In my first Getting Into College article I discussed how to write a college application essay and offered help to any student who applied. As a former Assistant Director of Admissions at Vassar College I have an insider's knowledge of the college admission's process. My first "Internet" essay found its way to me a few weeks ago. I've helped many sons and daughters of friends. Here is how my new friend B from Texas described my assistance:
Thank you very much for your corrections and advice! No one has ever done such a spectacular job analyzing my work before. I have learned many valuable lessons that I hope to use in my future writings.B is smart and will do well wherever he matriculates. Today's notes are about the secret stuff that effects your college application.
How To Get Into College: The Sum Of Every Applicant
Few students realize and few admissions Directors will admit an important truth. Your application doesn't exist in a vacuum. Applicants think of themselves as unique. You are the only you on the planet, but Admissions Directors deal in numbers looking to fit applicants into buckets. Those buckets resemble common lunch room segments. Jocks, brains, artists, geeks, cheerleaders and social directors are common segments in the applicant pool just as they are in your lunch room.
Numbers will be assigned to every piece of your unique application. These numbers allow comparison of one student with another. The problem is numbers vary from school to school. What is a 4.0 "A" in some is a 3.0 "B" in others. Two factors help admissions staff weigh academic numbers - AP classes and your school's reputation. AP classes are somewhat similar to SAT's because they are standardized or they are as close to standardized as you can get. Take an AP Calculus examine and score well and any college will know you can do the math they require. Take a non-AP class and your SAT's play more of a role. Get an A in your non-AP calculus class and flunk your SAT's and you could hurt more than just your application. If three students have the same disparity then your school will have a problem. No admissions officer will believe in your school's grades.
This is why your application is not just your application. Your application rides on the strength or weakness of all other applicants. When I was an Assistant Director of Admissions at Vassar an elite all girls school in New York State sent twelve unqualified applicants to Vassar. Not only did we reject all twelve, but Vassar's Director of Admissions called the school's guidance counselor to explain why we were rejecting every applicant sent. My boss also had a heart-to-heart with this girl school's counselor reading her the riot act. Every application takes time and no one has time to waste while reading thousands of applications. The point that was made in a very direct way was, "keep sending us unqualified students and your reputation will deteriorate." Every applicant is considered on their merits, but every school has a batting average too. The role of guidance staff in shaping an applicant pool is important. When this school passed the buck to Vassar it made us do their work - not a good thing.
In my senior year at Choate 24 students were offered admission to Vassar. About five of us accepted, and we all graduated (some with honors). Our performance helps the next set of applicants from Choate. Vassar was probably not happy only five accepted, but that is all part of the numbers game too. Vassar wanted quality male applicants. Vassar, like many great colleges now, was rich in women and less rich in men. When I applied to Vassar coeducation was not new, but not as established as Vassar wanted either. Vassar wanted men and, at that time, men didn't have to be as strong academically as women.
The Vassar question, how to attract quality male applicants, is becoming a common problem. Women are enrolling in college in larger numbers than men. Read USA Today article on the new Gender Gap in college applicants. Colleges prize diversity above almost any virtue. Diversity is one of the key educational components because colleges understand the wisdom of crowds. The more diverse the community the more lessons it can teach its students. The ideal gender ratio at any college is 50% men and 50% women.
Beyond Gender: States and Countries
Once the macro gender goal is set many micro goals are created in the name of diversity. All of any one thing, no matter how good that one thing is, is unacceptable. Vassar's location, up the Hudson line from New York City, meant the college had an abundance of applicants from New York City. Vassar could have filled the entire class with qualified applicants from NYC but that would defeat the diversity mission. Translation: it is harder to gain acceptance to Vassar if you live in New York than the same application from Texas or California. If you applied to Vassar from Alaska you might be one of a handful of applicants and so your chances are vastly improved.
I helped a student in North Carolina apply to UNC. She was from Russia, so, despite her living in the US for almost two years, her application was treated as a foreign student. She got the worst of both worlds. She was from Chapel Hill attending a "B" level high school with few AP classes, moderate boards and a clear language barrier. She lost twice - as a foreign application where she was against all other Russian applicants and as a local student. UNC is a state school. Her application would have had more chance if she was from a rural county. Being in UNC's backdoor did nothing but hurt because UNC will be swamped with better applicants from "A" schools. She further confirmed her rejection when she took it badly. If you get rejected find a new plan and spend no time being angry, writing the college or complaining. If daddy or mommy can't write a big check move on and figure out something new.
Grading Your School
If you go to a rural school with few AP classes and little history sending applicants to college X then the deck is stacked against you. Admissions people swim in school history, but they don't and can't know every school. The prejudice is if you (as an admissions pro) haven't heard of a school the best it can be is a "B" and it is more likely to be a "C" school. Students from "C" schools do get offered admissions to the best colleges, but their boards better be AMAZING. Average board scores at a "C" school is death. How do you know if your school is an "A", "B" or "C"? These are secret ratings that vary by admissions office. Harvard may love Choaties and hate applicants from Deerfield. Yale may be the opposite, but both colleges would define Choate and Deerfield as "A" schools. "A" schools are highly competitive, low student to teacher ratios and have sent hundreds or thousands of well known applicants. JFK attended Choate and if you don't think that didn't help every subsequent class of Choaties who applied to Harvard you are nuts.
