On the first day of my college admissions journey, I was sitting on the ground against a wall waiting for my flight in the Columbus, Ohio airport. I was charging my phone after spending the past eight hours or so interviewing for an entry-level admissions counselor job. My phone began to buzz and I saw a local 740 number. About 30 seconds later, I was offered the job, and would embark upon my career in education.
Since then, I have probably read over 10,000 applications, visited high schools across the country, and counseled over 150 students. It is safe to say that the past seven years of my life have centered around the college admissions process. As I recently wrapped up my final year as a high school college counselor, I wanted to share some of the more practical musings I have had regarding “the process”:
- Who you are and what you do with your opportunities matters so much more than the college you attend
There is certainly value in attending a “brand name” school, but if you are going somewhere in life, nothing is going to stop you. For many students and parents, the college search is just one part of a lifelong process of chasing abstract prestige. This is a pretty soulless endeavor, so opt out as soon as you can. Put another way, you can do really well and go far at a variety of colleges. Check out this list from Time on the top colleges that Fortune 500 CEO’s attend. While schools like Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford are represented, so are Penn State, Texas A&M, and Miami University, which are all public institutions that accept over 50% of applicants.
2. Early Decision matters
I can’t tell you how many students and parents walked into my college counseling office and asked: “what can I do to increase my chances?” By the time you are a high school senior, there is typically very little that you can do. However, there is one strategy that can increase your chances by 2-3x of getting into a college: Early Decision, the binding admissions program. The tradeoff is that you have to attend the college you are accepted to, but if your goal is to get into a highly selective college, you would be crazy to not apply.
3. Trust the data
While GPA and test scores are not everything, they tend to be the primary factors that admissions officers are looking at when reviewing applications. Use these data points to help guide your college list. While other factors, like essays, recommendations, interviews, and activities, do matter, the data points of GPA and test scores provide our only objective metrics. If your high school has Naviance (or a tool like Naviance) you will be able to see how your GPA/test scores stack up against other students who have applied to particular schools in the past.
4. You are (probably) not an exception
Related to my previous point, many students look at the Naviance graphs and fixate on the outliers (in the case of Naviance these are the lone green dots in a sea of red x’s). This is to say that students hope that they will be the exception and gain admissions despite having test scores and grades lower than typical. Unless you are a recruited athlete, your parent is a major donor, or you have some sort of other extraordinary talent, this is unlikely to be the case. “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst” is a good mantra in the admissions process. Of course you can dream big, but this also needs to be balanced with some pragmatism.
5. Use the college search process as an opportunity to explore
One of the best parts of the admissions process is the chance to visit difference schools. The college search offers the opportunity to explore new places, so challenge yourself to visit a school in a place you wouldn’t have normally considered. Whether that is in a big city or a small, rural community, you will have the opportunity to see something new (and maybe see the college as a viable option).
Best of luck to the students and parents who are embarking on this journey. College admissions can be scary, stressful, and disappointing, but it is also so exciting as it is your launching pad into adulthood. Enjoy the process, balance your dreams with pragmatism, and remember that it will all work out.