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All, College Admissions, College Applications, Summer

College Admissions Tips for Juniors

As summer gets closer, high school students might be heads down in end of the year exams and finals, sports playoffs, or crossing off the days until they can sleep in. But there are a few tasks they should attend to while school is still in session that will help make college applications easier. Paying attention to these important college admissions tips for high school juniors will put them in a better position to work on applications over the summer and meet all of their fall application deadlines.

Learn How Your High School Supports College Applications

Each high school has a specific process for how they send supporting documents to colleges. This includes high school transcripts, a school profile that describes the school’s curriculum and student demographics, and counselor and teacher recommendations. In some cases students have to log into their school’s student management software and request documents weeks in advance. This information is often available on the pages for your school’s counseling center, but it might be in an email or a presentation you haven’t read yet. If you cannot explain your school’s process and timeline, this is something to find out before break. You don’t want to miss an application deadline, because you didn’t follow directions or submit your request early enough.

Ask Teachers if They Will Write Letters of Recommendation.

Many colleges require or consider letters of recommendation from teachers. You should approach teachers now and ask if they are willing to be one of your recommenders. They give them a “brag sheet” that briefly outlines your contributions and achievements in their class. The brag sheet is a starting point they can use for writing the letter of recommendation. If you want them to write about how you added to class discussions or were supportive of other students, give them examples of that. If you want the letter to focus on your academic ability, remind them of when you went above and beyond the classroom requirements. Some teachers and high schools will have a standard format for brag sheets (see the first item about knowing your school’s process). If they don’t have a form to follow, this brag sheet for letters of recommendation from Common App will get you started.

Who should write letters of recommendation for college applications?

Colleges specify in their applications if they require a recommendation from a Teacher and if they allow additional recommendations from Others like coaches and employers. Military college programs like the Naval Academy or ROTC scholarships may require recommendations from teachers of specific classes like English and Math. You probably want to approach a couple teachers from core academic areas (English, math, science, history/social sciences, and/or foreign language). But if you have a great relationship with one of your elective teachers, they could be a good option too. 

Get a Copy of Your Transcript with Grades

After your final grades post, you’ll want to get a copy of your high school transcript. Most applications have a place to input your high school courses and grades. You’ll want to have the transcript so you can use the same course name in your application and correctly input each of your grades. This will also remind you of items you want to address in an additional information section.

When the last day of school arrives, celebrate knowing that you can enjoy a much needed break and also that you have what you need to work on applications and essays over the summer.

Related: How to Write a “Why Us” College Essay

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College Admissions

College Admissions Trends

These are the biggest college admissions trends I noticed in the 2022-23 cycle. Families of younger high school students should be aware of these trends so they can make wise decisions as they approach college admissions.

Continued Increases in Applications to High Profile Colleges

Rising numbers of applications and drops in admissions rates generated headlines for prestige colleges like Harvard and Yale. But many other institutions have seen similar application increases. Most of these increases are at name brand research universities, including marquee public universities. For example, University of Tennessee reported a 40% increase in applications and subsequent drops in admissions rate.

Applications Overall and Applications Per Student Increased

The Common App reported an increases across the board. There were more individual student applicants, more total applications, and more applications per student. The average Common App user submits five college applications.

Test Optional Policies

Most colleges have kept their Covid-initiated test optional policies in place, meaning that students can complete an application without submitting test scores. Only 4% of Common App colleges required test scores from first time freshman applicants in the 2022-23 cycle. But it remains unclear how student choices regarding test scores help or hurt their applications. Very few colleges release admissions statistics that separate admissions outcomes based on test submission. Strong test scores continue to be a positive signal to most colleges. A few colleges have reinstituted testing requirements, notably MIT and Purdue. Others never dropped their score requirement, such as Tennessee, Florida, University of Georgia and Georgia Tech. I recommend students take the SAT or ACT at least once junior year and then decide if those scores add value to their applications. (See below for upcoming changes to the SAT.)

Holistic Admissions and Institutional Priorities Are Real

While grades and curriculum are the opening argument for college admissions review, that doesn’t mean colleges base admissions on GPA and test scores alone. College admissions readers weigh many factors, including the student’s academic context and personal context such as activities, family responsibilities, financial resources. Institutional priorities include academic program capacity, legislative restrictions on in-state vs out of state enrollment, and operating costs. Furthermore, colleges want to admit students who will then enroll. The ways that a student demonstrates interest in actually enrolling continues to be important, whether that is indicated through a binding Early Decision application, a visit to campus, or engagement with the admissions office.

Massive Deferrals and Wait Lists

This is the trend in college admissions I’m most dismayed by. Some colleges deferred thousands and tens of thousands of early applicants to regular decision. And at the end of the admission cycle, many colleges created record-breaking wait lists. Both deferrals and wait lists are based on college-centered business practices. To paraphrase one admission rep: they don’t want to get to the spring and be unable to enroll a full class, so they delay finalizing admissions decisions. Increases in application numbers make this even worse, since the admissions office may not have gotten any larger and may struggle to get through all of the applications in a timely manner. Students who are still interested in remaining on a wait list should follow their directions for opting into the list. But realize that it is unlikely to come off a wait list and offers of admission to wait listed students are based on entirely on institutional priorities (see previous paragraph).

