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What Universities Will Look For This Year In College Applications–A Quick Introduction

In Admissions Data for 2013, applying to college, Changes in College Admissions, College Application Data, common application, Getting Into College on June 27, 2013 at 2:59 pm

What universities are looking for starts with what kind of university you are applying to.  In the most basic sense, universities can be divided into two categories when it comes to applications: holistic or objective universities.

In the first case, holistic universities take a “whole person” approach, looking at grades and  (usually) test scores, but also looking at other factors, like essays.  Whether this measures the whole person or not is open to question.

Objective universities use test scores and grades . . . and that’s pretty much it.  With the exception of some specific programs, your academic record is the sole measurement, so no sweating essays and recommendations.  On the other hand, with objective schools, you also have  little or no chance to persuade somebody to give you a chance if your academic record is a little sketchy.  And how well grades and scores reflect your potential is a matter of some debate;  I have written about this and about how college applications are evaluated in earlier posts, and I suggest you read this post from last year before reading what I have to say below:  How College Applications are Evaluated.  I will pause while you click and read . . .

Welcome back.

So let’s turn now to factors that most applicants think are more important  than they really are.  I must caution you before we proceed to keep in mind that, in this post, I am dealing with aggregated numbers, i.e, with averages.  Despite the trends and averages,  there are specific colleges which do emphasize elements that other colleges ignore completely–a college that states diversity as a mission will emphasize this in applications, for example, so being the first in your family to attend, or being a first generation American, may give you some sort of boost.  Other colleges that have small student bodies, a personal approach and active and committed alumni may put an emphasis on a personal interview–in one specific and extreme case, Deep Springs College requires an extended visit to campus, participation in the work and classes there, and a panel interview that can be, well, a bit confrontational, and this panel, which is dominated by students currently in the Deep Springs program, ultimately determines who is admitted after making it to this second round.  But hey, if you do make it into Deep Springs, you are getting a free education at a super elite (and highly iconoclastic) school that sends most of its grads on to the Ivy League or other super-elites for further ausbildung.  And schools which put interviews and personal characteristics at the top of their criteria are rare.

In fact, for most universities, in terms of the activities and qualifications that play a role in the application process,  interviews and class rank are not of significant importance or are not considered.

Surprised?  You have  a lot of company.  I  have some clients who follow their class rank like a gambler staring at the roulette wheel, even after I show them that it won’t really matter, and I have others who really sweat the interview and I have to repeat, over and over, relax, dress decently, smile and all will be well  until I have them hypnotized.

While there are probabilities in admissions, your college applications are not a crapshoot, and unless you suddenly turn into Linda Blair in The Exorcist, (Don’t click this link if you don’t like scary pictures)  or otherwise go out of your way to offend the interviewer, the interview won’t matter  other than as part of your overall expression of demonstrated interest.  And demonstrated interest is important, but an interview is only one of the ways to demonstrate interest to the college.  Talking to any reps the university sends out on the road, to your school or your region, talking with people in the admissions department and in the various programs, visiting the campus, et al, also fit into the category of demonstrated interest.

The reasons for the decline of the interview are multiple, but most importantly come down to money–with the enormous volume of applicants many universities process, it is, for most schools, too difficult to establish and maintain an adequate pool of good interviewers.  Over the years, alumni have become the go-to source for interviewers,  but they are often not really vetted because it is hard enough just to find somebody with the time and desire to do the job.  Interviewers are not paid or get only a nominal remuneration, for the most part.  As applications have soared into the many tens of thousands for elite schools, even after an initial pool of qualified candidates is established, the multiple hundreds to thousands of remaining applicants represent a huge interviewing challenge.  So when it comes to interviewing, my advice is to schedule an interview and follow my mantra, above.  Oh, and be on time.

The decline of class rank as a factor is more complicated.  One reason is the decline in the number of high schools who report class rank.  Put simply, high school administrators grew tired of the bloodletting that occurred over class rank as students vied to be valedictorian and salutatorian, and it’s pretty hard to compute rank in a fair way when comparing students who have, say, the same G.P.A. and same number of A.P. classes but have emphasized different areas.  How would one fairly compare an exceptional arts and humanities student to an exceptional STEM student?  Universities, on the other hand, have de-emphasized class rank for a number of reasons connected to variations in the quality and size of high schools.  The third-ranked student at a small school that is mediocre is not likely to be all that competitive with the third-ranked student at a large and very highly ranked high school.  Or at least it is not possible for the universities to assess a pair or students like these in an objective and accurate way.

Here is a summary of the trends in interviewing:

In 1993, 42 percent of colleges reported that class rank was of considerable importance. By 2011, that had dropped to 19 percent. In 1993, 12 percent of colleges reported that the interview was of considerable importance. In 2011, only 6 percent did.

A more important issue for admission is also a perennial hot button topic:  race (or ethnicity, if you will) which, after this week’s Supreme Court decision, will still be used in admissions–at least in the next couple of years.  The very last legal word has not been said on this matter yet .  . .

