applicant, scored within the top 2% of all SAT test takers world-wide.

These numbers are no surprise to an experienced college admissions consultant, but they may shock an unsuspecting family entering the process.  A family with whom we recently worked was astonished by the fact that their son was not admissible to Harvard despite the fact that both parents and 2 of his 4 grandparents graduated from Harvard.  The student in question had better grades and higher test scores than both of his parents!  And this hyper-competitive environment has filtered down through the universe of public and private colleges throughout the nation.  This all begs the question:  Why is college admissions so competitive these days?  There are 3 primary reasons:

1.  Today’s American students are competing against a global student body.  Twenty five years ago, few international students sought admission to America’s colleges and universities, but with the rapid population growth in China and India, not to mention many other countries, more students are seeking entrance to U.S. colleges, which are considered by most to be the best in the world.

2.  There are more students in the pipeline.  While the overall population of American high school students has stabilized, it’s still at its highest level in more than 15 years.  More importantly, the percentage of high school graduates who go directly on to college is at its highest point ever, about 70%, according to the National Center For Education Statistics.

3.  Finally, more kids are applying to more colleges than ever before.  Online applications, like the Common Application, make this much easier than ever before.  The average student applies to approximately 6 colleges, compared to only 3 twenty years ago.

So, with more applicants, more applications and the same number of colleges as there were two decades ago, the admissions process has become much more of a numbers game.  This means that good grades in college prep courses, strong SAT or ACT scores, a powerful essay, solid extracurricular activities, and strong teacher recommendations are critical for admission to the Ivies and many other schools.  The most important action students can take is to study hard, and do well in high school!

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Not Your Father’s College Admissions

The old commercial by General Motors went something like this:  “The new Oldsmobile is not your father’s Oldsmobile…”  Within a decade of that advertisement, the Olds line was abandoned.  Such is the case with college admissions.  It’s quite literally not your father’s admissions game.  Instead it’s much more competitive, complicated, not to mention, significantly more expensive.  Below I’ve outlined several of the most poignant differences between old and new.

Highly Competitive:  When I applied to college in the 1980s, only 6 out of 10 high school students went directly from high school to college.  Today, that number has increased to 7 out of 10.  To make matters worse, colleges are now recruiting internationally, so kids are being compared to students not only across the U.S., but around the world.  Factor in that because of online applications, kids are now applying to more schools (an average of 7 as compared to only 4 just 15 years ago), and you’ve got many more applicants, many more applications and the same number of colleges as there were 25 years ago.  That all leads to a dramatically highly selective environment.

Test Prep and Grade Inflation:  With the significant growth of the test prep movement, more students are focusing on SAT and ACT preparation, so scores for high performing students have increased over time.  In addition, grade inflation has crept into our high schools like never before to the extent that today, a “B” is much closer to what a “C” was when parents were in school.  Because grades and test scores are among the most important factors in the admissions decision, especially at the highly selective colleges, this adds to the highly competitive nature of today’s process.

An Overwhelmingly Complex Process:  Applying to college used to entail writing an essay, completing some basic paperwork, and mailing the packet to the 2 or 3 colleges to which you sought admission.  The Common Application, and other competing applications, promised to change all that.  The idea was that you would do one application which would enable you to apply to any combination of 500 colleges who use that application.  The problem is that the Common App is not very user friendly.  It’s less than intuitive interface also has several additional pieces, called supplementals, that are specific to each school.  As a result, instead of writing one or two basic essays, many students have to write more than a dozen college essays, depending on the particular schools to which they apply.  Even submitting the applications has become time consuming.  In many cases, you submit once, but you have to pay 10 times!  And what if your college does not use the Common Application?  Then you have to search, register for, complete and submit that many more applications at the college’s own web site.  For many, this is a dizzingly challenging process which is why we recommend starting EARLY during the summer before a student’s senior year of high school.

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