How to Apply to College in 2019-2020–Part 1

Who should read this post: anybody applying to college in the United States of America in 2019-2020. The first part of this post will be pretty California-centric, but I also look at some information on the Ivy League and more application data on Harvard specifically. We still await a full data set on applications for this year’s applicants, who will enter college in this coming fall of 2019. This tends to come after those accepted actually show up to enroll in the fall, at which point universities can confirm their application yield, so it will be another 4-6 months before we have a complete picture of this year’s application data.

Overall, the tendency is for GPA and SAT/ACT score numbers to edge up incrementally (for GPA at about a tenth of a percent or less per year over the last 10 years for the U.C. and over the last 15 years at most Ivies). Keep that in mind with data from the fall of 2018. That said, let’s get to the process of creating a list of target schools.

How to Start an Application Target List

When you sit down to make a list of target colleges, it’s all about the D words: Dreams and Data. The data you start with includes GPA and test scores. Other data like total applications, admit rate, etc., matters, as does the information on your school that is available via Naviance, if your school has it, but it’s best not to start by trying to plug in all the data. It can be overwhelming.

Instead, always start that list on an aspirational note, with your dream schools. Once you have done that, you can list schools you have heard of that seem appealing. We assume that your dream opportunities are reaches, and you can decide later if it’s really worth the application fee and perhaps writing some essays. As you move on to schools that are not perhaps as dreamy but that still are appealing, you want to use data and research to create a target list with two more tiers. And at that point, you need to look at the data.

As a rule, in creating three tiers, the top tier of reach schools are those for which your data is below the average for admits, or for which any applicant, including those with a perfect GPA. is iffy (e.g. Stanford, Princeton, Harvard); the next tier, the “fit” schools should have targets for which you fit the average data profile. In all cases, this includes both GPA and standardized test scores (SAT/ACT). The last tier is safety schools, those for whom 75% or more of the people with your data were admitted.

There are more variables and nuances to creating a good list, but if you follow that approach, and split your applications relatively evenly into each category, you will end up with multiple acceptances. Note that when it comes to sorting the variables, you also want to separate holistic from objective schools–if the school is objective, the GPA and SAT/ACT averages are slightly better predictors. For an explanation of holistic vs. objective applications, and for an overview of how your college application will be evaluated, please see my post The Secret of College Admissions.

Data has to dominate the discussion once you have a rough list of schools. I most often find that when I sit down with clients–let’s assume a typical suburban, Northern California student for this example–they vaguely understand that it’s become a lot more difficult to get into name-brand colleges, and they may understand that a school like U.C. Berkeley has a high GPA average, but they are usually surprised when I tell them that the average GPA for Berkeley has been over 3.9 for several years now. That is over 3.9 unweighted.

This is obviously also true of UCLA, which had over 100,000 freshman applications last year, but then I have to explain that the same is true of U.C. Davis–in fact, Davis had a higher average GPA than Berkeley a few years ago, at 3.92 unweighted, while Berkeley downgraded their final GPA to 3.9 when they updated their numbers for yield in October of 2017. The details of these adjustments can be hard to dig up, but Berkeley made that adjustment after they determined yield in the fall–that is, were able to see who actually showed up to school after being offered admissions and then accepted it and moved into the dorm (there are those who accept and go elsewhere . . . ). My inferences is that they used the GPA not just for those admitted, but for those who actually showed up–their yield.

But still–these numbers represent a high wall to climb over. More specifically, these numbers mean that a typical California student who gets, say, 3 “B’s” in the a-g U.C. college prep classes in 10th and 11th grades, (and so likely has a 3.8 unweighted GPA), sees their chance of admissions to the top three UC’s at about 1 in 4. So if your dream schools include Berkeley, UCLA and you see Davis as a safety, and you have less than a 3.9 GPA, Davis is not a safety school. In fact, that would suggest that Santa Cruz is more a “fit” and that U.C. Riverside is a safety–or an “easy” fit.

As another number here, Riverside had a 3.66-4.09 weighted GPA for the 25th to 75th percentile of admitted students in fall of 2018.

When you are compiling data, know that the UC has a centralized set of data, but how that data has been presented has varied over time. Currently, the central UC data set is showing averages based on the 25th-75th percentile, but a couple of years ago, most UC’s presented as simple average. In addition, the current data set uses a weighted average. This is for the class that entered UC campuses in fall of 2018.