The next two are technological developments rather than college admissions trends, but they are likely to affect the 2023-25 application cycle.

Technology Trend – Digital SAT

College Board announced a shift to a computer-based Digital SAT test that would use adaptive technology to review students’ results on initial question modules and select questions for subsequent modules based on those results. This will allow them to shorten the overall test length. It also means students need to be on their best game from the beginning of the test. Rollout of the Digital SAT started with international test dates and continues for US students with the October 2023 PSAT and then the Spring 2024 SAT. Students will need to bring their own testing device (laptop or tablet) with the required testing app already installed. Students should put in solid work to get familiar with it before the fall SAT.

Technology Trend – AI Writing

ChatGPT and other AI writing software launched with a big splash this spring. There was immediate speculation that students might use it to write their college application essays. There have already been several AI writing “detectors” announced. Colleges may add these to their application review, but might not do so publicly. Colleges don’t finalize their application requirements until August. So, there is still time for them to add supplemental requirements like live writing or video responses. I’ve played around with ChatGPT and typical college application writing prompts. The results tend to be general and more than a little lifeless. Take time to go through the process of thinking, writing, and revising. Responses that are clearly individual to the student and not based on language prediction will continue to be the best option.

Final College Admissions Trend: Shock that Assumptions Were Wrong

I don’t know if this is a really a trend or just something I’m noticing in social media. I frequently see posts from families that are shocked/dismayed/angry that their student didn’t receive the offers of admission they expected. If their kid mostly applied to colleges with <10% admissions rates, they may find that their highly qualified student is among the >90% of applicants that were not offered admission. If their college list did not include colleges with a wide range of admissions percentages (including medium and high admissions percentages), they may feel they have few viable options this spring.

My advice to build a well-balanced college list that includes colleges with higher admissions percentages is not news, but remains current. Students cannot count on admission to colleges that turn down more than 90% of applications. They also shouldn’t assume that selectivity equals quality. The more open students are to colleges they are less familiar with in locations that are less fabled, the better their choices in spring of senior year will be.

Three college admissions books
All, Book Reviews, College Admissions

College Admissions Books Parents of High School Students Should Read

These are some of the best college admissions books I’ve found to help parents better understand the current college landscape. They will help you put sensational articles about a small number of colleges or well-intentioned but misleading online advice into context.  Where possible, I include links to an excerpt or interview to give you a taste.

The prospect of college scares and overwhelms many parents. College admissions may seem confusing and random. Paying for college may feel impossible. The stories that make a big splash in the media are often outliers, that don’t represent typical outcomes. Advice from parents on social media often lacks the context that made it true in their specific situation.

Some parents react by pushing their kids into “getting ready for college” years before it’s appropriate (sixth graders don’t need to be picking a dream college). Others choose to avoid the topic, which leaves them scrambling when senior year arrives. The books and other resources on this list should give you a better foundation for approaching college admissions with your student.

What Does College Cost and What Value Are You Getting?

The Price You Pay for College by Ron Lieber, a NY Times financial columnist, gives both broad and specific information about college costs and the decisions families have to make about value. The chapters are short and topical. Part II addresses the role of emotions in thinking about colleges – specifically Fear, Guilt, and Elitism. I won’t say that reading this will erase all negative emotions from the experience, but you will at least be prepared to recognize them when they start to take over. If you only have time for one college admissions book, this would be my highest recommendation. I recommend the full book, but this interview gives you a taste of his style.

How Do Colleges Pick Students?

Who Gets In and Why by Jeff Selingo, a former editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, describes a year in college admissions. He was allowed to sit in on application reviews with three colleges and also interviewed high school seniors about their experience. In my work with families, I find that parents often assume college admissions today is the same as what they experienced decades ago. They may be shocked to find that their alma mater is now much harder to get into, that colleges have extensive marketing budgets, or that financial need plays a role in who is admitted.

One of the best take aways in Who Gets In and Why is his concept that colleges are Buyers or Sellers. In short, Buyers are colleges that need to make an effort to enroll a full class of incoming freshmen. They have higher admissions rates and often give tuition discounts to encourage enrollment. Sellers have many more applicants than they could ever enroll. They turn down large numbers of highly qualified students and usually limit their financial aid to students with demonstrated financial need. I read this book over a couple months with a small group of college admissions professionals. You can read my reviews from that book club here: Part 1 and Part 2. If you’re short on time, the article The Secrets of Elite College Admissions by Jeff Selingo, is based on the research he did for the book.  

Does Where You Go to College Matter?

Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be by Frank Bruni rebuts the idea that only a handful of colleges offer an education that prepares students for adult success. This is a destructive idea that causes many teens to feel like failures before they even graduate high school – simply because they didn’t gain admission to one of the most celebrated, most selective colleges. This excerpt is from the beginning of the book. I especially commend the letter Matt Levin’s parents wrote him as a model of what I think most of us want for the children we love.  