How can you fix your "C" School?
Another way to tell if you are attending a "C" school is look at where last year's students went to college. If a low number of graduates went to college or few went to the most elite schools you have your work cut out. First suggestion is ace the boards. Nothing makes a "C" school look like it should be a "B" or "A" school than strong board scores from the applicants. Even better than you acing your boards is every applicant applying to Harvard (or wherever) from your tiny rural school acing the boards. When we received 5 well qualified applicants from a rural school we would put the school on our "visit" list and move it up. If it was a "C" before the applicants it became a "B" after and may become an "A" if the visit uncovered a magic fountain of qualified students and great teachers.
Guidance counselors should take note. When an Assistant Director of Admission is visiting you from any college YOU are the one being judged not the students. I visited hundreds of high schools and most were on our regular travel plan. The purpose of those visits was two fold: introduce Vassar to the students and evaluate the school. "Evaluation" takes many forms. How well organized is the guidance staff? Were the students prepared and asking the right questions? Did the guidance staff ask good questions? Was there easy to understand impressive information about the school? Schools can improve or hurt their rank by how they present themselves. When I went to a school the goal was not student evaluation. It was about student recruitment and school evaluation. The good smart schools (public and private) understood the game and sold themselves accordingly. These days your school should have an easy to find and navigate web site that spells out important numbers such as student to teacher ratio, number of graduates attending four year insittutions, number of AP classes and how class rannk is ceated.
"C" School + Poor Guidance
If you are attending a "C" school and your guidance staff doesn't have a clue then ace your boards. In fact, I wouldn't stop there. I would want to ace my boards and sell how I was able to create an exceptional academic environment on my own dime. You do the guidance counselor's job in other words. Explain how you were able to accelerate and take classes at the local college. Share how you did extra work in the summers following your own academic interest. Any short coming can be overcome EXCEPT the one you don't address. Leave an unanswered question in your application and you lose.
"A" School + Poor Guidance
The example above of a highly competitive girls school in New York state sending twelve unqualified applicants is an example of guidance failure at an "A" school. If the guidance department kept doing such a poor job the school's rating could be dropped to a "B" as my boss pointed out. I like to think that if you were the 13th applicant my year and you were well qualified we would have been able to find you in the sea of unqualified, but never assume.
Consistency and No Stone Rule
The key for you and the 13th applicant is consistency across your application. Nothing jumps out faster in an admissions process than inconsistency. Your application essay is well written when your SAT essay was not - inconsistency. Your board scores are lousy yet you have an A average and are 2nd in your class = inconsistency. Your board scores are through the roof and your classwork is sloppy and you have low class rank and a C average = inconsistency. Inconsistencies always exist and are RARELY explained in the application. It is as if students expect the admissions staff to figure it out. The less you leave to chance in any admission process the better off you are. If you scored well on the SAT's and poor in your coursework explain how you've seen the light and are looking forward to buckling down in a tough academic environment. Poor boards and great grades means you may want to discuss the specific steps you are taking to improve your test taking skills - a key college skill.
Never run yourself down in your application. Always explain a deficiency by being specific about steps you are taking to get better. This proactive attitude sends a key signal. It says you know your weakness and are working on them. If you've done additional work with a teacher be sure to have that teacher write one of your recommendations. This means you can say, "I saw a weakness and worked with teacher X to improve." Teacher X can spell out the specific steps you've taken and progress you've made. As an applicant you can recognize your faults and create a plan to strengthen weaknesses, but YOU can not say the weakness is now a strength only someone else and preferable a teacher with solid credentials can make that sale.
If I had low verbal scores I would work with my favorite English teacher to read the great books and write 1,000 word essays on each. I would outline the work in my application and ask my teacher to mention it in their recommendation in a specific way (such as including some of your new essays). You don't gain points by doing this kind of work, but you can get to even. Think of an admission staff's review of your application as a series of tick marks. The review process is similar to judging diving or gymnastics in the Olympics. Everyone starts with a 10. Every inconsistency or sub par note receives a deduction. The hard thing for applicants to understand is creating a class is not a static thing. Creating a class at any competitive college is mathematical and algorithmic. Even in highly subjective colleges such as Vassar admissions is a living breathing creation. What happened last year sets norms, but every year is different. Every application is considered on two matrix. First how does the applicant (you) compare to the college's means (numbers set by previous classes). If your application gets past this first test it will be considered in the pool of this year's developing class. Make it through that second test and you get a fat envelope and the privelage of writing a big check (lol).
Writing The College Admissions Essay
The college interview.
Send questions or stuff you want help with to: Martinsellingzoe @ aol . com.