College Game Plan
Your student took the hard classes, the honors precalculus and the advanced-placement (AP) French. She went to her ACT prep course and raised her score four points on her second test. He nailed that personal essay, pouring his personality and passions into 650 words or less. What else can your student do to nab a spot in the college of his or her dreams?
What parents should never do, of course, is to bribe or cheat their children’s way into universities, as did more than 30 parents who were recently indicted in a nationwide admissions scandal. Nothing beats strong transcripts and test scores, honestly earned, to gain that golden ticket into top colleges.
However, there are a handful of fairly easy, lesser-known and legal means that can help solid students – and even wobbly ones – increase their college odds. For Teen Focus, we reviewed reports by national organizations and spoke to two local experts to help us develop this list of under-the-radar admissions strategies.
One increasingly popular tool is to apply to college through “early decision” or “early action” programs. The number of students applying early has trended upward a few percentage points a year for several years, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s (NACAC) 2018 State of College Admission Report, in which nearly 500 schools were surveyed.
This is for good reason: Colleges accept more students who apply early than they do from their total applicant pool. Colleges offering early decision accepted 62 percent of those applicants versus 51 percent of their applicants overall, while schools with early action accepted 74 percent of those applicants compared with 64 percent overall, according to the NACAC report.
Strategy #1: Get Those Apps in Early
With 450 colleges now offering early admissions, using the strategy may seem like a no-brainer. Clearly, early decision candidates have an edge, though some of that may be because they are generally stronger candidates than the regular applicant pool, according to the College Board, the nonprofit college advocacy group that administers the SAT.
Scott Cowan, a tutor and college counselor with San Francisco-based SF Creative Learning Solutions, says that as appealing as applying early may be, the student needs to decide if she “has the test scores and transcripts and extra-curricular accomplishments to apply early ... or whether the student needs more time to raise the GPA and test scores and perhaps complete a project started earlier.”
“If a student needs to show a continued trend of increased grades in more rigorous courses the first semester of senior year,” Cowan says, “it is better to wait for regular decision applications.”
“Regular decision” means that a high school senior submits an application at the regular deadline (between November and January, depending on the school) and can attend any school that accepts her. “Early decision” differs in that the due date can be as early as October. The student can apply to only one school through early decision, and if accepted – usually by December – he is required to attend. In “early action,” the deadline is also early but, if accepted, the student may consider other offers as well. (Some schools offer modified versions of these early applications.)
“So, should a student who had the academic maturity early to earn top marks from freshman to junior years, take increasingly demanding courses over those semesters and garner stellar ACT or SAT scores apply early decision?” asks Cowan, who has been teaching and tutoring for three decades. “Absolutely. Maybe. Definitely. Probably.”
His ambivalence stems from what early decision applicants can lose. First, the student won’t get to compare the financial aid package offered by their early decision university with those of other contenders. The dollar difference can be in the thousands. (If the financial package from the early decision school is untenable, the family can back out.) Thus, many people have criticized early decision as favoring rich families who can handle any tuition cost.
Another drawback is that acceptance through early decision means the applicant misses out on the exciting process of discovering other amazing schools – and possibly a more suitable one – during senior year, Cowan says.
“Parents of teens, and teens themselves, will be shocked by how much they and their goals change over the six to eight months between submission of early decision applications” in the fall of senior year and May, when regular-decision applicants pay their tuition deposits, Cowan says.
Indeed, teens change their minds. To avoid that, universities have created early application programs. “In particular, some very strong schools that would lose excellent students to rivals want to snap up these students during early decision rounds,” Cowan says.
Colleges care about their yield – the percentage of students who accept the college's admission offer. Often used to measure a school’s success, yield has dropped on average nationwide from 49 percent in 2001 to 33.6 percent in 2016, the NACAC reports. The decline has occurred as the number of schools to which each student applies has risen greatly, thanks to the Internet and the Common Application (a single application that can be submitted to hundreds of private universities). Because early decision is binding, it raises the yield for each acceptance offer made.
Strong students who may not be shoo-ins for admission to their favorite school can take advantage of this university preoccupation with yield by applying early decision. (To find out how sure they are to get in, hopeful applicants can compare their grades and scores to the school’s averages as listed on their websites.)
Early decision is also the way to go for students who want to attend a school known for accepting many early candidates. Cowan says some excellent schools have raised their prestige partly by recruiting top talent through early decision – Harvey Mudd near Los Angeles and Wesleyan in Pennsylvania are two examples – and students who are sure they want to attend should apply early decision. Many top liberal arts college fill at least half of their freshman classes with early decision applicants. (Colleges rarely release early decision acceptance rates publicly, but some counseling organizations do receive the figure from some colleges.)
It’s not just students near the top of the class who can benefit from early application options, but marginal ones as well. Chapman College in Orange County and American University in Washington, D.C., are two schools that have gained esteem partially by accepting a growing portion of their population through binding early decision.
“Many of my students who are far more capable than their overall transcripts and test scores show can gain entry here early decision, but would be unlikely regular decision,” Cowan says.
Strategy #2: Show You Want to Go
All applicants, whether applying early or not, should use another lesser-known admissions strategy, that of “demonstrating interest” in their preferred universities, say Cowan and Grayson Giovine, founder of Zenith Tutoring. Zenith offers SAT and ACT test prep and college admissions counseling in Mountain View, Palo Alto and San Francisco.