What Other Colleges Should You Consider?

Colleges That Change Lives by Loren Pope and Hilary Masell Oswald is one that I hope will get you excited about the opportunities and culture of education that exist at many colleges you’ve never heard of. In 1995 he wrote a book Looking Beyond the Ivy League to encourage families to do just that. So many readers asked for specific examples of colleges they should consider that he wrote Colleges That Change Lives to profile colleges he felt “do as much as, and perhaps even more than, any name-brand schools to fully educate students and to give them rich, full lives.” The colleges in the book are mostly small, liberal arts colleges that concentrate on teaching undergraduates.

The book has been revised twice, most recently in 2012, with Oswald as co-author. While some changes have occurred at the 44 colleges featured over the years, I still find the descriptions of possible college environments are useful, especially for students who only have a vague sense of what they might experience as a college student and what factors they really care about. There is also a consortium of the colleges featured in the book. They do joint college fairs around the country and additional information about the schools can be found on the CTCL website.

When Your Student Feels Vulnerable and Ashamed

Finally, I encourage you to watch two TED talks from researcher/storyteller Brené Brown. She sometimes refers to herself as a “shame researcher,” who has spent several years exploring how issues of shame and vulnerability affect our perceptions of self-worth and relationships to family and friends. The reason this topic is relevant is that students sometimes feel that certain admissions outcomes represent “success” and other outcomes mark them as unworthy. It’s important that we as parents keep lines of communication open, attentive to both the unintended messages we are sending and the feelings our kids may struggle to articulate.

I have recommended these talks for many years in my parent resources. In the last few years, mental health concerns for high school and college students have swelled. I think students today feel they are under intense pressure, and don’t know how to ask for help. I hope that these presentations by Brené Brown (or one of her many books and outstanding podcasts) will help you support your student.

TEDx Houston: The Power of Vulnerability
TED 2012: Listening to Shame

I hope you find these college admissions books helpful. If you have other favorite resources, I’d love to know about them.

serious ethnic young woman using laptop at home
All, College Admissions, College Applications

Does Intended Major Affect College Admissions?

You probably recognize that grades and curriculum matter for college admissions. You may be tracking the changing landscape around standardized test scores. But, did you know that at some colleges, students aren’t assessed just on what they did in high school, but also what they want to do as college students? Why and how does an intended major affect college admissions? What does this mean for building a balanced college list?

Colleges have institutional priorities that affect admissions decisions. Institutional priorities might include keeping revenue flowing into the college, staying within the annual financial aid budget, maintaining a target ratio of men and women on campus, or educating state residents or even local students. There can also be an interest in bringing in enough students to keep small programs going, while not over-enrolling other programs.

Direct Admission Programs

Direct admission for certain programs is one way that colleges ensure that they don’t have too many students in a program than they have capacity to teach. Under direct admission, the student indicates an intended major when they apply. There application is compared with those from other students wanting that major, not against all students applying for the college. Successful applicants are not only admitted to the college, but into the major program as well. A competitive program might have higher gpa and test scores than the general profile for admitted students. Direct admissions is often used for high demand programs, including engineering, computer science, and business; but low capacity programs like nursing, performing arts, and professional flight can also be direct admission.

The student’s choice of major can affect college admissions if a specific program requires students to demonstrate an interest in the subject as high school students. For example, prospective nursing students may need to document volunteer experience in healthcare, and engineering students might want to have done STEM activities. Academic requirements often differ by program. Colleges of Engineering and Business Schools often expect students to have taken calculus in high school or be ready to take calculus as freshmen.

A direct admission program might also expect students to have specific high school coursework. For example, students applying to engineering programs may be expected to have taken calculus and physics, , and business students may need to show a prior interest in business as well as a high school calculus course.

Something to realize is that direct admission programs may have lower admissions rates than the college as a whole, may have higher academic profiles for incoming students, and may not have viable pathways for students admitted to the university for other majors or as undeclared/undecided students.

Case Study in How Major Affects College Admissions: University of Washington Computer Science

University of Washington’s Computer Science program is an example of a highly competitive, direct admission program. This 2022 article from Geek Wire describes how demand outpaces seat availability at the UW Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering. In this case, pursuing a computer science major affects admissions by making it much less likely that these students will be admitted to the university.

From the Geek Wire article: “Some 7,587 freshman applicants to the UW for next year picked the Allen School as their top choice for a major — more than economics, political science, nursing, and mechanical engineering combined. The program attracts more students than any other UW major, and interest has increased more than 400% over the past decade.”

“But the Allen School has room for only 550 new undergraduates in the fall. Freshmen can apply for direct admission to the program… It’s highly competitive: only 7% of direct admission students were offered a spot in the Allen School, compared to 52% of applicants to the UW’s College of Engineering, which houses the Allen School.”

It’s even more challenging for students who are not Washington state residents, as the tables below indicate. Not only does the choice of major affect college admissions, but so does state residency. The overall admissions rate for out of state students to University of Washington was 51%, but for Computer Science/Computer Engineering, that drops all the way down to 3%.