But here is the nut of this issue:  ethnicity is not really a major factor in most cases, and for those where it is a factor, this is only true after you qualify and at a particular point in the process with particular schools: before any additional factors are evaluated, the initial pool of candidates is established using GPA and test scores; then essays, activities and other factors, along with race, are used to determine who will be offered admissions, based on a scale that reflects what the university wants and needs.  A truly unqualified candidate is not in this initial pool.  I have written about this in more detail in the post linked above and also in this post:  Seven Rules for College Admissions.

Here is the data that the NACAC study came up with for race and other “personal characteristics” in college applications:

Personal Characteristics and Admissions Decisions, 2011

How Colleges Use Factor First-Generation Status Race or Ethnicity Gender
Considerable Importance 3.5% 4.7% 4.7%
Moderate Importance 22.5% 21.0% 8.2%
Limited Importance 26.0% 21.8% 23.0%
No Importance 48.1% 52.5% 64.1%

For 70-95% or more of the colleges, depending on which factor you look at, it’s not such a big deal, eh?

For the most part, your application  essays are far more important than personal attributes like gender or race, and the essays themselves often tie into or show something of your activities and interests, so you can cover a lot of ground with a good essay. Good essays are particularly important when you are likely to be in the middle of the pack qualifying for the pool and need something to stand out. So after grades, test scores and ongoing activities, you should be looking at developing a good set of essays.  That, I think, is the takeaway here.

To recap and to wrap this post up, the two most important factors in college admissions are, in this order,  grades in college preparatory classes and test scores on the SAT and ACT (AP classes obviously rule the college prep class category, unless you are in an IB program–more about this in a later post).  Following grades and tests in importance are essays, activities, teacher and counselor recommendations (I favor getting both, as long as they are specific and solid), and demonstrated interest also matters to many schools; below these factors in importance, for most schools, are subject test scores, portfolios (though portfolios are a must for some programs and do make a difference if you have something remarkable to offer) and, depending on the school, near the bottom of the priority list in admissions are interviews and personal characteristics, with the exceptions I noted earlier.  Do read the links I posted above if you haven’t already and stay tuned: I’ll be turning my attention to specific application essay topics in the next two weeks as the universities start to post their essay prompts for 2013-2014.

A word of warning, however:  As I start to write about some of the specific posts at elite schools, some of my posts will be available only as excerpted samples on this site; you will need to pay a small subscription fee to gain full access to all posts, via my private site.  It’s only fifteen bucks for the full application year, through April, 2014.  I call that a bargain.  But just to check, feel free to peruse my archives and to click on tags and categories for other posts.

College Admissions Data for 2013: A Look at Yield and Some Sympathy for the Devil

In Admissions Data for 2013, Admissions Yields for 2012, College Application Strategy, Harvard Admissions Data for 2012, Ivy League Admissions Data, Stanford Admissions Data for 2012, University of Chicago Admissions Data on June 21, 2013 at 4:51 pm

For many years, yield was vital to college rankings.   Universities tried not only to attract far more qualified applicants than they could possibly admit, they also tried to get a very high yield.  From the point of view of applicants, this was, well, a bit devilish.  The universities, of course, have a different point of view, and it’s worth considering their perspective as you begin the process of applying.

For those of you who are not up on the inside game of college admissions and its terminology (yet), yield is the  number of admitted students who then also actually enroll in the school instead of, say, turning down the school to enroll in their “other” first choice.  Yield was for many years important due to the U.S. News and World Report’s use of yield in its rankings of colleges, a practice they gave up years back. But yield remains, as a kind of ghost hanging around the theatre of college applications, influencing the general perception about how in demand a college is.  The psychology is not so dissimilar to that of the fashion industry in some ways, if you step back and squint your eyes a bit—or maybe not.  Too scary to visualize.

In any case,   universities today still  share their yield info with applicants; those universities with high yields share the information as a sales point (simply everybody, or at least  a supermajority of our admits wants to go to our school, etc.) and the others share presumably either so they won’t seem like they have something to hide or because they really are perfectly fine accepting students who were ranked in a top decile but who were not in the tiny cohort of the  top 1 to 3% of those who actually gain admissions to an elite Ivy or Stanford.

As a side note, for those of you who are already feeling the butterflies as you consider the odds of getting into, say, Princeton or Stanford, look:  You will find a surprising number of really excellent schools that accept the top 10-15% of students, and many people in fact get a great education for less debt at public schools with even “lower” standards.  Some of these less competitive schools have specific programs that compete with anybody.  Once you look beyond the same 10-15 schools that everybody else knows about and wants to apply to, you can find all kinds of hidden gems.  So breathe deep and relax as I present the admissions facts as they are, and I will, in upcoming posts, also help you look outside the envelope everybody else is staring into, including looking at cheaper and less well-known but still excellent domestic options, as well as looking outside the country. If you can expand your horizon beyond the same 12-15 schools everyone else is applying to, you can find some real gems, colleges that may suit you and your needs better than many marquee universities.

