Archive for the ‘Getting Into College’ Category

Now That You Have Your College Acceptances: Last Minute Advice for Which College to Choose

In college admission, Getting Into College, Ivy League Admissions, Tuition Costs, Uncategorized on April 30, 2018 at 1:33 pm

And my advice is:  follow the money.  Or at least consider if going to, say, Cornell, is going to offer enough bang for your bucks.  Paradoxically, there is evidence that, if you are a “First-Gen” college student, or your family has limited financial means, the extra money is more likely to pay off in the kind of social capital that upper-middle class and wealthy students take for granted.  I will link some evidence for my claims below.  For now I am just going to outline some basic truths, both in general and from my own experience:

  1.  Selecting a college these days is a lot like buying a house.  Money should be as important as the amenities and location in choosing a college, just as it is when buying a house.  And like buying a house has the basic function of providing shelter, so the purpose of college is to provide you an education.  Connections are great and all, and I will get to those later, as promised, but don’t get blinded by the future promise of the connections you think you will make, or by the present promise of a really cool gym and dorm room, or all that tradition and ivy-covered walls.  When I have worked with groups of students who ended up going to different colleges, they have come back to me and confirmed that the basic product–a good education–is remarkably similar, campus-by-campus.  Continuing my house analogy, I just looked up foreclosures in the wealthy enclave of Alamo, CA, and opened up a house going into foreclosure that has 8,000 square feet and seven bathrooms.  The ego benefit of having a Harvard sticker may not outweigh paying five hundred bucks a month for student loans for seven or ten years, or handing on debt to your children, just as the ego benefit of having 8k square feet with a view from the side of Mount Diablo is meaningless when you cannot pay for it, or are trapped by the payments.  Keep in mind that financial aid packages can be adjusted upward or downward every year.  Don’t get buyers remorse next year, or the year you graduate and get your first loan payment letter.
  2. The most important thing about a college education is not the name of the school.  It is the degree itself.  I know this sounds like what I just argued, but bear with me for the details.  The social connections made at an elite college provide a boost that is notable mostly for low-income and First Gen students.  Most solidly middle class (and up) students already have connections; for them, brand name and social considerations should not be at the top of the list, if money will be a problem.  But studies show that the degree is the main thing–if you have 100,00 dollars in debt after going to an elite school, versus say 20k after going to a state school, you are not likely to see enough of a difference in income to make that a good payoff.  To repeat, with feeling:  Getting a degree is the most important thing, not which college it is from, in terms of incomes after college, and  doubly not so for any technical major (engineering, et al) or finance or business . . . The takeaway is put the degree itself and the cost at the top of your considerations. If you are from a family that will not get good financial aid, and tuition, et al,  will be hard to carry–especially if private student loans are going to be needed–and you have other options, I suggest really considering those cheaper options.  Also note how long the latest financial expansion is and plan on a recession starting anywhere from next month to, at the latest, your junior year in college.  Still feeling good about the financials?
  3. If you want to  major in something like Art History or English, but feel you cannot because of cost, you should look for a cheaper school.  If you do well in any major, and plug in the right minor that gives you some skills, you can get a good job.  A recent client, for example, majored in lit, with a Comp Sci minor and is not doing animation and web design, with all kinds of things opening up for him.
  4. You should ignore people like Peter Thiel, who claim college is somehow not necessary, and go, if you can.  Notice that Thiel has not one, but two Stanford degrees.  But I do agree with Thiel on one thing:  too many people are leveraging and taking on debt to go to college.  So go to a community college with a clear university target to follow, if money is an issue.  And make that university a public, in-state school for the best bang for your buck.

And now, here is some evidence for my claims:

From the Brookings Institute, the positive impact of college on earnings for students from backgrounds of poverty:

As the figure shows, however, without a college degree a child born into a family in the lowest quintile has a 45 percent chance of remaining in that quintile as an adult and only a 5 percent chance of moving into the highest quintile. On the other hand, children born into the lowest quintile who do earn a college degree have only a 16 percent chance of remaining in the lowest quintile and a 19 percent chance of breaking into the top quintile. In other words, a low-income individual without a college degree will very likely remain in the lower part of the earnings distribution, whereas a low-income individual with a college degree could just as easily land in any income quintile—including the highest.

Also from Brookings, the effect of a college degree, categorically, without reference to college pedigree:

For more on that Brookings study, which shows that the poor still don’t get as good a deal as the rich (but still:  get the degree):  Brookings.

And more evidence on the effect of college on earnings:

So what role do U.S. colleges play in promoting upward mobility? According to the authors, their analysis of the data yielded four main findings.

First, access to colleges varies greatly by parent income. For example, children whose parents are in the top one percent of the income distribution are seventy-seven times more likely to attend an Ivy League college than those whose parents are in the bottom income quintile. Contrary to public perception, colleges in America are just as socioeconomically segregated as the neighborhoods where children grow up.

Second, within a given college, children from low- and high-income families end up earning very similar amounts. In other words, colleges are successfully “leveling the playing field” for the students they admit, and poor students don’t appear to be “overmatched” at selective colleges as some observers have suggested. On average—and regardless of socioeconomic background—the subsequent earnings of students who attend “elite” schools put them in roughly the eightieth income percentile versus the seventieth percentile for students at other four-year colleges and the sixtieth percentile for students at two-year colleges.

Third, upward mobility rates vary substantially across colleges. For example, California State University–Los Angeles catapults a whopping 10 percent of its student body from the bottom quintile to the top, and some campuses of the City University of New York (CUNY) and the University of Texas system have mobility rates above 6 percent. Yet one in ten colleges has a mobility rate of less than 1 percent. (More on these variations below.)

Finally, although the fraction of low income kids attending college increased from 38 to 46 percent during the 2000s, the number attending colleges with high mobility rates fell sharply, while the fraction of low-income students at four-year colleges and selective schools was unchanged—even at Ivy League colleges, which enacted substantial tuition reductions and other outreach policies. Most of the increase in low-income enrollment occurred at two-year colleges and for-profit institutions.


For more on that last study, go here:  College Effect on Upward Mobility


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.