3-year University of Washington Average Admit Rates by Residency

Residency TypeAdmit rate
Washington residents60%
U.S. nonresidents51%

Source University of Washington, Spring 2022

Direct to College
Engineering Admit Rates, Fall 2021

Residency typeAdmit rate
Washington resident53%
U.S. nonresident33%

Source University of Washington, Spring 2022

Direct to Major
Computer Science/Computer Engineering Admit Rates, Autumn 2021

Residency typeAdmit rate
Washington resident27%
U.S. nonresident3%

Source University of Washington, Spring 2022

What Should Students Do?

First, realize that average admissions rates may be mathematically correct but misleading, when they don’t categorize by major or program. Search for program specific information. This may be a good question for college visits or college information events.

Second, understand that admission to a specific program at a specific university depends greatly on factors outside the students’ control, like the size and popularity of the program. You may need to decide if attending a specific college is more important or if studying a particular major matters more.

Third, create a balanced list that include colleges that don’t use direct admission for your intended major or that have viable exploratory options for freshmen. Don’t confuse popularity with quality. Starting with a broader college list helps give you more choices when admissions decisions are in.

Lisa visits Mary Baldwin University, home of two early college programs
All, College Fit, Homeschooling

Early College Programs

High school students often have the opportunity to take college classes before graduation. They might take dual enrollment classes taught at their high school. Or they might enroll in courses directly with a local college. Sometimes these are dual credit courses that receive both college and high school credits. Early college programs take this a step further. Students in these programs are full time college students, who may even live on campus as full participants in college life.  

Is Early College a Good Idea?

Recently, I met with representatives of several early college programs. Each had its own twist on the concept, but agreed that students who did well in their programs were intellectually precocious, highly capable, and emotionally mature. Obviously, students in early college programs need to be ready for full-time, college-level academics. But to succeed, they also need to self-advocate with professors, engage with classmates (who might be several years older), and keep track of assignments and daily tasks without a parent at their shoulder. What’s more, college classrooms often discuss texts and topics that might feel awkward for a younger student. You should consider all of these points when deciding if an early college program is the right fit.

Examples of Early College Programs

Some high schools have early college programs co-located on the high school campuses. These offer full-time college academics, while allowing the student to remain at home and perhaps participate in high school athletics and clubs. But there are also college-based programs that go beyond this college in a high school concept.

Bard College at Simon’s Rock is a program that admits students who would be entering their junior or senior year of high school. There are 450 full-time students who have the option of completing a full bachelor’s degree on the campus. Others complete an AA degree and transfer to another four-year college.

Mary Baldwin University offers two options for students ready for college work. Early College is a co-ed program for 16-17 year old students, while the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted (PEG) is for girls as young as 13. PEG students live in their own supervised residence, for a boarding school atmosphere with access to college level academics.

California State University LA also has a college program for younger students. Their Early Entrance Program (EEP) is part of the CSU LA Honors College and enrolls highly gifted students ages 11-16 for on-campus college courses. EEP students are full-time students at CSU LA, working towards their bachelor’s degree. CSU LA is also home to the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and a Math and Science High School. This means there is a significant number of other teens on campus. As a result EEP students don’t stand out as much. EEP students start with a summer intensive program, that helps them get used to the expectations of college coursework.

The Clarkson School at Clarkson University is a one-year program in which students replace their senior year of high school with a freshman year of college. Students live in dedicated dorms with a resident faculty advisor and mentors who are Clarkson School alumni. 65% of students in The Clarkson School complete their bachelor’s degree at Clarkson.

Other Options

In addition to these early college programs, there are early college academies located on high school or college campuses. Often referred to as middle colleges, these may require residency within the school district or local area. Bard College also sponsors a number of high school based early college programs that allow students to earn an associate’s degree.

You might also investigate agreements between your school district and local community colleges, such as the Virginia Beach Public School & Tidewater Community College Advanced Technology Center. In this program, students split their days between the community college campus and their home high school. This type of co-registration program can be powerful options for students who intend to attend their state’s public colleges, since courses often transfer smoothly.

Who Benefits from Starting College Early?

These early college programs aren’t the right choice for every advanced student. Some students find that Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or dual enrollment courses offer academical challenge. Students who have gone beyond the academics their school system can offer may benefit from an early college setting. The younger, exceptionally gifted students in some of the early college programs may find the specific support of their program makes them feel less out of place than they might feel if they had simply skipped grades in their home high school. One college representative said that her early college students often found that for the first time they were taking classes with their academic peers. This made the early college option a good choice for them.

Close up of vintage typewriter with "Stories matter" typed on fresh sheet of paper.
All, College Applications, Essay Writing

Common App Essay Prompts 2023-24

The Common App essay prompts aren’t a list of questions to answer. They are designed to help you think about what’s important to you, who you are as a person, and what you would bring to campus as a college student. The Common App opens August 1 for students applying as freshmen for Fall 2024. The prompts are usually released by February. (This year the prompts didn’t change.) Releasing the prompts earlier allows these story starter questions to rattle around in your head for a while. It can take some time to settle on what stories you want to tell to help an admissions reader understand who you are.