For other schools, your best bet to find firm data is to seek their Common Data Set–I will plug Harvard’s CDS below, just to give you a snapshot of the elite on the East Coast. You can continue to look these up for yourself for any other school you wish. The down side of this . . . . many hours of your life gone, sorting through 10-15 pages of data and checked boxes. That sums up one of my functions as a college advisor–saving you time, as well as making sense of what is to be found in the data. I have already done the leg work on this stuff.

Here is Harvard’s most recent, confirmed data set: Harvard Common Data Set.

If you search Harvard’s CDS using the term “GPA, “you will discover that Harvard’s average weighted GPA for fall of 2018 was 4.18. And don’t forget that this includes cohorts with below-average GPA’s–some prodigies who are great at one thing but not so great at others; some athletes; some whose parents endowed the university with a bunch of money to get their kid on the “Z List” or the “Dean’s List.” You know, like Jared Kushner, whose father kicked a large chunk of money Harvard’s way, ahead of Jared’s admit. (Seems pretty unfair, I know, but when the money is not a bribe per se, and in effect puts up new buildings, funds scholarships and programs . . . the good of helping many outweighs the evil of a single mediocre student being admitted. Most of the time. Unlike, say, those families who bribed officials through Mr. Singer-a very different thing.

For those interested in more Ivy for this year, here is a link to early application data from the most recent application cycle–I will discuss creating an early app list in more detail later, but the date here is suggestive when considering who would be an early app from your dream tier of your target list: Early Ivy League Application Data for 2018-2019.

Returning to our California student, this all looks pretty discouraging, I know, but I would point out that what matters in the long term is a degree, and when it comes to your degree, the words “University of California” have more meaning than “Berkeley” or “Santa Cruz”–particularly to employers.

And continuing with our list, let us also assume this 3.8 range California student is interested in medicine. In addition to expanding this list from reach schools that include Berkeley, UCLA and Davis, I would add Santa Cruz and Riverside, and throw in Santa Barbara. With decent essays, I would expect at least two admits there. But I would also expand, if the budget allows it, out of state. Plan to add 15 thousand to your total costs, at a minimum, when you look out of state. That is per year. Most of that will be additional tuition costs.

So before looking out of state for my pre-med California applicant, I would add two-three Cal State campuses, then, if the ca. 45-60 thousand-dollar cost of going out of state is acceptable, look at the University of Washington, Arizona State (which would offer a tuition deal to most California students that would make tuition much cheaper), focusing on its Barrett Honors College and Polytechnic campus, and possibly add Oregon State and U Colorado. One or two smaller, private liberal arts campuses, inside California or outside, might round out the list–though we’d be bumping up to a ceiling at 14-15 applications.

At this point, you start looking at the application work load, including how many application essays are needed and how many of these can be reused in whole or part.

And then you should start writing essays. Now is better than August or September. Summer will be over in 8 weeks for many of you (It is June 20th as I write this), and high school coursework, athletics and activities together with doing applications can be truly overwhelming. Get some essays done sooner rather than later. I will be posting a set of the important prompts that are available now in a day or so.

Until then, be well and do good research.

What’s New in College Applications in 2015-2016: New Wrinkles for the University of California and How to Get a Letter of Recommendation

Who should this post–anybody applying to a University of California campus; anybody particularly interested in U.C. Berkeley; anybody who needs to get a letter of recommendation; and anybody interested in enrollment categories for sexual identity–an evolving field, as you will see.

Changes for the University of California, Berkeley application.

New Wrinkle #1:  More Recommendations Allowed–and How To Ask for a Letter of Recommendation.

U.C. Berkeley is piloting an admissions policy allowing two letters of recommendation.  If this seems like a small thing, multiply it by 75,000, which is my lowball estimate for the number of applicants to Berkeley this coming year.

This optional letter of recommendation adds to an already very large paper load that will have Berkeley hiring at least 100 outside application readers to support the  staff on campus.   Reinforcing my point that you need to give the application webpage of each university a close read, so far U.C.B. is the only campus in the U.C. system to announce this two-recommendation policy–and this change suggests that they are continuing to tinker with their holistic evaluations and feel the need for more information.

