How to Read a College Website

For all students seeking to enter college or graduate school, admissions websites are required reading. However, one must learn to read between and behind the lines to understand what a college is really like.

The first thing to realize is that colleges and universities write websites with a definite purpose: to attract candidates to apply. Remember that selective colleges – even public universities that you might consider to be “backup schools” – don’t offer admission to every candidate. They all have more applicants than they need to fill their classes.

Why do they want more applicants? Increasing the number of applicants means increasing selectivity. When more and more students apply for a limited number of spots, the possibility of receiving an offer of admission decreases. Because higher selectivity (a lower acceptance rate) results in greater prestige, alumni donations rise when more students are rejected. Money from alumni is a major part of university economics, so colleges work hard to collect more applicants. For this reason, Stanford, Harvard, and most other highly-selective colleges have purposefully endeavored to lower their acceptance rates. As a result, Harvard received $1.4 Billion in alumni donations in 2014 alone.

Admissions websites, as well as printed materials, live presentations, and information sessions, should be recognized for what they are: marketing opportunities for the universities. They are carefully drafted, edited, revised and approved for the primary purpose of attracting more applicants.

They are also largely misunderstood by young readers. Each university speaks in its own dialect. What a liberal arts college thinks is “leadership” may not be the same definition as that used by a religious college or a military academy. Applicants tend to read from their own perspective rather than attempting to understand what the schools are trying to communicate.

The starting point for deciphering admissions websites and materials is to see things from the schools’ perspectives. To do this, you must think like the authors, not like a reader. Why did they place certain ideas before others? Why did they use their specific words and phrases? Look carefully to see subtle language differences within a website, and ask yourself why they chose to change the words subtly. Compare what is stated (and not stated) in one admissions website with the words and structure of other colleges’ websites. Looking for differences will help you understand the intent and meaning of their language.

Recognize that colleges and graduate schools like to present numbers to “sell” you on their universities. Statistics can be powerfully persuasive. However, statistics are also misleading. Colleges that use numbers to lead you to believe that applying for early admission is “easier” than applying for regular admission are doing so for their purposes, not yours. Are the numbers accurate? Technically, yes. Do they indicate a different admissions opportunity for most applicants? No.

The pool of early applicants is not the same as the regular-action pool. For example, recruiting athletes is a very competitive game, and thus college coaches must collect their athletes as early as possible so that they can fill their team rosters. Therefore, most collegiate athletes apply “early” to schools that have already whispered that they are “likely” to be admitted. Because recruited athletes generally have lower SAT and ACT scores than the rest of the applicant pool, and because they are almost 100% guaranteed to be accepted once a coach selects them, admissions statistics that compare “early” and “regular” candidates are misleading. The truth is that admissions officers do not usually use different criteria for accepting students based upon when they apply.

If you wish to learn more about a school from a less-biased perspective, look for what students say instead of what administrators say. College newspapers are excellent sources of unfiltered information and are readily available online. In addition, an e-mail or phone call to a college student who participates in your favorite extracurricular activity (the contact info is available online) can provide extremely valuable insight.

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