What Is the Purpose of a College Personal Statement

College applications that require essays want to know more about a student than just the basic data of course grades, activities, and scores that appear in other parts of the application. The transcript might show they dropped German in favor of American Sign Language. An essay could reveal the friendship with a young neighbor and a desire to better communicate with her. The activities list might seem like a patchwork of unconnected clubs. An essay might discuss multiple cross-country moves as a military kid and how that experience taught them to make friends quickly.

When considering essay ideas, remember the topic of each essay is you, not what happened. The essay should paint a broader and deeper picture of you to the admissions reader. It might even draw direct connections to what you hope to do in college. The Common App personal statement can respond to any of the Common App essay prompts. Some college applications will have their own essay prompts, like the University of California Personal Interest Questions, or additional essay prompts like Why Us? supplemental essays.

Not sure what a Why Us? essay is? I explain what they are and how to approach them here: How to Write a “Why Us” College Essay.

How to Write Your Common App Essay

When you are ready to get started, read through some of the prompts. What experiences or stories come to mind? Jot down not only what happened but sensory details (how it smelled, sounded, felt, maybe even tasted). Then add some lines about why that experience mattered. How did you change as a result? How did you affect those around you? In other words, you want to get past describing only what happened to explain how this reveals more about who you are as a person.

Some people think their college admissions essays need to be unique. This can pressure them to try to think of topics that no one else has ever written about. But what matters isn’t writing about something unusual or unique. What’s important is making the essay individual to the student. How does the essay reveal who you are, what’s important to you, and how these traits will affect what you bring to campus?

It’s OK to feel uncomfortable during the essay writing process. You are trying to remember events in detail, convey them to someone who wasn’t there, and write in a way that is both grammatically correct and emotionally evocative. That’s a tall order and not something you will achieve at the first attempt. One of my writing profs used the phrase “zero draft” to describe the phase of pouring initial thoughts and words onto paper. This early phase wasn’t even at “first draft” stage, because we were still figuring out what to write about and where the connection points were. Give yourself time and space to work through these steps.

Close up of vintage typewriter. "rewrite...edit...rewrite...edit...rewrite" typed on paper.
College essay first drafts usually need work. Don’t be too critical of your early writing, but do leave plenty of time to reread and rewrite your essay. Remember to read it out loud and check for spelling and punctuation errors.
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Full List of 2023-24 Common Application Essay Prompts

The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don’t feel obligated to do so. (The application won’t accept a response shorter than 250 words.)

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Don’t Panic Over College Essay Prompts

Don’t obsess over these prompts. The Common App essay prompts are simply questions designed to encourage deeper thinking and writing in a way that lets you share what’s important to you. Your goal is to give admissions readers a better understanding of who you are as a person than they would get from just looking at grades and test scores. Your essays are your opportunity to control both content and delivery. It is one of the few parts of the application you exert this much control over.

If the first six Common App essay prompts don’t generate ideas, remember that Prompt Seven gives you the freedom to choose your own adventure. This is one reason I start my clients with pre-writing exercises that help them identify what they are trying to communicate – what their story is and what examples help convey it.

Essay coaching is included in each of my comprehensive packages. Essay coaching is also available through hourly services. If this is something you are interested in, let’s connect.

Once you’re done writing your personal statement, use the advice in How to Write a “Why Us?” College Essay to work on any supplemental college essays.

Street sign for College Ave
College Planning

Research a College Without a Visit

Many students can’t visit all the colleges they want to know more about. Cost, schedule conflicts, and covid campus closures might make the dream of a college tour road trip too hard to make a reality. On the other hand, its essential that students learn about a wide array of colleges. There are many great colleges across the US and most high school students only have a shallow basis for knowing about them. So how can you research a college without a college tour?

Databases for College Research

Some of the most important information about colleges is also the easiest to find, if you know where to look. Admissions statistics, graduation rates, annual costs, and even how many students complete each degree program is available in either the Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data submitted to the Department of Education or the Common Data Set (which is usually available on individual college websites). These two data sets are the backbone of most college search engines.

College Navigator Has Data Reported to the Government

College Navigator is one of the first places I go to research a college. This site uses IPEDS data and is an easy source of data on admissions rate, graduation rate, and how large specific degree programs are. The Net Price section is useful for private colleges, because it gives a sense of the actual Net Cost of Attendance at different family income levels. WARNING: For public colleges the Net Price info listed is only for students paying in state tuition. If you apply from out of state, you may pay a much higher tuition rate. College Scorecard takes the same IPEDS data and pairs it with information on post-graduation income and loan debt for specific fields of study. If you are unsure of your intended field of study, this may help visualize possible return on investment for different programs.

Common Data Set Has More Details

A college’s Common Data Set has two sections I find particularly helpful for college research. Section C includes information about admissions for first-time freshmen, including what factors are Very Important, Important, Considered, and Not Considered. For example, Washington State University has a 2020-21 CDS that lists GPA and Rigor of Secondary School Record as Very Important, but Standardized Test Scores, Interviews, and Level of Applicant’s Interest are Not Considered. This means Washington State University does not track if a student toured campus, attended online info sessions, or met with an admissions rep.