What should you do?  Get the second letter, of course.  But please do not try to send more than two letters. Or candy, or personal notes or any other extras not explicitly identified by the school.

Here is how to go about getting letters of recommendation:  If you haven’t been cultivating your counselor and a few teachers, you had better put some time in your calendar to visit a few teachers and your counselor in the opening weeks of school.  Choose teachers you had a good relationship with in subjects that you like.

Counselors are almost always a must for letters of recommendation, and they are uniquely situated to give a recommendation that is relevant to your specific school and situation, but I advise leaving counselors off the casual visit list for the first week or two  of school–if you need to make a class change or have some other business in the first week or two, then yes, use that appointment to  tell them you will be needing two rec letters and you’d like their help on this. Be warm and polite.   If you are stuck with a bad counselor, however, it’s better to opt for two teacher recs or to choose some other adult with a position that would get some respect (your neighbor Joe may like you, but unless he’s your neighbor Joe, VP for Google or Supreme Court Justice of the State of Wherever You Live, I would stick to school teachers and officials for this.  There are interesting stories of celebrity letters of recommendation that did not work out or that backfired, by the way.)

Do keep  in mind that it is crazy hectic for counselors in weeks one and two as they handle early year change of schedule requests, et al.  Be patiently and politely persistent, as needed.

For your teachers, however,  the first week of school is usually a good time to say hello.  They have a lot to do, but usually do not yet have a large paper load sitting on the desk, so visit two or three favorite teachers from your junior year, then follow up again once or twice before you make the ask for a letter or recommendation.   And make the ask by the end of the first month of school if you have any early apps–I like my clients to allow a two-week window for letters of recommendation.   Never ask for a letter the day before it is due unless you come bearing gifts and genuflecting.  The stronger and more genuine your connection to any person writing a letter of recommendation, the better chance that you will get a good letter.  M.I.T. has emphasized recommendations for years, and what they say about their letters applies to all letters of recommendation:

“. . .letters of recommendation hold substantial weight in our admissions decisions. A well-written letter for an outstanding applicant can highlight impressive characteristics beyond his/her own self-advocacy. We are looking for people who have and will make an impact – the difference between a letter that supports and a letter that raves about a special student.

Both guidance counselor and teacher evaluations are most helpful when they are specific and storied. They should provide us with the information and impressions we cannot glean from the rest of the application. Try to give a complete sketch of the student and the context of his/her accomplishments. Support your conclusions with facts and anecdotes whenever possible. A story or incident that conveys the character or merit of the individual is more telling than a mere statement like ‘Mary is mature.’ ”

There you have it–try to set up the information you provide to letter-writers for any university so it feeds into the M.I.T. description above.

Finally, you should be shaping the letters by providing information that you think will help you to the people who will write your recommendation.   Writing up an outline, having a focused summary, these are good ideas.  Providing a huge resume, maybe not so much.  Pick the things you need to show from the information below, and write up one page to offer to the people you ask to write you a letter.  For more, look below at what the U.C. asks for:

U.C. Berkeley’s Guidelines for Letters of Recommendation

Guidelines for the letters:  At least one letter must be from an instructor, the second from somebody you select who knows you well (could also be a teacher),   the letters are recommended to be one page long . . . and here is what the letters should address:

• Academic performance and potential (both overall and in the context of the class)
• Love of learning
• Leadership (in school, family, or community)
• Persistence in the face of challenges
• Cross-cultural engagement
• Originality/Creativity
• Demonstrated concern for others

New Wrinkle #2: The University of California system and the Politics of Sex

Or maybe just the demographics of the student body.  That is what the U.C. says in explaining their new option to identify your sexual preference–this is system wide, not just for Berkeley–and is in addition to the existing identity choices you will make.   I think the visibility argument made by those in the LGBT community who argued for outing people in the closet in recent decades has proven to be true, given the rapid change in social attitudes toward gay marriage, et al, as LGBT people have indeed become more visible (sometimes unwillingly).   I think the U.C. is also correct in arguing that the information helps them to allocate resources for health, counseling, and other services.