With this preamble, let’s first take a look at the data I gathered on some of the most competitive colleges in the United States—yes, these are some of the schools everybody has heard of:

Three-Year Yield Data on Über-Competitve schools

Brown2013 (class of 2017): 59.9% ;  2012:ca 57%; 2011 55.8% (None from wait list this year)

Columbia2013 (class of 2017): 61%; 2012: 61%; 2011: 61% (Very consistent to 2008, which was 60%)

Dartmouth–2013 (class of 2017): 48.5%; 2012: 49.5%; 2011: 52%

Harvard2013 (class of 2017): 82%; 2012: 80.2%; 2011: ca 77% (46 from wait list this year)

Princeton2013 (class of 2017): 68.7%; 2012 66.7%; 2011: 56.99% (Princeton Admissions Page stats claim 65% for 2012/2016 class; this appears to be an inaccurate early number)

Stanford2013 (class of 2017): 76.7%; 2012 72.84%; 2011: 70.05%

University of Chicago2013 (class of 2017): 54.98%: 2012: 47%; 2011: 39.88%

UPenn-2013 (class of 2017): 64.25%; 2012: 64.88%; 2011: 62.92%

Yale2013 (class of 2017): Yield not available as of 6/19; 2012: 68.4%; 2011: 65.2%

Compare the yield rates for the elite schools, above, with the overall category averages below, which come from the most recent NACAC (National Association of College and Career Counselors) report, with data up through 2011; these are averages for the entire public/private categories:

Yield Rates for Public and Private 4-Year Colleges

Year

Public

Private

2002

51.4%

47.8%

2003

50.6%

45.7%

2004

49.1%

45.5%

2005

48.9%

44.2%

2006

47.5%

43.8%

2007

48.4%

44.2%

2008

46.2%

43.3%

2009

42.9%

38.4%

2010

42.9%

38.4%

2011

42.6%

36.4%

The story that my data on the super selective schools and the data in this categorical chart tells  is clear:  the most elite schools have been pretty well sheltered from the big drop in yields in recent years, but many others have been, therefore, disproportionately affected.

Why?  Well, demand, largely.  And the demand is driven by certain realities—the famous profs, the famous alums, the data they issue about how smart their applicants are, the data about how few of those applicants they let in, the data about how high their yield rate is of those they did admit . . . oh, wait, it looks like we are discussing, well, marketing, and therefore, Dear Applicant, we are discussing you. Or your perceptions both personally and aggregated with your peers across the country and world.  Take your pick.

As you consider your own perceptions, we should also consider the plight of that demonic realm known as the Admissions Department. You might want to cue some Rolling Stones (Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste) as you think about those dark empires into which all your personal information will disappear, leaving you to wait for months to find out if you are one of the blessed or one of the damned when the envelopes are mailed or the e-mails sent next spring.  But here’s the thing:  they have problems, too.

You are in a race to be admitted; they are in a contest to improve their rankings, or if they are near the top, to maintain their position.   Changes in college rankings mean big money and can make or break campuses and careers.   In some cases,  the suffering of admissions deans may even surpass that of those applying.   A large part of a dean’s problem is hitting the sweet spot where most of those admitted actually attend.  All heck can break loose if 400 extra freshmen admits appear who weren’t expected.

Yes, screwing up on your yield can wreak some serious havoc, with 18-year olds sleeping on cots in hallways, irate parents calling,  news vans prowling campus.   Worse even than that  is a big drop in yield,  when dorm rooms are empty because the admissions people didn’t get enough new faces to show up.  Instead of simply bad PR, which they can deal with, they lose real money and their prestige takes a hit.  That’s a scary, nay a terrifying thing for university administrators, even with the economy appearing to recover. Have a little compassion for those admissions types who are not really devils anyhow.  They are your fellows in the suffering created by our crazy college applications market.

And here is one more thing to consider:  You will do a better job at creating a strategy for college admissions if you better understand the problems facing your admissions officers, because you will also know more about your own  challenges when you apply.  And when you turn to writing your application essays, your audience should be one of your first considerations.

Of course, in the long run, the more of you who do a better job understanding those problems, the (paradoxically) larger problems those same admissions officers will face, at least in the long run.  For one thing, you  will follow my advice and continue to apply to more schools, and you will also continue to demonstrate more interest in more schools, using persistence and discipline to evade their attempts to measure just how committed you are as they, for their part,  try to get more apps, admit fewer people and have a higher yield.

With that, let’s say the game is afoot, and may the best applicants win.  Read my earlier post on how applications are evaluated while you start to plan your moves, and I will have more about all this strategy stuff in later posts. Speaking of which, some of these posts will be protected and you will need to pay me a very small subscription fee for full access to all my posts on my private blog.  Contact me at wordguild@gmail.com for more information.  See you soon.