CDS Section C is also where you can find test score and GPA distributions for enrolled freshmen as well as some data on Early Decision and admissions waitlists. Because Common Data Set reports are stashed in different places on college websites, I usually search for [Name of College] Common Data Set and look for the most recent report.

Research the College on a Virtual Visit

Before 2020, some colleges had experimented with online “virtual tours.” These were usually photos of the main buildings on campus, with a recorded presentation by a peppy student. But for college research, they leave me a little cold. They often feel like an architectural tour, but it can be hard to feel like you know the school well and the tours tend to blur together.

As a result of Covid, most colleges created virtual information sessions and ways for prospective students to connect without coming to campus. Fortunately, many schools have kept these virtual options available. I try to look for virtual information sessions from admissions staff, live tours with a student guide where they respond to questions, one on one meetings with students or advisors, and virtual college presentations. Many college fairs have gone online, but I’ve heard a lot of college reps say that attendance is lower than normal. This means if you pop into a session during a college fair, you might be able to chat one on one with the admissions rep for your area.

Research the College Using Its Website

College websites are a goldmine for college research, if you have patience and a willingness to dig around. College websites can be a little confusing, since they usually serve many different interests and were built over many years. But as a general rule, you’ll find tabs for Admissions, Academics, and Student Life (or similar wording).

Admissions usually describes the process and timeline for applying to the college, with different pages for Undergraduate First Time Freshmen and Transfers as well as Graduate applicants. Links to financial aid and scholarship info might be in this section too.

Academics is where you’ll find descriptions of majors and minors, as well as college wide degree requirements. You should also look for links to individual colleges, schools, or departments that are smaller administrative organizations within the college or university. For example, Washington State University has 11 separate colleges, including the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture, which in turn has 8 different schools and departments for different disciplines (including some at satellite campuses).

More on Researching College Majors

If you were looking for news about engineering wide support like the Living Learning Community or student clubs that would be in the College of Engineering pages. If you want to compare 4 year course plans for Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering, that would be in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering section. These pages will give you a different perspective of life as an engineering student than if you were to just read the WSU catalog descriptions for Mechanical Engineering.

Obviously, students do more than just go to classes, and social life on campus can be a big factor in choosing where to attend. Tabs for Student Life or similar terms usually have information on housing, clubs, recreation, student dining, and support programs.

Be Creative in your College Research

This is related to the suggestion to dig into the pages for specific programs and departments. Look for videos or podcasts that feature departments, majors, and clubs you care about. Sometimes you’ll get a different sense of what programs or the school than what the admissions marketing department produces. This video explains a research project by Washington State University engineering students that explores how to remove space dust from areas like air locks (don’t miss the astronaut doll in kevlar “space suit” as a test object). And sometimes you’ll find videos with behind the scenes views of campus. For example, I found this video showcasing the Washington State University Engineering Shops. Note that neither of these videos were from the main Washington State University YouTube channel.

Good Outside Sources for College Research

College guide books have been around for a long time now. Think of these as the movie review of the college world. They usually give the highlights of what a college is known for, written either by a campus research team or individual students. A few I like include the Fiske Guide to Colleges (updated annually), Insider’s Guide to Colleges (each entry is written by 1-2 students at the school), and Colleges That Change Lives (in depth descriptions, but could use a refresh).

There are now a lot of outside review sites that try to crowdsource information about colleges. Because these are often written by anonymous students, you don’t really know what their experience or motivation is. Read these with an eye towards trends that are mentioned by many reviews, so you don’t get sucked into one person’s drama. A couple that may be worth your time include Unigo and Campus Reel.

All, College Admissions, College Applications

When to Apply to College?

Most high school students apply to college fall or winter of senior year. But the specific details vary from college to college and can affect admissions choices significantly. You want to dig into application options at each school and create a strategy for when to apply to college to have your best chances for success.

Most college applications open around August 1, for first-time students entering the following fall. So, students who would be college freshmen in Fall 2023 could submit applications beginning in August 2022. 

Students should not procrastinate working on their applications and might choose to work on portions like essays and activities lists months before senior year. This helps spread the work out so you don’t get overwhelmed. Trust me, it’s no fun to have an early application deadline and homecoming the same weekend. At the same time, there isn’t a prize for being first. Instead, concentrate on having a high quality and complete application that tells your story to the admissions office. 

While you don’t have to hit submit on the day applications open, you don’t want to miss deadlines. Selective schools are not likely to extend deadlines to students who are late (though they may accept supporting documents like transcripts and recommendations a few days after the deadline). You should create a clear list of deadlines so you know when to apply to each college.

A single college may have several application options with different deadlines. It’s important to understand the difference between each type in order to decide which is the right choice for you to use at each college.

When to Apply to Colleges Using Early Decision (ED)

Students applying Early Decision will know the admissions result earlier, often before winter break. However, the student also makes a binding commitment to attend the college if accepted and to withdraw other applications. This is a serious commitment that includes a ED agreement signed by the student, parents, and the counselor. Early Decision might make sense if the college is the students clear first choice, if they are willing to commit to attending, and if the potential cost of attendance from the Net Price Calculator is within the family’s budget.