On the other hand, and maybe I am just showing my age, I am not a big fan of passing over personal information in most circumstances, and the more personal, the more reluctant I am to offer it.  But leaving aside my personal feelings and the fact that a decent number of high school seniors still have a lot of questions about their sexual identity, let’s look at what’s in it for you:

Should You State Your Sexual Preference/Identity?

Whether the U.C. will, going forward, try  to balance enrollment categories like percentage of LGBT students, or cohorts within this category is an interesting question–certainly the U.C. and other holistic schools try to include a representative sample of students in other categories, so why wouldn’t they try to create a “balance” in sexual identities, on campus as well?  Over time of course.  This is their first year with this option, so there will not likely be any formal percentage of balance they look for in their results.

As for a possible edge in applications this year, U.C. readers are instructed to look for “stressors” that may promote a student–like being a low-income student from a rough neighborhood, which can help promote an applicant in the holistic review (click here if you do not know what a holistic evaluation is and entails:  the secret to college admissions.)  So if you are LGBT, I would recommend identifying here this year, particularly if you are going to be bringing this up in an essay and/or it has been a stressor for you.

It is still not easy even in ‘liberal’ environments to be openly LGBT, and any obvious obstacles you have overcome now become an argument that you are a good candidate for admission–a person with good grades and extracurriculars who has had to tough out a bad situation while getting those grades and accomplishments gets an edge over good grades and accomplishments by a student on  Easy Street.

And while you want to be very cautious about pandering to your perception of an average U.C.  app reader’s feelings–which are impossible to know, though likely fairly liberal in sexual politics–and equally cautions about claiming victimhood or otherwise using an obvious emotional appeal, the facts of your life are the facts.  Just choose wisely which ones need sharing in applications.

Finding The Right University: Some Resources

College Search and Evaluation Software and Websites

Most of the people I help with college applications can be categorized in two ways:  those who are fixated on a list of big-name universities which are the ONLY places they can possibly consider applying to, and those who are overwhelmed by the information available and so feel paralyzed and unable to choose.  I usually start with the college names they know in both cases and then move on to things they may not have considered, such as this question: Would you want to live there if the university was not located there–a good thing to ask about a place where you are likely to spend at least four years of your life.

In addition to asking questions beyond the status of the university, which in itself is no guarantee of a good experience, it helps to use some of the excellent sources of information that are available today.  I have elsewhere discussed some of the books that can help with the college search, but increasingly the best information is available online.

I encourage my clients to use the information sources below to help narrow the search–I offer suggestions and give them information that falls into the gaps, so to speak, but your average searcher for a good university could do much of the work a college counselor might be paid to do (which is one of the reasons I prefer the title “College Advisor” and put most of my time into intellectual and essay development).  By sending my clients to the sites below and helping put the information in perspective, I can almost always help my clients with a good, varied list of colleges to pursue.  I suggest starting with somewhere around twenty names, then reducing this list to ten or twelve colleges–I used to recommend ten, but in these times, a few more apps is a good idea. So the first step is to empower yourselves, folks.   Take charge of your search, starting with the following sources:

Software And Sites You Should Definitely Use (if you can)

The College Board

www.collegeboard.org

If I may compare the college application game to the rackets, the College Board is the Godfather.  They have a finger in every pie and control much of the important data.  Go to their site, pick a college name and search—this will take you to their Big Future college search engine, which has all kinds of useful data and information—for example, cost estimates are broken down not just by in and out of state but also by on and off campus.

The Common Application

https://www.commonapp.org/CommonApp/default.aspx

Continuing with my rackets analogy, if the College Board is the Godfather, these guys are the consigliere.  Much of the information on the Collegeboard site can be found here, but focused specifically on the hundreds of universities using the Common App.  Not quite as detailed as the collegeboard, but you are most likely going to set up an account here and you might as well check out what they offer.

College Navigator

http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/

If the College Board is the Godfather, this is the Oracle of Delphi.  This is a federal website and it is built right on the source of education statistics for the U.S.  The site is a function of the Institute of Education Sciences, which is essentially the data clearing house for education facts nationally, among other things.  Graphics windows that open up when you search are not flashy, but the layout is very easy to use and clear, and  you can see very detailed breakdowns of costs from tuition to room and board to an estimate of extra expenses, as well as test scores and pretty much any other statistic you might want, though some of the numbers may be a year behind.   Go now if you haven’t already.   They are the data set, really, that everybody else uses.