“The basic idea … is that a student who demonstrates interest in attending the college is more likely to accept an offer of admission, thus improving the college’s yield,” Giovine explains.
High school counselors may not even mention this tactic, but according to NACAC, nearly 40 percent of admissions staff at surveyed universities considered demonstrating interest at least moderately important when accepting students in 2018. That’s right under writing a good essay in terms of importance, and well above recommendations, extracurriculars and work experience, according to the NACAC survey.
Students can show interest in simple ways: checking in while on a visit to the college, doing an interview with an alumnus in their area or calling the admissions office with questions, Giovine says. Even clicking a link in an email and exploring the college website can indicate an interest to data-savvy college admissions staff.
One opportunity not to miss is signing up for and attending an information session at the university.
“Colleges understand that a visit may be cost prohibitive for some families, but never attending an information session – whether that be at your high school, in your local area or online – is a sign of a student not very interested in the school,” Giovine says.
“Also, network whenever you can,” says Giovine, himself a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate. “If you’re attending an information session with a college representative, have good questions prepared, both for during the session and after the session. Be friendly and send a thank you note afterward. Little things like this can go a long way. If you simply get one person in your corner, that can be the difference between a ‘yes’ and a ‘no.’”
Strategy #3: Go Testless
For students whose SAT or ACT scores aren’t sparkling, there’s a new admissions strategy – not listing their scores in the application. More than 1,000 colleges now allow students to skip submitting test scores, according to the organization FairTest, a proponent of the test-optional approach. More universities join the movement each year, including several in the California State University system and some of the nation’s top 30 universities.
“University of Chicago famously made the SAT/ACT score an optional part of its admissions process in June 2018,” Giovine says. “New York University also has a flexible policy when it comes to test scores. You can, for example, submit three AP exam scores in lieu of an SAT or ACT score. These are just two of many schools that no longer require the SAT or ACT.”
One reason universities are making test scores optional is that the best predictor of success in college is not the score you clinch on a single day as much as your course load and grade-point average over three years, Cowan says.
Another motive for the test-optional movement is that it hopefully will result in more minority and low-income students being admitted into top colleges, FairTest reports. These students don’t score as well on the SAT or ACT because their parents can’t afford test prep instruction and their schools are often not as well funded.
Cowan and Giovine caution that students who skip the test or choose not to reveal their score need to show their strengths in other ways. Outstanding essays and recommendations, strong AP or SAT II subject scores, video submissions and portfolios are other means of impressing admissions officers.
“That said, it is a no-brainer to submit your SAT or ACT score if it is at or above the median for the school,” Giovine says. “In that case, it would certainly help your chance of admission even though it is optional.”
Strategy #4: Look Good Online
It’s not just a modern legend: college admissions officers do check applicants’ social media sites, and it does influence their views on the students.
In a poll of 364 U.S. admissions officers by Kaplan Test Prep in 2018, 57 percent said it was fair game to check social media profiles to help decide whom to admit.
In a separate Kaplan survey in 2017, of the 35 percent of admissions officers who checked social media like Facebook and Instagram, 42 percent said what they saw had a negative impact on the teen’s chances, while nearly half said it influenced their view of the applicant for the better. Several officers shared anecdotes.
“One young lady started a company with her mom, so it was cool to visit their website,” one admissions officer shared.
“One student described on Twitter that she facilitated an LGBTQ panel for her school, which wasn’t in her application,” another officer said. “This made us more interested in her overall and encouraged us to imagine how she would help out the community.”
On the flip side, one officer told of an applicant who shared on social media his involvement in a felony – something he didn’t disclose when requested on his application.
“If he had been forthcoming, we would not have rescinded his acceptance offer, but we had to,” the officer said.
Local counselors tell students to be very careful what they share.
Cowan says: “Please, please, please do not post pictures of yourself on social media smoking, drinking, jaywalking or doing other things you don’t want your grandmother to see you doing.”
“If there’s anything questionable in your social media, we would suggest deleting it, or at least deactivating your profile during the admissions cycle,” Giovine says.
Strategy #5: Stand Out
A final way to gain a coveted admissions slot is simply by pursuing one’s passion to the utmost.
For students who love a certain field of study, Cowan recommends they build their course schedule to emphasize it through high school.
“If you like physics or English or history or whatever discipline makes your brain synapses spark fireworks displays, take every course available in that area of study,” he says.
A student’s passions don’t have to be academic for them to stand out to admissions officers, nor do they have to be athletic or artistic, Cowan says. He urges clients to do something few other teens do – what he calls “rare teen activities.”
He gives an example of one student who organized a school-wide ping pong tournament for years at his high school as a way for shy kids to make friends. Another boy loved science and the second language he learned in school and developed a series of scientific lessons to teach at local libraries for free, in Spanish.
Cowan says students who accomplish such unique tasks “show colleges those elusive qualities of leadership, maturity, determination and follow-through that they seek.”
Angela Geiser is editor of Teen Focus.
• College Board: collegeboard.org.
• FairTest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing: fairtest.org.
• Kaplan Test Prep: kaptest.com.
• National Association for College Admission Counseling: nacacnet.org.
• SF Creative Learning Solutions: sflearns.com.
• Zenith Tutoring: zenithtutoring.com.
For more help with college applications and ways to support your tween or teen, click here.