Because ED applicants commit to attending, many colleges like Early Decision and use it to fill a large proportion of the class. Some schools have a significantly higher admissions rate for Early Decision applications. This is partly because students who are motivated and ready to meet early deadlines are often high-quality applicants. Some colleges require athletes to apply ED if they want the coach’s support considered as part of the application. I’ve also heard of colleges that expect legacy applicants to apply ED if they want legacy status to be considered. Also, it’s simply in the college’s advantage to know that a student will enroll if accepted.  Jeff Levy and Jennie Kent at Big J Consulting produce an annual table comparing ED and Regular Decision admissions rates, which you can find in the Admissions Decrypted Resources section. You can use their data to see how big of an advantage an ED application is at individual colleges.

How Binding Is Early Decision, Exactly?

Because students who apply Early Decision agree to withdraw other applications without knowing if they would have been accepted, they don’t have the option to see all of their acceptances and to compare financial aid offers from other schools. Just how binding is Early Decision. This depends whom you ask. A college admissions rep will point out that your commitment to attend was part of the application review. At the same time, you can’t be forced to enroll if you can’t afford the college. Ron Lieber, author of The Price You Pay for College, wrote an article for the NY Times about how in his judgement a student cannot be forced to enroll. But since there is usually a short deadline for making an enrollment deposit at the ED college, a student will have to decide quickly if they accept the offer or not. This can cause a lot of stress, especially if the student didn’t have a clear first choice or if the financial aid offer is out of the family’s budget. Think carefully about applying Early Decision and be sure to use their Net Price Calculator before committing.

When to Apply to Colleges Using Early Action (EA)

Early Action also gives students an earlier response, but it does not have a binding commitment to attend.  The student is free to wait for other admissions results and financial aid packages before making a decision. EA deadlines tend to be November 1 or December 1. Some colleges select most of their incoming class through Early Action. For example, University of Maryland gives priority consideration for admissions, honors programs, and merit aid to Early Action applicants. At a recent counselor conference, they said they admit over 90% of the new class during Early Action.

In some cases, a college might even have an Early Action and Early Decision deadline on the same date. The difference there isn’t when the application is due, but if the student is committing to attend.

What are Restrictive Early Action and Single Choice Early Action?

Some colleges have a Restrictive Early Action (REA) or Single Choice Early Action (SCEA) application.  Students applying REA are not bound to attend if accepted, but do agree not to apply to other colleges under ED, EA, or REA.  There might be specific exceptions to these restrictions, so read the guidelines closely and ask the Admissions Office if you are not sure.  Stanford University, for example, has both a Regular Decision and Restrictive Early Action option with some exceptions. SCEA is also non-binding, but might prohibit students from applying to other colleges using ED or EA (including REA). If this feels like alphabet soup, it’s them, not you. The requirements are detailed, set by each college, and sometimes quite restrictive. For example, Yale University has SCEA that does not allow applications to other Private colleges through Early Action, even if that is required for priority scholarship consideration. So choose carefully, as you may be giving up a lot.

When to Apply to Colleges with Regular Decision

Under Regular Decision (RD) students apply by a certain date and receive a decision under a specific timeline.  There is no binding commitment to attend if accepted.

Regular Decision deadlines are often in January or February, with results in March or April.  There are exceptions to the late winter timelines for regular decision.  For example, University of Florida has a November 1 Priority deadline for freshmen and only considers later applications on a limited space available basis.   Meanwhile the colleges in the University of California system accept applications for freshmen ONLY November 1-30 each year. 

When to Apply to Colleges with Rolling Admission

Colleges with Rolling Admission review applications as they are received and will give admissions decisions throughout the admissions cycle. Many colleges with Rolling Admission use their own application portal instead of (or in addition to) the Common App. In some cases, these apps are available before the Common App opens on August 1. What’s more, Rolling Admission colleges often don’t require essays or letters of recommendation. So you could potentially have an acceptance to a Rolling Admission college at the beginning of senior year of high school!

Other Deadlines

You should also be aware of other critical deadlines.

Priority Deadlines — Some colleges have an explicit priority deadline to be considered for competitive merit scholarships or admission to special programs such as an honors college, nursing program, or performing arts program.  These deadlines might be listed on the main Admissions pages, or they might be under Financial Aid, Honors College descriptions, or in descriptions for specific scholarships.    For example, Boston College only considers students who apply by the priority scholarship deadline of November 1 for its Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program. 

Selective programs within a college may have earlier deadlines related to auditions or portfolio submissions. For example, Syracuse University has some drama pre-screening audition deadlines as early as October 1. 

It’s also worth noting that many colleges accept more than half of the students who apply and may accept applications into the summer months.  Some colleges will accept students for Spring with a separate set of deadlines.  Each year NACAC publishes a list of colleges that are still accepting applications after May 1. And more students are taking a gap year between high school and college.