Naviance

www.naviance.com

If your school or district has not purchased this service, then you are only going to be frustrated in reading this; if so, convert your frustration to political action and advocate that the board or school purchase Naviance.  Naviance is an institutional software package and service, meaning that it can be purchased by school districts but not by individuals.  There are legitimate institutional reasons for this limitation.  If your district does use Naviance, it will perform most of the functions of a traditional college counselor by providing a highly accurate picture of your chances of gaining admission to a particular university—this feedback is specific to your profile and to your school’s profile.  This includes scattergram reports updated annually for your school.  See Cappex, below, for more on that.   Of course, Naviance can’t read your essays and evaluate them, nor is it very good at figuring out if you are going to get an athletic or music scholarship, to name a couple of very important admissions factors.  But  if your school does have Naviance, Congratulations!  Go see your counselor posthaste.  If you do not have access to Naviance, the two sources above and those I list below can help you approximate Naviance.  In any case, any prediction made by Naviance or any other service is a based on data, in other words is based on the past, and the past is becoming less and less reliable as a predictor of the future except for the general truth that every year it is becoming harder to gain admissions to most selective universities.

Apps and Sites That Are Worth A Look

Cappex

www.cappex.com

Cappex is trying to be a free version of Naviance, with a dose of attitude.  They even have  scattergrams  for the schools they discuss.  Scattergrams are xy graphical representations of results on student applications, with GPA and ACT/SAT score as the two factors represented.  This means that, like all of these predictive tools, we can’t factor in essays, talents, et al, and we don’t know exactly how large the sample is for the Cappex data either, but they do claim to show the results of all of their members who applied, and this number is definitely growing.  There are many other nice features here—their profiles of universities, which include the scattergram,  are reasonably informative and can quickly give you an idea of where you fall among applicants–the most selective unis are shifted way up toward the top right in the scattergrams . . .

College Ray

http://collegeray.com

A good statistical site with a lot of data, presented in a straightforward fashion.  It is searchable and has statistical info like that offered by the College Board, et al.  It’s not clear where they intend to go with this site—it was developed by Harvard undergraduates for the HackHarvard web app incubator–but it offers good info in an easy-to-use format.

Admissions Splash

www.admissionssplash.com

This is a Facebook app that works with around 1,500 schools, matching your profile with the schools and giving you a prediction of your chances to be admitted.  This is a numbers only site—GPA, SAT/ACT—so essays, talents and other factors are not weighed.  This is true of all the software or apps which predict admissions chances, though Naviance, above, has more specific information  and theoretically should be  a bit more accurate.  Still, Splash is worth a look as you search.  It will give you a score range from 1-100 and chances are calculated from “fair” to “great.’  They claim to have a 90-97% predictions.  Keep in mind that you are providing private information—while they have no plans at the moment for using your data, they have not “determined” the long-term use of the data.  In addition to the calculator for predicting admissions, they have a question and answer function and a blog on topics related to college and college admissions.  As with college confidential, almost none of the information offered by individuals can be validated and you are probably wasting your time reading a bunch of responses which purport to offer “insider’ info.

Unigo

www.unigo.com

This is a participant driven site—think of it as the Yelp of universities.  Or you might think of it as an attempt to create a college student Borg.  Good for some idea of aspects of your potential colleges that are not readily clear in statistics—social life, for example—but I always wonder what the basis for comparison is—how do you really know how to rate the social life at your school against that of another?  Without, say, attending both?  An epistemological mystery, but anecdotally this site is useful for things like reviews of dorm life to what the stereotypes of students at the school are, or is.  They also (claim to) rate schools against each other.

Can Give Interesting Information But Probably Not Worth The Time

College Confidential

I like most of the “official’ info, by which I mean the commentary the adults in charge offer, but the various chat threads and discussions of how to finesse an app to a particular school are pretty much sliced lunchmeat.  The discussion threads do have occasional tidbits of good information, but it’s like looking for a pearl in the tanks of a sewage plant.   Buy a rabbit’s foot instead of spending time reading the chat(ter).  The people who work at universities in or with insight into admissions have frequently lambasted the information offered here, with good reason.