Success in Admissions to Selective Colleges

We are in the postscript of this year’s admissions season. Just a few days ago, America’s most selective colleges told their applicants who would be offered admission, and who would not. Some students are basking in the afterglow of success, and others have had their spirits crushed.

We should redefine success in college admissions, or at least better understand how to obtain success. The results on Decision Day are not simply a reflection of hard work in school and hard work on applications. Success derives from an intelligent selection of potential colleges.

Students and high school counselors typically speak of “reach” and “back-up” schools. The first term applies to dream colleges with worldwide reputations that are very, very selective. The second applies to local options that are within an applicant’s grasp.

Yet a good outcome requires more than an “all or nothing” approach. To be successful at the end of the admissions season, students must create a list of colleges that are a blend of selectivity, from most difficult to least, plus everything in between.

In researching colleges, focus on the “mid-grade” schools, fine educational institutions that are perhaps less known and less competitive than the dream schools. Look for options that are reasonably attainable. This will not only give a student choices when it’s time to pick from the colleges that have made offers, but will also provide intriguing monetary options, allowing for cost-benefit and return-on-investment analyses.

Students who might find themselves just shy of their dream schools will likely find success in the mid-grade colleges, and with admissions offers come scholarship offers. Although we tend to think of colleges as ivory towers that hold all the leverage, in truth the colleges themselves are in a competitive marketplace. For example, a school that is called “The Harvard of the South” will find itself at a competitive disadvantage when trying to collect an applicant who has also been accepted by “The Harvard.” As a result, colleges throw money at applicants they wish to lure.

Students who have wisely created a blended list of potential colleges usually have choices. Could you go to one school and pay a certain amount of money, or to another and pay less, or perhaps to a third? The relative value of a particular college lies in the context of the actual cost of the school, a factor that one cannot know until the admission and scholarship offers roll in.

The keys to an effective college list – one that provides good options after D-Day – is a blend of selectivity and a sophisticated understanding that EVERY college on the list is a good “fit” for the student. Applicants should understand not just what a college teaches, but how, and how factors like location, student body profile, and even campus layout can affect the educational experience.

Unfortunately, this is a maddening pursuit. College websites are notoriously poor. It’s hard to tell the differences between colleges, particularly as the electronic, print and even live presentations are carefully constructed, polished and limited. Make no mistake: colleges are marketing and mining for applicants. There are effective techniques for comparison and contrast, but unless you’re an expert at the task – and even if you are – it’s hard to differentiate.

There are endless lists of the “best colleges,” but those lists are simply starting points, and they’re neither reliable nor consistent. Besides, finding gems means looking beyond the tops of the lists, which few people attempt with open eyes.

Nevertheless, we must try. The research should start in the Spring of the junior year of high school. Over the next month or so, top colleges will be touring your area to sell their stories to eager students. To obtain success on Decision Day, lay the groundwork now by creating a blended list of colleges that fit you well.