A big take away is that it may be wise to start work on college admissions well before senior year. This isn’t just about spending the summer working on essays. A critical part of the process is taking time to determine what qualities would make a college a good fit and then identifying colleges with those qualities.  This often requires time to think and research, so starting junior year can help spread out the work and reduce pressure. If you would like help in this process, let’s connect.

All, College Admissions, College Applications, Covid-19, Testing

What is Test Optional?

What is test optional for college admissions and when should a student take advantage of this?

Test Optional vs Test Blind

First, realize that test optional does not mean that admissions decisions are test blind.  A test blind policy means that SAT or ACT scores are not used at all for admissions. For example, the University of California will not use test scores to make admissions decisions or award scholarships. However, test blind admissions is rare. 

Test optional means that the college will consider an application complete with or without test scores. Students who do submit scores will still have those scores considered as part of their application.

In 2020, most colleges used some kind of test optional practice, because students simply didn’t have the chance to take tests because of Covid-19. Most colleges discovered that their incoming class was still highly qualified. Some schools had huge increases in numbers of applications because students didn’t feel held back by lower scores.

Colleges put greater weight on factors such as GPA and course rigor, class rank, essays, extracurricular activities, and recommendations.  They may also consider state of residence, legacy status, first generation college status, demonstrated interest, and if a student is likely to need financial aid. 

Who Should Consider Applying Test Optional

Students who do not have SAT or ACT test scores.  Obviously, you can’t submit scores from tests you couldn’t take. 

Students with test scores that are not a good reflection of their ability.  For these students a review of GPA and other factors may better represent their potential for college work. Students with special needs may also want to consider requesting accommodations during testing. Approval is now automatic for students with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 plan.

Who Should Submit Test Scores?

Students might want to submit test scores if they have strong scores that add to the strength of their application. This would include scores above the average score for the college. Students applying to competitive direct entry programs may find strong scores help their application.

Some programs still use scores for eligibility. This may include programs like nursing or education with a state requirement for testing. It can also include competitive scholarships like the Georgia Hope/Zell Miller scholarship or the Florida Bright Futures scholarship.

Some colleges prefer to get test scores for students with less traditional academic records. This can include homeschoolers, students from schools that use evaluations other than grades, and international students.

Keep in mind that a test optional or even test blind policy does not mean a college will increase the size of the next freshman class.  It shifts the emphasis of the application to other factors.  You can’t control the availability of seats at an exam, but you can control the time and effort that goes into creating a thoughtful college list, into writing essays and writing supplements, and into timely and complete application submissions. 

All, Homeschooling

Supporting Homeschool Applications

When high school students apply to college, their high school counselors submit documents to support their application.  Typically, these include a transcript and a school profile, as well as a counselor recommendation. 

Even though homeschool students may not attend a traditional brick and mortar school, colleges still want an academic history to base an admissions decision on.  Home educators should submit documents to describe their student’s academic experience – even if it included a mix of work done at home, in co-ops or support groups, or at local colleges.  I recommend that homeschoolers consider preparing four key documents for college applications: a transcript, course descriptions, a school profile, and a counselor recommendation. 

Each of these documents fills a different role.  The transcript is an overview document that lists each course, along with the grade assigned and credit value.  Transcripts can be organized by subject or chronologically and are usually only 1-2 pages long.  Course descriptions provide a brief summary of each course and may include information about outside educational partners, course content, and materials used.  Course descriptions need to be long enough to answer the admissions office’s questions about what English 1 or Ancient Civilizations covered, but not so long that they overwhelm the reader; 4-8 pages is typically a good length. 

A school profile describes the educational setting the student was in.  At a traditional school, they might describe the student population, area demographics, courses offered, and graduation rate.  For a homeschooler, a school profile document might be a place to describe educational philosophy and methods, grading practices, educational partners, and other important features of the educational environment.  While a school profile describes the educational setting, a counselor recommendation describes the individual student.  Letters of recommendation are strongest when they use vivid examples to convey a student’s strengths and personal values. 

In 2020 many applications add an optional section to explain the impact of Covid-19 or other natural disasters on academics and other circumstances.  While students will have their own section in which to discuss the impact the pandemic had on their experience, there is also a section for counselors to address topics such as changes in grading criteria, schedules, instructional methods, and other extenuating circumstances.  If your co-op had to go online for the semester, activities were cancelled, or access to dual enrollment changed, this is something you could describe in this section. 

This may seem like a lot to produce, but well-written supporting documents can give an admissions office good reasons to say yes to an application.  What often makes this challenging for home educators is the sense that not only the student, but also the parent’s work is being judged.  This sense of looming critique, combined with feeling uncertain about where to start often makes homeschool parents reluctant to tackle this project.  As a veteran homeschooler, I understand these challenges, because I’ve faced them myself.  I also know the excitement felt on all sides when the first acceptance letter arrived.

I’m an Independent Educational Consultant with years of experience as a homeschooler.  I’ve helped a number of families produce supporting documents that conveyed to admissions offices the breadth and depth of their homeschool experience.  If this is an area where you would like one on one assistance, let’s talk.